Thinking of grad school at Colorado?

Great! We're delighted you are interested in our program. First off, you might have some questions about the Boulder area and being a grad student at Colorado. A CU page has info on what's around the Boulder area. And if you've come looking here, there is a decent chance you are interested in working in geophysics; if so, you should look into the Geophysics program--you can't be directly admitted to the program, but you might well get your degree there. And the Geophysics program also points out the range of expertise in geophysics across campus. Information on applying to the Geological Sciences graduate program is online. And of course you can go straight to the admissions page for the graduate school, which will be the portal for your application.

Some common questions:

What are the career outcomes in geoscience?
A good place to look is the American Geoscience Institute workforce reports on new hiring and the status of the field overall. We've had students end up at the USGS, in the oil and gas industry, in academia, in international research institutions, in middle school classrooms, and in the financial industry.
Are you looking for new students?
I always am looking at new applicants, though my ability to support new students varies from year to year and often is uncertain owing to outstanding grant applications. For starting in fall 2022, resources at my end will depend on some grant proposals, which I probably won't know about until the spring. The overall exception might be getting a fellowship; if you want to explore this higher-risk approach to coming to CU, then be in touch with me early. The big problem here is the timeline: fellowship results are announced typically in March or even early April, near the April 15 deadline to accept financial aid offers. If I am aware of your interest and that you have applied for fellowships, then stay in touch and we can probably deal with things as they happen. Exceptional students can be eligible for support from within CU.
Are there are projects available?
For an M.S., it sort of depends. Unlike some other researchers, I don't have a pile of canned, ready-to-go projects that can easily be turned into a masters. We have a large collection of seismological data that can be studied, so there is nearly always something to be done there, but if there is not separate funding, a student working on that would probably have to be a teaching assistant for at least some part of their time here, and such support is limited.

In contrast, for a Ph.D. there is enough time to get funding, and I am always open to ideas on projects that are a good combination of my research interests and your interests. So the existence of a project isn't an important precondition; it is quite possible that we will build something to suit. You can go directly for a Ph.D. without a master's; whether you should try this or not depends on you and your background. Right now I am considering complementing some ongoing work with some new seismological efforts to understand the shallowest mantle and lowest crust around the Sierra Nevada and (separately) across the High Plains and Southern Rockies, but nothing definitive has been proposed yet. A few grant applications should be in the mill before April along these general lines, but some are collaborative and will depend too on the timelines of my collaborators.
What support is provided?
Depends. Ideally we get research grants and you get paid as a research assistant. Of course, getting a fellowship is better still (see below). But often in the first year or so a teaching assistantship is a likely means of support.
What are you looking for?
Nobody is perfect so don't fret if you may not fit everything, but demonstrating responsibility, having a quantitative background, and being a self starter all count. It is nice to see a year or more of physics, calculus as well as some geology, but these vary from school to school. Having done research as an undergraduate is a definite plus.
Why haven't you answered my email?
First, my apologies. Second, please don't be insulted. Yes, it would be better if I quickly responded to the dozens of enquiring emails I get each fall, and I apologize for not doing so more often. Sometimes these emails are just swamped by other things going on. Most of the ones I don't immediately answer are basically saying "hi, here I am, I'd like to do graduate work at CU, here is a cv, can you tell me what my chances are?" If this is the jist of your email, here is the basic answer: We're really grateful for your interest in our program here at CU, I'm sorry but I can't really say much about your chances just from looking at a cv (there is a reason we ask for transcripts and letters of reference; all of these factor into our decisions). We are a very competitive place to get in to; something like 10% of applicants will get an offer from us. If you were looking for some other information and I didn't respond, you can try emailing again with something in the subject field that indicates the nature of your inquiry. Even if I don't answer an email, if you apply, we will look at your application.
What can I do to improve my chances?
For starters, apply for any scholarships you can. All too often students worry about which program before thinking about the money, but the deadlines for fellowships are frequently earlier. There are some listed on the departmental page and the deadlines on some are quite early (October and November of the year before you would start graduate school) and Anne Sheehan keeps an extensive list (click on "Opportunities" at this page). Four external fellowships that are pretty prominent in Earth Science for U.S. nationals are National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowships (deadline usually mid-October) , Graduate Fellowships for STEM diversity (opens in August, deadline is Dec. 15), Hertz Foundation Graduate Fellowship (deadline typically mid-late October) and National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship (opens 2 August, deadline Nov. 30 in 2021). Think about what you want to do and what your goals are: these may all change, but if you never think about them, you'll probably not get very far. Communicate these to us in your application if not sooner. Identifying a faculty member you want to work with and getting in touch with him or her is a good idea. If you are in Boulder, drop by and say hi. Here at CU, admission is largely decided by a faculty member's interest.
What courses do you teach at CU?
The CU catalog is always trailing the courses being offered a bit, and in any event it doesn't tell you when the courses are offered. The department has a list of upcoming graduate-level classes. There are important courses offered outside the department as well.
What is going on with my application?
This can get involved. The short answer is that our process gets drawn out for a large number of reasons, and most frequently you should know if we will or will not admit you sometime in February. Financial support might take longer to ascertain; keep in touch (particularly once you know you are admitted) and we'll try and let you know what is likely to happen. It can be a frustrating wait for all involved but usually turns out OK.
I'm from outside the U.S. Can I apply?
Yes. Our system in the past forced students or grants supporting them to pay high tuitions; that policy has been changed and foreign students no longer cost so much if supported as a teaching assistant or research assistant. However, the international student office tends to be slow in processing materials and so you would be wise to get your application in early and to be sure to let faculty you think you would work with aware of your application. Please note that applications do need to be made to the university; sending me your application materials is not helpful (I cannot apply on your behalf).
What's your department's ranking?
Perhaps you have seen rankings from US News and World Report, or the National Research Council (NRC) rankings. I think these ratings are of very limited use for prospective graduate students. The capability of one part of a departmental program might be quite different from another part. If you are thinking of continuing in academia, it will be the thesis work you do and, to a lesser degree, your advisor that will tend to affect how easily you can land a postgraduate position; a strong thesis from a solid advisor in a weak program will usually have better appeal than a weak thesis from a weak advisor in a strong program. Industry criteria vary widely. Some people thrive in the pressure-cooker environment that Caltech, for instance, cultivates but others might succeed in a lower-stress situation. Some need a program to have a lot of students doing similar work, others are delighted to work alone with a faculty member. Some want a lot of options, others know exactly what they want to pursue. The graduate education process is very different from getting a B.A. or B.S. and is highly individual; it varies certainly from group to group and often from student to student. In the end, the ranking that matters most is your own. But in case you are interested, here are some words about these rankings:

US News and World Report's Earth Science grad school rankings relies on questionaires sent to department chairs asking them to rank other departments (in their words, these rankings "are based solely on the results of surveys sent to academics in biological sciences, chemistry, computer science, earth sciences, mathematics, physics and statistics"); these are often highly backward looking and border on beauty contests, as most "academic experts" hardly spend much time learning about the capabilities of other schools' academic programs unless they happen to be on a school's visiting committee; for instance, rankings in earth science a few years back had MIT tied for first largely because of its high profile for some 20 years, but at the time that program was in turmoil, with a number of high profile departures, and might not have really merited that ranking at the time (this might be why MIT was between 10th and 35th in the NRC S-rankings, overlapping with CU). The rate of change between these surveys might actually be a more useful barometer than the ranking itself, but such information is hard to get and tends to reflect changes years in the past. We here were listed as 23rd in the 2014 survey, same as the previous version, but moved into a tie for 19th more recently. While moving up overall, we dropped from #9 in the Geology subfield to below #11, which is odd. We suffer compared to many other departments because there are earth scientists in other departments (e.g., geodynamics and part of seismology are in Physics, a fair chunk of geodesy is in Aerospace Engineering); since we collaborate across department and school boundaries, this isn't quite fair and is part of the reason we are not listed in the geophysics rankings. (Not having a geophysics department doesn't help).

But then there is US News and World Report's "Best global universities for geosciences" where CU ranked, um, #2. This is less of a straight beauty contest (their methodology is more objective) and more of a reflection of the research productivity of a school as a whole. One reason CU jumps up so high? The grad school ranking is of departments, but earth sciences at CU is scattered over two schools, at least three institutes and several departments. Much as we love beating out Berkeley and MIT in one of these rankings, keep in mind that a big part of CU's high ranking is the very large number of soft money climate scientists working in CIRES and some others in the other institutes.

Or perhaps you've seen the Nature index for us, where we get listed as #7 globally in earth and environmental science. This is a straight count of papers published in "prestigious" journals that seems to be as much about promoting Springer's Nature brand as anything else. It is in some ways a measure of funding success in that many of these journals are pretty expensive....but not a great way to evaluate a graduate program. Or, if you prefer, one other variant counts numbers of articles published in "influential" journals (CU Boulder is number 1 in geoscience in that beauty contest). Whose collection of journals matters most? And is this any way to pick a graduate program?

Confused yet?

The NRC rankings are probably the most comprehensive, but they are now getting quite dated (filling out the NRC survey forms was a significant chore). NRC's survey is for the period 2005-2006 and cover a broad set of elements reported from surveys of schools with a complex set of analyses only poorly conveyed as rankings; obviously now this is increasingly dated information. Indeed, it was so messy that NRC decided not to make a single rank but made two separate overall rankings! In addition, summary rankings often provide a lot of confusion. The last version (2010, revised 2011) lists a number of "rankings" and usually schools will choose the highest number from all the possibilities. Furthermore, NRC ran their numbers through 500 recalculations and reported the center 90% of the range of rankings, so a school might have ranged between 5th and 30th. You will of course hear that they were 5th in the country, but if you get the ranked spreadsheet, you might find there were 10 other schools in front of them, several with rankings of 1! A more accurate statement is that the school is between 5th and 30th--good luck ever seeing that. The best way to use this, I suppose, is to say that if school A's lowest ranking is higher than school B's highest ranking, school A's program is arguably better, but if the rankings overlap, you might think they are essentially peer institutions. CU Boulder? Well, Geological Sciences comes in on the S-ranking (which is based on surveys of what faculty in earth science think is important in graduate programs and then applying an equation using those results to the quantitative data from the schools) between 13th (what was reported in a CU press release) and 40th of 140 programs, but then some of the programs ahead of us really aren't geological sciences (one hydrology, an earth engineering program, etc.) and a few schools were broken into multiple programs (Caltech, for instance, is listed 5 times), so maybe we're a little higher against schools with similar programs. In the R-ranking, which is based on a regression algorithm of NRCs, we are lower: between 40th and 66th. I'm not quite sure I agree with this approach, to be honest: this was derived from asking experts to rank programs and then deriving a regression on the variables NRC measured to match those rankings--I kind of think this was a way of quantitatively reproducing the beauty scores from US News and World Report, so I don't know that I think so much of this idea [to wit, if everybody agrees some program is great, but in fact that program is in the process of decay, the regression will reward measures of distant past success more than current success; in the reverse case, an unrecognized up-and-coming program may not get high expert rankings and so characteristics of current success might get downweighted; an example here might be University of Georgia, which had a major collapse, and has an R-ranking of 13-35--arguably above CU's--but an S-ranking of 99-124--well below CU's!]. NRC also lists a student support and outcomes ranking, which arguably might be a better ranking for looking for graduate schools (has to do with support, time to degree, postgrad employment, etc.); there we are between 9th and 52nd (interestingly, a lot of the high ranking schools on R- and S-rankings do poorly here--UC Berkeley, for instance, is in a tie for 1st in both R- and S-rankings at the high end of the range of each, but is listed as between 27th and 86th in the Student Support and Outcome ranking). All this boils down to the problem that there are a lot of measures of what a graduate program is supposed to do; if you really want to use this information, you might want to understand it.

How successful are your graduates?
An interesting question. The student support and outcomes ranking at NRC (mentioned just above) might provide some guide. I have had only a few students. One is now the Colorado geologic survey's sole seismologist. One chose to leave the PhD to pursue a career as a middle school science teacher. One was a postdoc at two prominent research schools before deciding that working in investment analysis was a better fit. One is a research scientist overseas. One was a postdoc at the USGS, a temporary assistant professor and is now working in industry. One is now pursuing research opportunities in Japan. Generally our graduates have found success in the directions they are interested in. Frankly, if you are looking for a career in oil and gas, which is an industry that very much works within an old-boy network, you probably don't want to be working with me (I just don't have those old boy connections that oil schools have in spades).


Please send mail to if you encounter any problems or have suggestions.

C. H. Jones | CIRES | Dept. of Geological Sciences | Univ. of Colorado at Boulder

Last modified at August 5, 2021 6:25 PM