First Year Graduate Seminar

Naomi Levin, Earth & Environmental Science

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor


This course is intended to be an introduction to the department, graduate school and a launch pad for students' professional careers. Graduate education gives students the opportunity to develop new skills, which can be broadly applied to multiple career paths. This course establishes basics in several "core" areas of competency and break down these topics into a series of skills and action steps in order to provide students with a strong foundation on which to build their graduate career. Activities are a combination of presentations, workshops, activities, and peer review.

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).

This course is required for all first year graduate students (PhD and MS students) during their first semester of the program. It is a 1 credit course that all students must pass (taken credit/no credit). It is followed by a course on research ethics that all graduate students must take in the 2nd semester, which meets NSF requirements for ethics training.

The course meets weekly for 80 minutes. It is taught by the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies with visits from other faculty, senior graduate students and staff.

Course Content:

Topics covered include logistics on the program (degree requirements, procedures, rules); campus resources; opportunities; cohort building; skills in communication, proposal writing, research skills, organization, interpersonal dynamics, work-life balance.

Course Goals:

Students will be able to
1) Build the skills they need to succeed in graduate school
2) Learn the tacit knowledge of the discipline
3) Develop a sense of belonging
4) 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
-Create a plan for managing your time and space that will allow you to work and learn efficiently and effectively
-Cultivate self-advocacy skills
-Identify professional paths and career options

Course Features:

Assignments include reading, writing, participating in discussion and short oral presentations. There are also some out-of-class opportunities, such as meeting with alumni and attending certain professional development seminars that are also required. All assignments are submitted through Canvas or involve in-class activities.

Activities about resources
-Outline the graduation requirements of the program
-Explain qualifying exams and procedures
-Constructing a thesis committee
-Complete mentor maps
-Invite staff to seminar to explain their roles in library, ombuds office, counseling, safety.
-Require participation in professional development workshops on campus
-Support for elements of student lives beyond academic realm
-Outline identity groups on and off campus
-Attend grad student panel on mental health
-Develop a self care tool kit / plan

Communication activities
-Demonstrate software for organizing papers
-Write a research proposal
-"Elevator" speech
-Analyze abstracts and how to construct a scientific argument
-Peer review proposals
-Attend grad student panel on proposal writing
-Articulate reading strategies
-Create an annotated bibliography

Professional development Activities
-Identify grant opportunities
-Keep a log of activities
-Reflect on study and time management habits
-Review tools and strategies for managing time
-Outline an Independent Development Plan
-Complete a mentoring plan and meet with advisor to review it
-Define and reassess your concerns and goals
-Attend Alumni career panels
-Reviewing different scientific paths and journeys

Course Philosophy:

The course is designed to help students meet course goals. It is based on a variety of practical exercises, group discussions, guest lectures, workshops, writing and reading assignments. The assignments are intended to help scaffold the work of your graduate studies and be seen as a complement to your research and other coursework.


Attendance in class and in workshops/opportunities/seminars outside of class
Proposal / fellowship submissions
Peer review
Presentations in class (e.g. elevator pitch)
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).

Note: This course syllabus is a modification of a course that was initially designed and offered by Dr. Marin Clark (University of Michigan).

Links to other graduate seminar descriptions on Teach the Earth: