Seven Steps to Finding the Right Geography PhD Program

August 12, 2015 at 12:29 pm  •  Posted in Education, Geography by  •  0 Comments

Hi Justin,

First of all, I would like to thank you for sharing such good articles that help us a lot in our decision making process.

I am from Brazil and when I was an undergrad I studied for a year in the US where I took a course on the foundations of GIS and after that I spent a semester learning more about the applications of GIS in natural resources.

I went on to earn an M.S. on Forest Engineering in Brazil with focus on hydrology, water quality, remote sensing and GIS. Now I am looking for a PhD program in the US that would allow me to better understand how GIS works, how to program and develop an open source GIS-based water resources management system that I could implement in my country later on.

Do you know any program that would contain the research line that I have mentioned?

Thank you so much in advance,


Dear Maciel,

Applying to PhD programs is an exercise in finding a compatible research mentor. Rather than looking for the best program/department or University you should be searching for a professor who shares your research interests and, ideally, has the ability to support your research with grant funding. At the very least you need to receive a teaching assistant appointment that covers tuition and pays a modest stipend. If you’re paying tuition in pursuit of a PhD you’re doing it wrong.

Here are seven steps to follow:

  1. Decide on a research focus area and, preferably, a specific research question/topic you intend to pursue. If you don’t know for sure you’re probably not ready for a PhD campaign.
  2. Read the salient literature in your chosen sub-field. You can begin by simply doing a keyword search in Google Scholar. Try searching for “water resources management” and “GIS” or similar. Find the most interesting articles and read them. Then look for more recent articles to learn about current research threads. By the way, if you find yourself hating this exercise in exploring the research literature you may want to rethink your decision to go after a PhD.
  3. Once you’ve waded far enough into the literature you should be able to identify some of the key researchers in your field (if not, keep reading). Find out where these researchers work. Many will not be in Departments of Geography. They may be Civil Engineers or Earth Scientists. The interdisciplinary nature of most research in geography means there will be contributors from a variety of disciplines. If you’re set on a geography PhD then list the key researchers who are faculty in Departments of Geography. Capture their contact info.
  4. Prepare a brief statement of research interests and a cv. Keep it short and simple. Think business card rather than autobiography. Send an email to the professors you have identified in step #3. The email should also be very brief. These are busy people. If you write them a novel they won’t read it. Your goal in the email is to capture their attention and ask about opportunities to work with them. If they aren’t looking for students they may know who is looking. If you don’t hear back from them right away don’t be put off. Like I said, these are busy people. You may have to be a squeaky wheel to get their attention. Be polite but persistent.
  5. Hopefully you will be able to have a productive dialogue to help point you in the right direction. If you’re lucky you’ll make a connection with a good researcher and begin to form an idea where you’d like to study. Apply to these programs. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Apply to multiple programs.
  6. If at all possible try to visit the programs that interest you most. Call the Department in advance and see if you can schedule a meeting. Visit the professor(s) you’ve contacted. Remind them who you are and what you’re interested in doing. Express your enthusiasm. Don’t waste their time. This is a golden opportunity to learn more about where to apply, who is working on the latest and greatest, who would be good to work for and who wouldn’t. Listen carefully. If you can’t afford to visit in person then try a few phone calls. You might catch them at their desk in a good mood.
  7. If you’ve done the legwork, aced the GRE and submitted strong applications articulating your fit with the department then you should be in good position to receive an offer. If you have more than one offer, congratulations! Choose the best fit. Select the best offer with the program where you think you can be successful. This will take several years and you don’t want to be miserable. Don’t be distracted by my rankings or by ideas of prestige or notoriety. Choose the place where you think you’ll be happy.

That’s it! Hope this helps some of the prospective PhDs out there … especially Maciel.

Leave a Reply