Cutting Edge > Undergraduate Research > Upper Division Strategies Collection > Mentoring For Transitions

Mentoring for transitions: after the bachelors

By Ed Hansen, Hope College

Any comments or suggestions for this page are welcome. Do you have advice to pass on? Do you have links to resources that you think we should have included? Please send comments or suggestions to: hansen AT hope.edu

Recent Hope College graduate launching a balloon from a NOAA research vessel.
Just as part of the job of a parent is to prepare their children to move on, part of our job as a mentor is prepare our research students for the next step. This often involves helping the students answer several questions:

"What specialty should I pursue?"

This is a question that can only be answered by the student. However, we can be a sounding board and we can also give them information. Throughout this process, our main concern should be to help the students find a career that they will find satisfying. Thus, we should encourage them to ask themselves what it is about the geosciences and their studies they have found most interesting and most enjoyable. Once they have an idea what they want to do then we can work with them on the how they will be able to do it. Sometimes the students concerns could be paraphrased as "Will I be able to make a living doing this?" Some good resources that can help answer this question are:

"How do I find the right graduate school? "

The first step is to ask the student to list the parameters they are looking for in a graduate school. This will include the specialty or specialties the student is interested in but frequently will contain other restrictions such as geographical location. These parameters should guide their search for a graduate program.

Making the long list:

Picking the right graduate school is often more a matter of picking the right person to work with rather than choosing the program. This is especially true if the student is pursuing a PhD. This may surprise the student whose main frame of reference may be their application to college. Fortunately, because of the internet, it is now much easier to locate potential graduate mentors than it use to be. A good place to start is The American Geosciences Institute (AGI) Geodirectory. This directory contains information, including a list of faculty members and their specialties, for over 3,000 geoscience departments throughout the world. The AGI directory is focused on geology programs. For geography, Colorado University maintains a list of links to world wide geography departments with additional links to several searchable data bases. Another searchable data base of geography departments can be found at the Universities Worldwide website. The National Weather Association maintains a list of programs in meteorology and atmospheric science.

A word of advice from a student who has recently gone through the process:

"In some cases a student may be entirely at a loss of what they want to study as well as where they want to look. One possible approach is to have the student go through twenty schools and look at the departments that interest them. They should pay particular attention to faculty research projects and record any that sound interesting. After about thirty entries have the student look through the research projects and tease out any common themes. Do several fall into the realm of structural geology? geomorphology? etc. Once a general subject area is obtained the student can then use an Internet search on a website such as Google Scholar to find what professors are prominent names in the field of interest. Once a list of professors is compiled the student can start contacting the affiliated schools and inquiring about their graduate programs."

Creating the short list:

Once a student has a list of potential graduate programs or graduate mentors they can use the web to obtain further information. The web pages of potential faculty mentors can often be used to answer the following critical questions:

  • "Do their current research interests fit my interest?"
  • "Have they published papers recently in the area I am interested in?"
  • "Are they currently, or have they recently, mentored graduate students in this area?"

A warning: faculty web pages are not always up to date and often do not contain a list of current publications. If this is the case, some information about the person's more recent scholarly activity can some times be obtained from Google Scholar, which in addition to recent papers, often will find abstracts from scientific conferences.

If the answers to these questions are encouraging, the student should consider sending the mentor a short email. In this email they should briefly introduce themselves, describe their interests, and ask about opportunities for graduate work. They may also want to briefly describe their research experiences or anything else that they think may make them appear more interesting to a research mentor. If the initial response is positive, a follow-up email or phone call can be made to address what possible research projects are available, how funding works, how the application process works, what aspects of the application are particularly important and request contact information for current/past students.

A word from the other end - a graduate school mentor talks about what he wants from a potential applicant:

"As a supervisor of graduate students, I'm looking for students who express a strong knowledge and interest in my research activities and who want to be a part of my lab. If a student approaches me through email, I expect that they have already examined my website and have a solid understanding of my research interests and approaches. An initial inquiry asking if I'm looking for students is a good idea. Assuming a positive answer, a subsequent email from you should include your CV or resume that includes a list of your geology and related courses, GRE scores (if available, if not when they will be), a brief description of your undergraduate research (its major findings and implications), and finally, an expression of interest in a research topics reflecting either: (1) a continuation of your undergraduate research that is aligned with my research; or (2) a research topic that is a natural extension of my research activities. For either, your material should reflect time spent examining my past research results (i.e., reading a few of my recent papers). The goal here is not to flatter me, but to demonstrate your ability to work with me on a research project that is of common interest. A student who invests energy and enthusiasm into a serious inquiry will be treated in a similar manner. Also, stick to email, many of us don't Facebook or tweet!"


In some cases it may be a program rather than a mentor that is important. In that case the student should send an email to the program director.

At this time, the student can also look at the departmental or university websites to get information on the graduate school application process. A warning: some students are intimidated by some of the information on these pages. It is important to emphasize that they do not necessarily have to have all of the prerequisites for a program before they apply. Some of these prerequisites can be made up while in graduate school and, if the students have strengths in some areas, it may even be possible to substitute for or waive some requirements. Thus, for example a geology/mathematics double major should not be deterred from applying to a graduate program because she is lacking field camp. In a similar fashion, simply because a student's GRE scores are below the average for a program does not necessarily mean he will not be admitted. However, they should pay strict attention to things like application deadlines and the need for letters of recommendation, transcripts or test scores.

Making the Final Decision

The single most important resource for making a final decision is a campus visit. While there the student should talk to current graduate students in the department. Better than anyone else, they will be able to provide a sense of what the atmosphere is like for graduate students. This conversation should occur without faculty or staff present. If the faculty or staff seems reluctant for such a conversation to take place the student should see that as a warning sign. The student should also find out what recent graduate students have done after graduation.

Other Resources

The Council on Undergraduate research maintains the CUR Graduate school registry. Students provide information to this data base which is used by some graduate programs in recruiting students.

The Geological Society of America holds a Graduate School Information Form at its annual meetings in which graduate programs set up booths and discuss their programs with interested students.

"How can I find a job"

Initial Steps

It is first important for a student to identify what they are looking for in a job. Is there a certain geographic region they want to live in? How far would they be willing to move? Do they want something permanent or temporary? What sort of salary rage are they aiming for? Do they want to work indoors or outdoors? Do they want regular hours? Would they be willing to sacrifice income for interest? Do they want to travel for work?

Dale Austin, the head of Hope College's career services puts it this way:

"As a candidate pursues work, one of the first orders of business is to have a clear understanding of their career goals, skill set and interests, and how these factors relate to the career options that they are considering. Understanding the relationship between the candidate's profile and their goals is critical to effectively presenting themselves through written (Support Materials) and oral communication (Interview Preparation). Clarity of career focus for a candidate is key to insure confident communication of their experiences and skills to specific types of work sought. Ambivalence, lack of confidence and lack of effective preparation will directly impact a candidate's ability to be successful finding work.

One approach to developing a better sense of career focus is to conduct "informational interviews" with professionals employed in work related to the candidate's goals and aspirations. Most college and university alumni and/or career services' offices could provide alumni contacts searchable by profession and geographic location. The pamphlet Networking was developed for the use of Hope College students. However in addition to information specific to Hope College it includes suggestions for types of questions/issues to address and other helpful tips concerning informational interviewing"

Finding Job Openings

Once a general idea of where and what a student is looking for, the best place to start a job search is within their network. Do they have any professional contacts for companies that interest them or people who might know of a companies that are hiring? Does their home institute have any contacts that might be useful?

If a geographic region has been identified, looking through the local Cragslist or newspaper Ads can be helpful. Students can also contact companies in that region that do the kind of work he or she is interested in even if no positions are posted.

If no geographic restraint has been placed, an Internet search is the next best option. This can be a fairly long and involved process. The key is to keep trying and apply to many places. Because the Internet is so impersonal, followup phone calls may help increase a student's odds of landing a job.
Links for Job Searches:

Supporting Materials

Depending on the focus of a candidate's job search, they will need to prepare either a resume or curriculum vitae (CV), as well as a cover letter (letter of application) and references/letters of recommendation.

For the first three documents, candidates will want to lay the materials out in an organized fashion, and carefully proofread the documents to ensure that there are no errors. If one is seeking work in an academic setting, a CV typically is in order. For industry and government settings, a resume works well.

Suggestions on preparing these materials can be found at:

Interview Preparation

The importance of preparing and practicing for each interview cannot be stressed enough as one seeks work. Attentively reviewing the position description and understanding how your experience, education and skill set relate to the responsibilities and challenges of the role that you are pursuing is key. But simply having a clear understanding of this process is not sufficient; candidates are best served by practicing the process to gain the confidence needed for a successful interview. This practice needs to be balanced with a sense of spontaneity and genuineness so the candidate's responses do not appear to be rehearsed. Helping the student practice for their interview is one of the things that we can do as mentors.

Suggestions for the interview can be found at Preparing for the Interview. The Preparing for an Academic Career website on interviewing may also provide helpful tips and resources; while aimed at those interested in pursuing an academic career, some resources and information is applicable at the broader scale.

"How do I become connected with the wider geoscience community?"

Here we can take an active role. We can encourage them to become student members of professional organizations. We can introduce them to alumni of our programs either personally or through email or telephone. When feasible we should encourage them to give presentations at national or regional meetings. At these meetings we should introduce them to colleagues and suggest that they talk to other presenters – poster sessions are especially good for this.

Some information on how social media can be used to connect with the geoscience community can be found on the social media page of this website.




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