Introductory Graduate Seminar

Donna L Whitney, Earth & Environmental Sciences

University of Minnesota-Twin Cities


This is a course for first-semester graduate students, with the following aims:

(1) introduce the varied research being done by different groups in the department;

(2) help new grad students develop and strengthen skills in research and science communication;

(3) provide required ethics training in a friendly environment that encourages discussion and questions; and

(3) foster a cohort of new graduate students.

Course URL: []
Course Size:


Course Format:

Small-group seminar

Institution Type:

University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This required, 2-credit course is taken by all graduate students (MS and PhD) in their first semester. Students have widely varying experience with research, and this is both a challenge and a strength of the course. This course also contains an ethics component and satisfies the ethics training requirement for graduate students. The course has an S/N grade basis. Note: I have taught this seminar for 5 years in my role as department head, and have found it extremely useful as a way to get to know every graduate student and demonstrate that our department cares about them and is committed to their success and to creating a supportive environment for them to do so.

Course Content:

from the syllabus:

The topics and format of the seminar vary from week to week (see schedule).

In this seminar, you will see/read and practice different types and lengths of communication to different audiences. Three classes will involve talks by faculty members. During these seminars, you are expected to ask questions. Asking good, professional questions is a skill, and you will practice it in this seminar in a supportive environment.

For two of the seminars with faculty presentations, you will write a concise (1 paragraph) summary of each talk. This requires listening closely to the speaker to discern the essence of the talk and then writing a short summary of the talk. Summaries are evaluated for technical writing more than for content: e.g., spelling, grammar, logical flow of sentences.

You will also write two research proposals (see handout) on a topic that you will briefly present to the class and then develop, first in a short (GSA-style) proposal and then as a longer format proposal on the same topic. The topic should be related to your graduate work and must consist entirely of original writing by you specifically for this seminar. You will also prepare a poster based on this proposal and present it in the last class.

Course Goals:

see aims listed above

Course Features:

The following are all topics or activities in this seminar:

- Demonstrate software for finding and organizing papers
- Write several short summaries of talks given by faculty (summaries are similar in format to abstracts and are more about writing than scientific content)
- Write a research proposal (6 pages, NSF style but shorter) – involves first reading and discussing actual NSF proposals provided by faculty
- Complete a GSA graduate student research proposal (same topic as the longer proposal)
- "Elevator" speech / lightning talk
- How to give a conference-style presentation (12-15 minutes)
- Comparison of talks and posters (conference presentations)
- How to communicate (e.g., by email) with colleagues you don't know well (especially if you are asking them for something: time, expertise, access to equipment)
- Peer review of figures in progress
- Critical review of published figures and figures in talks; discussion of differences between figures in talks, posters, papers, and proposals
- Discuss where to publish: OA, society journals and commercial publishers
- Discuss ownership of intellectual property
- Discuss scientific communication with different audiences, including communities impacted by geoscience research
- Discuss how much research costs (grant proposal budgets)
- Reflect on study and time management habits (focus of discussion led by senior grad students)
- Refine CV and resume
- Reflect on topics relevant to being a grad student and how to get information about them (advisor? research group? others?): which journals to read, which conferences to attend, how to organize journal articles, how to set content/author alerts but not rely on them completely (issue of bias), how to use various research networking and citation tools (e.g., ResearchGate, ORCID), 
- Discuss research articles about diversity, equity and inclusion in the geosciences (in some cases provided as optional reading)
- Discuss why safety is an ethical issue for research groups
- Discuss sustainability of sample/data collection
- Discuss the ways that bias impacts gatekeeping and decision making. 
- other ethics topics: What does author order mean, who decides? How are decisions made about which papers/authors to cite (how can bias factor into this?) What are ethical ways to manage and present/share data (in all its forms)? Where do ideas come from and who 'owns' them in a collaboration? Plagiarism (including self-plagiarism, appropriate use of your own writing in abstracts, proposals, theses, papers, websites)

Course Philosophy:

The course has evolved over the years. It was originally primarily a forum for faculty talks, with writing exercises for students (short summaries, a proposal), and now has the components listed above and the fourfold aims described. Owing to the large number of topics covered, most are only touched on, with encouragement for students to follow up with the instructor, research group, each other, someone else depending on their needs and interests and how these develop in their graduate program. The wide variety of student backgrounds and interests requires flexibility so that students can learn from each other, ask questions they might not have felt comfortable asking before, and gain skills and knowledge no matter where they are starting from.


Students must attend all classes (with flexibility for necessary absences and options for make-up assignments), participate in discussions (most of which are in small groups) and in-class activities, and complete all assignments. The instructor provides a lot of feedback on writing. For in-class speaking exercises, feedback is from peers (anonymous feedback form) and the instructor. The goal is for each student to show improvement rather than to attain any particular level of accomplishment.


There are two versions of the syllabus: one for larger classes ( > 20 students) and one for smaller classes. The main difference is that there are no student conference-style talks in the larger classes as an in-class activity.

  • For classes with > 20 students: Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 193kB Jan28 22)
  • For classes with < 20 students: Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 109kB Jan28 22)

References and Notes:

Additional reading varies from year to year but has included topics related to geo-ethics (papers by Mogk and colleagues), bias in citations, how to give a good talk etc.