Applying for Graduate School: A Primer

The purpose of this primer is to provide an overview of how to apply for acceptance into the Master of Science (M.S.) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) graduate degree programs in the geobiology area of specialization in the Department of Earth Sciences at Montana State University. In addition, it answers some of the most commonly asked questions concerning application and admission to the Earth Sciences graduate program in the geobiology track. The most important step in the application process is to determine, prior to applying, the faculty member whose research interests most closely match the research area you would like to pursue in graduate school. Because final acceptance is determined by the individual faculty advisors, it is important that you establish contact with your potential advisor to determine if they are accepting new graduate students for the year you wish to enter the program and to discuss mutual research interests prior to applying.
More information about the Department of Earth Sciences geobiology faculty and their research programs is available on the Department website.

What are the minimum acceptance requirements?

Acceptance requirements of the Graduate College include a minimum undergraduate GPA of 3.0. A minimum Verbal GRE score of 480 is required to be eligible for an in-class Teaching Assistantship. For foreign students, a minimum TOEFL score of 550 (paper) or 213 (computer-based) is required. In addition, the Department of Earth Sciences requires all incoming graduate students pursuing geology research to have completed a geology field course. Because final acceptance is up to the prospective graduate student's faculty advisor, the Department places strong emphasis on the applicant statement of intent and letters of recommendation. Letters from faculty who can assess your academic potential for success in graduate school are weighed most heavily. Letters from former non-geology employers, friends, landlords, or relatives carry essentially no weight in this regard. Acceptance involves a two-step process comprising acceptance by the College of Graduate Studies and acceptance by the Department of Earth Sciences. The Department first evaluates your application and makes a recommendation to the College of Graduate Studies. Final acceptance is made by the Graduate College. It is important to keep in mind that acceptance by the Department is ultimately decided by the prospective faculty advisor.

Will I be accepted if I do not have a degree in geology, biology, or a closely related field?

No you will not. If you seek admission to the Earth Sciences graduate program to specialize in geobiology with substantial course deficiencies, the best course of action is to seek admission to the College of Graduate Studies as a non-degree candidate, and then make up all undergraduate course deficiencies prior to apply for acceptance to the Graduate College and Department as a degree candidate. Application for non-degree graduate student status does not require acceptance by the Department, only the Graduate College.

I want to do paleontology research, so do I have the same requirements?

Yes you do. The Department does not make any distinction between geobiology, geology and paleontology in terms of requirements for acceptance into the graduate program. Substantial undergraduate training in a geology, biology (or closely related) curriculum is required of all successful applicants into the graduate program for Earth Sciences. Paleontology research in the Department is strongly field-based and requires a strong foundation of geological knowledge.

Does the Department require a preliminary application?

No, the Department of Earth Sciences does not require a preliminary application. We do however strongly suggest that you contact the faculty member(s) with whom you would like to work prior to applying.

When is my application due?

In order to be considered for either a Teaching or Research Assistantship, it is imperative that the Department receive all of your required application materials by February 1st.

What are the required components of the application?

As described on the College of Graduate Studies Web Page, the application for admission to the Graduate College includes a completed application form, official transcripts from all undergraduate institutions attended, GRE scores, a statement of intent, and three letters of
recommendation from persons qualified to assess your potential for success in graduate school. All applicants are required to submit GRE scores. The graduate program overview page provides a detailed checklist of required application items.

Do I have to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)?

Yes, all applicants are required to take the GRE. As this is a Board of Regents policy, no exceptions can be made to this requirement under any circumstances. It is imperative that you take the GRE at a time such as to ensure that your scores arrive by the February 1st application deadline if you want to be considered.

How do I apply?

You may apply by visiting the application web page for The Graduate School found at Contact the Department of Earth Sciences at the contact address below if you can not access the on-line application and would like to request that a paper application be mailed to you.

What are the application requirements for foreign students?

The application process for foreign students is the same as it is for domestic students. Foreign students are required to submit TOEFL scores and a financial statement in addition to the standard application. The Graduate School provides details concerning Graduate College requirements for foreign student applications.

What can I do to strengthen my application?

Acceptance into the geology component of the Earth Sciences graduate program is highly competitive. The strongest applications have a relatively high GPA (above 3.0), good GRE scores, and strongly supportive letters of recommendation. In addition, a clearly articulated statement of intent focused on career goals and research interests rather than recreational opportunities afforded by living in southwest Montana is highly recommended. We recommend you reach out to potential advisors early.

Where do I send my application materials?

All of your application materials will be handled by the online application.

Who do I contact with questions concerning the application process?

In addition to the information provided in this primer, you will find a detailed description of the application process at the College of Graduate Studies web site and the Department of Earth Sciences web page for prospective students. It is strongly recommended that you review the information provided at these sites in detail. If you have questions concerning the receipt of your application materials, you may contact the Department via email at [email protected] or by phone at (406) 994-3331.

What will be expected of me in the geobiology program?

Two Mandatory courses the first fall quarter

  • ERTH 594 Seminar (Seminar 1credit)
  • ERTH585Advances in Geobiology (Seminar 1credit)

Three 500-level courses in Eath Sciences from at least two different faculty members. Some (but not all) courses that might be considered are:

  • GEO 508 Depositional Systems
  • GEO 515 Structural Geology (offered Spring even years only)
  • GEO 530 Tectoncis of Sedementary Basins
  • GEO 581 Quaternary Environments
  • GEO 535 Advanced Stratigraphy
  • ERTH 505 Geomicrobiology
  • ERTH 582 Quaternary Paleoecology
  • ERTH 583 Topics in Paleoecology
  • GPHY 505 Bioclimatography

Students are also expected to develop a research skills package that includes at least three courses in cognate disciplines. The package should consist of a coherent set of courses covering a body of related methods and techniques necessary for the student's research. Courses in the research skills package should focus on gaining comprehension in relevant disciplines and learning state-of-the-art research techniques and approaches. Courses for the skills package must be chosen with the assistance of the advisor and should be selected to enhance the student's ability to conduct research. Because each student's research needs are different, and because course content changes frequently, the courses listed below are provided as examples only. The skills package must be approved by the major advisor and graduate committee as part of the coursework plan. Examples of skills packages are:

  • Paleoecology: BIOO 435 (Plant Systematics); GPHY 501 (GIS & environmental modeling); STAT 401 (Statistics for Researchers)
  • Biogeography: LRES 525 (Applied remote sensing); BIOE 440 (Conservation Biology); LRES 535 (Techniques of spatial analysis)
  • Geomicrobiology: BIOM 410 (Microbial Genetics); LRES 515 (Microbial Ecology); LRES 555 (Aqueous Geochemisty)
  • Dinosaur Paleontology: MB 537 (Advances in Molecular Evolution); MEDS 510 (Microscopic Anatomy); GEO 417 (Taphonomy: Fossil Preservation)