Graduate Program Overview

Overview and philosophy. The department serves graduate students who seek the Ph.D. in earth, planetary, geological and environmental disciplines of physical and chemical sciences, the mathematical and computational disciplines of informational science, and the paleoclimatological, paleoceanographic, paleontological and paleobiological disciplines of biological and historical sciences broadly conceived.

The Ph.D. signifies the graduate's mastery of the problems, techniques and knowledge covering the full spectrum of intellectual pursuit in the many disciplines listed above. The degree additionally acknowledges the candidate's contribution to specialized knowledge through original research conducted in experimental, observational and theoretical venues. The M.S. is also awarded to graduate students in the program, and is given in recognition of post-undergraduate scholarship. Students considering the program of graduate study should realize, however, that it is conceived primarily for study and research leading to the Ph.D.

The Department of Geophysical Sciences was created in 1961 when the departments of geology and meteorology of the university were united to better embrace the multidisciplinary nature of research and scholarship applied to earth, its place in the cosmos and its environmental and biological history. The precursor Department of Geology was founded in the 1890's and reflected the University of Chicago's distinctively modern philosophy toward education and research. What is today lauded as new, namely the approach to physical, chemical, biological and natural science of earth that values connections and multidisciplinary ways of thinking, was the original organizing principle of the university's activities in earth science at the time the university was first created. Faithful to its original conception, the department is exemplified today by the diverse, yet interactive, composition of the faculty, students and research activities.

Our program distinguishes itself from those at other institutions through our rigorous adherence to a principle that the path to knowledge in earth sciences is best traveled when disciplinary ways of thinking are applied interactively. To follow this path, our students and faculty engage each other in a constant exchange of ideas that spans a variety of specialized interests and disciplines. Indeed, the range of specialized interests and disciplines encompassed by our single community is, at typical universities elsewhere, housed in separate departments. The exchange of ideas our community offers is both literal (as when research techniques from one discipline are applied in another) and figurative (as when students of diverse background and interests attend a common seminar), and is marshaled through our philosophical view that intellectual power is drawn from many sources. The tension created by bringing together disparate disciplines with differing traditions leads to constructive discourse in our community.

Areas of study. Research, classroom teaching and seminar activity in the program reflects the long tradition of esteem directed toward multidisciplinary knowledge. Graduate study and research today thus ranges from geochemical approaches to nucleosynthesis and planet-forming cosmochemistry to geomorphology, from evolutionary paleobiology to multi-cellular automata, and from oceanic "conveyor belt" circulation systems and bio-geochemical cycles to surface processes on Mars. Graduate students are exposed to the breadth of intellectual activity in the physical and natural science of the earth through courses they take during their first two years of study and through weekly attendance of seminars where both faculty and visiting scientists present research lectures. Graduate students are expected to develop two skills. First is the ability to conduct scientific discourse across the full range of disciplines. Second is the ability to conduct original research leading to unique contributions in an area of specialization.

Research and teaching within the program is further amplified by associations with other groups within the university. The most notable programs allied with ours are: the Committee on Evolutionary Biology (CEB, research on the evolution of life), the Department of Chemistry (research on atmospheric and environmental chemistry), the Materials Research Lab (research on planetary and interplanetary materials at high pressure and temperature), the Argonne National Lab (environmental chemistry, advanced computing, the advanced photon source, CARS), the Environmental Science Program (teaching and public policy debate) and the Environmental Statistics Program (analysis of environmental trends).

Student advising. A distinctive element in the everyday life of the department is the mentoring relationship the faculty of the department provide for students of the program. In our program students are regarded as colleagues, not subordinates. Students participate in an apprenticeship which is designed to teach them through active learning both the tangible and intangible professional skills needed of a scientist. Students are guided in their learning and research activities by mentorship engaging both the program faculty and fellow students. This mentorship oversees both the coursework activity and the student's research, and is conceived as a means of establishing the student as a full partner in research and scholarship. Formal mentoring activities involve regular academic advisory committee meetings that include a combination of faculty covering the student's field of specialty and faculty covering allied fields where cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas or techniques may prove helpful to the student's progress. In addition to formal activities, mentoring also proceeds along informal avenues: the department faculty prides itself in maintaining an 'open door' atmosphere, where students seeking help or advice can readily find it down the hall.

Research. Dissertation research can address any aspect of physical, chemical, biological and natural sciences of the earth, its life and environment, and the environments from which the planets and exoplanets were formed. Typically, dissertation research begins in the second year of the student's residence after courses taken in preparation for the preliminary examination have been completed and an oral research prospectus has been defended.

Teaching, Outreach and Professional Skills Development. Young scientists are faced with an ever-increasing demand for breadth in the scope of their professional skills: from teaching to proposal writing, and from website design to mountaineering. To help prepare our students for the varied challenges they will encounter in their post graduate career, we involve them to the maximum extent possible in teaching, research planning, public outreach and field activity. While there are no strict requirements for teaching activities, the majority of our students participate in at least some teaching as laboratory assistants for the large, undergraduate-level classes taught by our faculty. Typical demands on a graduate students time might involve 4-8 hours a week of student contact time, and 4-6 hours a week of preparation and grading. To emphasize the value the university places on graduate student participation in undergraduate teaching, a slightly larger stipend is provided to teaching assistants over research assistants. In addition to teaching, our graduate students typically become involved in the scientific funding process through exposure to the efforts undertaken by faculty in the securing of research funds through the writing of proposals. Public outreach is also an important element of professional skills, and is emphasized through scientific web-site development (required by funding agencies for grants funded in support of scientific research) and other activities (e.g., local science fairs and lectures at surrounding schools) which emphasize contact with the general public. Many of our graduate students engage in deep field activity in various parts of the world. Field activities in the recent past have included dive trips to Central America for taphonomic research, fossil collecting expeditions to the St. Elias mountains, and glaciological survey work on the Ross Ice Shelf and its icebergs.

Curriculum. The diversity of intellectual pursuit encompassed by the program places students and faculty into a challenging position when confronted with the need to design a curriculum capable of preparing students of the program to become Ph.D. scientists. Our approach to this challenge is to focus on thinking tools that prepare students for research. Thinking tools embody knowledge of methodologies, awareness of fundamental scientific problems, understanding of current research areas and creative thought when encountering difficult questions. These tools are taught, in part, by a curriculum of courses that delve deeply into various subsets of knowledge covered by the department's scholarly interests. While a student may enter the program with the ultimate goal of writing a dissertation in one area of specialization, courses taken in closely allied areas of specialization are often, by virtue of practicality, all that our curriculum offers. While this may seem detrimental to progress toward specialized research, in practice, the specific subject material used to build the student's base of knowledge and rigorous understanding of thought and methodologies is not strongly correlated with the student's subsequent success. Our curriculum of courses thus focuses on teaching notions of understanding and methodologies that are universal in their application to a wide range of specialized phenomena.

Required course activities. The typical time taken to achieve the Ph.D. is 4 -6 years. This time period is divided into two parts, the pre-candidacy phase where the student focuses on course work and general scholarship, and the candidacy phase where the student focuses on specialized research directed to the completion of the dissertation. While flexibility is a distinct advantage of the department's small, intimate setting of graduate study compared to other, larger programs, graduate students are normally expected to progress through their study as follows. Classes are taken through the first 2 years of residence at the university, and a preliminary examination is taken normally in the spring of the second year. Classes are selected from the department's graduate courses, appropriate upper-level undergraduate courses and courses offered elsewhere in the university. Selection of courses is made through consultation with a faculty advisory committee, which meets regularly through the first two years of the student's residence.

The preliminary examination taken at the end of the second year of residence serves to promote students to candidacy for the Ph.D. The purpose of the examination is to ensure the student's progress in the two goals of graduate study: breadth of fundamental knowledge, and depth of knowledge in a particular area of specialization (chosen normally to be consistent with the student's anticipated dissertation topic).

The preliminary examination has two parts. The written part (taken either in one single sitting or as a series of written tests taken in conjunction with final exams of courses, depending on the particular situation) covers the aspects of knowledge addressed in courses and in the weekly seminars which students are expected to attend. The oral part requires the student to present a research prospectus to a committee of faculty advisors. The topic of this prospectus is normally expected to be the student's planned research activity directed toward the dissertation.

The dissertation. The Ph.D. degree is awarded to the candidate who has completed a written dissertation, defended it orally to a body of scientists which includes members of the department's faculty (who have the responsibility to vote in favor or against acceptance of the dissertation), and who have submitted the dissertation to the university dissertation office in proper form.