Geosciences Graduate Seminar

Michele Cooke, Geosciences

University of Massachusetts-Amherst


The goal of the seminar is to help students get started in graduate school and help them find resources and develop critical skills for success in academia. This seminar explores the skills, resources and habits that help Geosciences graduate students to succeed in graduate school and in your careers beyond UMass Geosciences. Activities in this course are designed to develop and practice skills, and habits that will help students to grow as scientists and prepare for their professional careers.

Course Size:

less than 15

Course Format:

Small-group seminar

Institution Type:

University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

First-year courses for entering graduate students that seek to make transparent the tacit knowledge needed to succeed in our discipline are sometimes called the hidden curriculum of graduate school. This course helps students learn about resources they need to be successful in our discipline. For further contextualization of and justification for this course, see Cooke et al. (2021).

Our new graduate student seminar is required for all students, spans two semesters (1 credit each term) and meets every other week, to give students time to digest and practice new material. Both syllabi are included here. Our program is 50% MS and 50% PhD students. We often have a senior PhD student serve as assistant to the course and mentor to the new students. The seminar has been co-taught at times and we always invite faculty in to address different topics.

Course Content:

Fall seminar: Since most graduate students start in the Fall, this semester starts with overviews of the graduate program milestones but then opens the scope to the structure of academia. Graduate students play a role in the university that differs from that of undergrads and students can be more effective when they have a better understanding of the larger system and the resources for graduate students (grants, support services, context of the discipline etc). This seminar also hones a wide range of communication skills critical to success in science: figure making, writing and oral presentations.

Spring semester: This seminar explores the skills, resources and habits that help Geosciences graduate students to succeed in graduate school and in your careers beyond UMass Geosciences. The path through graduate school can be bumpy if you are not prepared for challenges, such as imposter syndrome, advisor-student conflict, research ethics, collaboration tension. Topics may vary by student interest and can include, scientific and professional ethics of geosciences research, networking, resolving conflict, preparing proposals, non-technical skills, job applications.

Course Goals:

Over the duration of the course, students will
- Build the skills they need to succeed in graduate school
- Learn the tacit knowledge of the discipline
- Develop a sense of belonging
- Develop a cohort that can become a source of support

Outcomes -- through activities during the course, students will be able to:
- Articulate program requirements
- Create clear channels for information and support
- Access campus resources
- Identify community of support outside department
- Use the scientific literature to provide context for their own research
- Develop a research proposal
- Explain research to others
- Creative effective figures
- Analyze types and causes of research misconduct
- Describe publication practices and ethics
- Define intellectual property rights
- Explain the role of scientists in society: Geo-ethics
- Create a plan for managing your time and space that will allow you to work and learn efficiently and effectively
- Develop plan for learning technical and non-technical skills
- Cultivate self-advocacy skills
- Identify professional paths and career options
- Evaluate laboratory and field safety from an ethical perspective
- Explain the impact of bias within geosciences

Course Features:

Activities about resources
- Outline the graduation requirements of the program
- Explain qualifying exams and procedures
- Constructing a thesis committee
- Encourage participation in professional development workshops on campus
- Support for elements of student lives beyond academic realm
- Outline identity groups on and off campus

Communication activities
- Demonstrate software for organizing papers
- Write a research proposal
- Complete an NSF graduate research fellowship app
- "Elevator" speech
- Abstract shuffle: Students describe another's research
- Peer review of figures in progress
- Critical review of published figures

Research ethics activities
- Propose possible interventions to misconduct
- What does author order mean, who decides?
- Discuss where to publish: OA, society journals and commercial publishers
- Discuss expectations & best practices in peer review
- Review licensing rights - what rights do you give, and which do you have?
- Discuss ownership of intellectual property
- Discuss scientific communication with the public

Professional development Activities
- Reflect on study and time management habits
- Review tools and strategies for managing time and try at least two of them that are new to you
- Propose ways to gain the skills that you want to have by the time that you graduate.
- Assess strengths and weaknesses
- Ask advisor about their expectations of and the role of students in the advisor's 5 year plan.
- Regularly reassess your concerns and goals
- Alumni career panels

Professional Behavior Activities
- Case studies of harassment and discrimination
- Discuss why safety is an ethical issue for research groups
- Discuss sustainability of sample/data collection
- Take the Harvard implicit bias test
- Discuss the ways that bias impacts gatekeeping and decision making.

Course Philosophy:

Course design based on a variety of practical exercises, group discussions, guest lectures, workshops, writing and reading assignments, helps student meet course goals. Group discussions of topics allow students to bring their experiences to each discussion and learn from each other. These discussions that also include guest facilitators allow students to develop a cohort and develop a network that includes folks outside of their research group. A senior graduate student serves as teaching assistant and provides critical mentorship to new graduate students.


  • Homework completed
  • Engagement within in class discussion
  • Individual interviews near end of the course
  • proposal/fellowship submissions
  • Self-assessment (goals and concerns)


References and Notes:

Cooke, M., Breitbart, M., Cooperdock, E. Levin, N., Niemi, N., Bell, C., Stevens, L., Viskupic, K.,. First-year graduate courses foster inclusion. Nat. Geosci. 14, 539–540 (2021).

Links to other graduate seminar descriptions on Teach The Earth