Grad school woes from a frantic student

I’m currently in school for Geology and have found out that apparently my field is overly saturated, and as such getting a job will be more difficult than I initially thought. At first I figured this was all rumors, but after doing a quick scour of some of the leading employers in the field for current openings I have come to the sad conclusion that there are almost none. This problem however runs much deeper, and is actively preventing me from getting much sleep at night, that being said here goes.

For starters in my freshman year of college I ended up doing terribly and racking up a D, D-, and a D+ in Calculus, Fundamentals of Chemistry, and Chem I respectively. I was however wise enough to realize that I would probably have better success taking my hard sciences during the summer at my local community college back home when they would be the only things I would have to worry about, and would be able to focus on them. Over a few summers I have successfully transferred Calculus II, Calculus II, and Physics I and II to my university with grades of a B for Calculus II and C’s for everything else respectively.

After freshman year my gpa was a horrendous 1.6, but I have been working hard and as of now it is currently at a 2.738. I know its not the best still, but from where it was initially I am happy so far. My panicking stems from the fact that I want at least a 3.0 for grad school, but a 3.3 is my dream number. I want to say as far as my major goes I have a decent amount of classes left (maybe about 30 or 40 hours worth) and to date when it comes to classes for my major (specifically my geology classes) I have made nothing less than a B-. My current gpa does admittedly have its fair share of “fluff” classes included however. Almost every semester after my freshman year I have at least taken 6 hours of humanities/ liberal arts classes to help bring my gpa up. What I have recently realized however is that even with all of these fluff classes reaching a 3.0 would take a large amount of hours that I am not sure I even have left until graduation.

Basically what I am freaking out about is that I dont know how beneficial it would be to retake one or two of the three classes I failed my freshman year, versus keep on trucking and trying to force my gpa up to where I want it to be. I wont lie those classes from freshman year, they terrify me, and I just dont know if I have what it takes to retake them and get a decent enough grade to raise it (my university averages instead of replacing). One of them was Calc I, and having taken Calc II - III I think I may be able to do decent in it, but math in general gives me a bit of anxiety. If I were to take two of the classes over and manage to bang out a B or B+ in them, how much would it bump my gpa up? is it even worth it, or do I have plenty of classes left that will allow me to raise it without having to retake any of the previous classes?

I know this is getting lengthy so I will try to cut to my other question. I want to go to grad school and I have been told that most grad schools expect terrible freshman years, and as a result tend to look only at the last two years of ones classes and grades. I am worried I am in a pickle because A: even though I successfully transferred my Calculus II and III and all of my physics courses they are still mostly C’s. And B: Even if they do not look at my freshman year they will undoubtedly look at my Calculus I and Chemistry grades from freshman year since they are technically classes in my major. I am not good with hard science and math, but if it is integrated into the geologic sense I do just fine, which is why my geology classes specifically are mostly 3.0’s. Would a grad school even consider me if my last two years (excluding even all the A’s from fluff classes) were decently within the 3.0 - 3.4 range due to them mostly being upper level geology courses? Or will my terrible freshman year, sub par transfer credits, and generous amount of humanities and liberal arts classes prove too much to allow me to move forward? Sorry if this post seems all over the place, but this has gotten to the point where I have not been able to sleep for 34 hours now, and am admittedly not in the best form the put together an amazing query to say the least. None the less I appreciate ANY help and advice anyone could spare. thank you all in advance!

Since the OP is looking for advice, let’s move this to IMHO.

General Questions

What, specifically, are your grad school plans? The advice for you will vary depending on whether, say, you’re aiming to get a Master’s degree that will lead you to a job or a PhD because you really love academia and want to spend the better part of a decade there.

(In many fields, a PhD is poor choice if you just want the letters on your CV. And a PhD is a terrible choice if it’s just the only thing you can think of to do next.)

But to give you one anecdote that may put your mind to ease, I managed to get accepted into some competitive biology grad programs with a 2.5 GPA. However, I also had strong recommendations from several professors, including a big shot in the field, and really good GRE scores. I had my own will-I-get-into-grad-school freakout on this board when I applied several years ago.

One, geology is a poster boy for cyclic employment. Right now commodities are down, and oil and gas are way down. Mining exploration is ticking over, and oil and gas exploration are just plain dead. Nobody anywhere is hiring, and plenty are laying off. Nobody thinks it will stay this way. But the world economy is a funny beast, and predicting just how and when things will take off again is more black arts than science. There is some feeling that the worst is over, but even that might be more a matter that companies are simply done with their readjusting to the current state and are back to work at a diminished level.

Two. Well grad school in the US is a very different beast to here in Oz, where I am. But some things won’t change. My advice is simply this. Go talk to people in the schools you are interested in. If you are really serious about embarking on a graduate degree in geology, it is enthusiasm and a love of the subject that will get you through. But, you need to find a school, and especially a thesis advisor that you can work with. In the US systems this is much harder, as the system seems to be much more factory like. But you should look around. Talk to some grad students, talk to some graduates. Be up-front about the reasons for some questions, like your grade mix.

Right now, you could do worse than talk to some people in your current university’s geology grad school.

The tone of your post strikes me as a typical thing I have seen in undergraduates - a difficulty in coming to terms with the idea that the academics in your school are ordinary human beings and who will almost always be happy to have a chat and discuss your serious questions, and help where they can. It is actually refreshing to be asked. They will be by far in the best position to advise of the specifics of your questions.

If you are not good with hard sciences and math, what are you doing in a hard science major? You might be able to get through introductory geology classes using “geologic sense”, but the higher you go, the larger the role the math will play. By the time you get to grad school, it’s going to be pretty much all math.

If it’s just that you enjoy working with rocks, and/or working outdoors, you might want to consider less academic pursuits that will enable that.

I’m also in biology, so can’t speak to geology specifically. But what I tell biology students in your position is that getting into grad school is usually easier than you might think. There are lots of labs out there that all need free slave labor…er…grad students. Odds are good that you’ll eventually get in somewhere. That said, in a tough job market, it’s a very very good idea to look at what specific skills employers are looking for, and find a grad school lab that will train you in those marketable skills.

I wish I’d done that.

I had a sub 3.0 GPA when I got into the school and department of my choice. I had rock solid letters from professors who knew me and my work. I also was able to get summer research positions in the two summers leading up to grad school. The research ability and recs outweighed, by a long shot, any failings in my coursework.


IMHO, in a saturated field it doesn’t make to go to “grad school.” You want to go to a specific grad school, one that specific companies with specific career paths recruit from. If your plan is to go into the industry after grad school, you need to understand EXACTLY how that works.

Go on LinkedIn and browse people in your field doing jobs you’d like to do. Find the patterns. What schools do the go to? What entry level jobs are they getting? What companies keep showing up? What specialties? What kinds of internships and fellowships are people doing? What cities or regions have lots of work.

Now talk to any contacts you have. Professors, guest speakers, anyone. Go to industry events and especially career fairs. Make studying this industry your second job. Eventually it will all become clear and you’ll know what you need to do.

When you say you want to go to grad school, do you mean you want an academic career? If so, I strongly suggest you find a place in a lab and do some research as an undergrad. That would be the best indicator of whether going to grad school is a good idea for you. If you find that research isn’t for you (which, BTW, is the conclusion most undergrads come to, including a lot of the really smart ones), look at job options that don’t include grad school in the sciences.

Before you put your all into going to grad school, make sure that’s even really what you want. Grad school is a long, hard road, even for the most committed and motivated of students. You might want to take even sven’s advice and look into careers in your field. See if there’s anything that sounds exciting, and then follow up on that. Getting an internship at a place you might like to work might be a really good idea.

The crucial question has already been asked - MS or PhD. If it is an MS I’d bet you are going to have to pay tuition - but you might some place which will take you.

If it is PhD the next question is what kind of geology interests you? If you don’t know, go to your library and start leafing through journals. When you find an area, note which, professors at which universities have published papers in the area. Read them and try to understand them - you might not have the background quite yet, but that is okay.

If you think reading papers is a horrible waste of time, a PhD program is not for you.
Once you do find an area you like, come up with some good questions and email the professors who have written the papers - you might actually start with more junior ones. Say something like you are an undergrad who has read some of his or her papers, is very interested in the area, and would like suggestions for further reading - like the critical papers in the area. That will put you several legs up over anyone else.

Networking is the best way of getting any good job - and this is a job.

Could you clarify why you want to grad school? Is it because the job prospects are bad right now if you graduated undergrad and went straight into trying to find a job? Or is it because of your love of geology and wanting to learn more about it? Or because you know of some specific job or area you’d like to work in, and you know that grad school is required for that job? Grad school can be a very good thing, but the advice could be different depending on your reason for wanting to go.

Re-write this sentence.
You do not want to go to school. (grad, or any other)
Because going to school is not a goal in life…it’s a means to acheiving a goal in life

First, decide what your goal is.
Say “I want to…”
Then, and only then, see if going to grad school will get you what you want.

Going to grad school shouldn’t be **the ** goal in life but it can be **a **goal in life. I went to grad school because I got really interested in some subjects and wanted to do research/learn more about them. If you had asked me I would have said I wanted to teach when I got done. As it turned out I went into industry. But I loved grad school, did quite well in it, and satisfied my research goals as well as learning a ton about all sorts of stuff.
Let’s not tell someone who is 20 years old that he should be locked into a certain career path.

Firstly I’d like to thank everyone for helpful replies! I’m just getting back from classes so I hope the conversation can continue, as I still have some questions/answers to give.

I really should have mentioned this. Basically I want to go to University of Arizona and study either Planetary Sedimentology, Geochemistry, or Petrology. Currently before anything the admissions require that I have an overall 3.0 gpa (hence my panic about raising it) and for optimal admission chances be in the 60-70 percentile on my GRE. My end goal is the same it was years ago: I want to work for NASA one day. That being said I will need not only a PhD, but research in a field of study that will better help me be able to do the jobs that the agency requires. For this Planetary Sedmimentology is the optimal choice. I have already planned however to do my PhD at Penn State (god willing), and would like to be working alongside my PhD program to generate experience, and this goes back to the problem of before with finding a job. Most employers are not looking for Planetary Sedimentologist, but rather Petrologist and Geochemist. Right out of the gate I’m currently at a junction, and Geochemistry seems like it may be the best compromise between Planetary Sedimentology and other oil/mining based specializations.

I understand where you are coming from, but as of now I have already begun to take my advanced classes. Grasping Geophysics for me has been far more easier and enjoyable than regular physics because I love the subject matter as well as the field itself. I have taken Introduction to Geographic Information Systems side by side with grad students and seniors, the success was the same as all my other Geology courses: I ended up coming out of it with a 3.0. At one point the hard sciences did worry me, but so far I’m finding that I just overall do better in classes that are specifically related to what I enjoy studying, be them Calculus or Chemistry related or not.

This is why my decision is with the University of Arizona, but that also makes the 3.0 problem as well as the difficulty/most efficient way of raising it more of a problem than usual.

I want to go to grad school because I love the research being done in my field, and want to contribute to it. I admit that I have yet to do any research assistant positions (this was planned for when I had a 3.0 gpa which would make approaching professors at my university less intimidating), but seeing how the predicament of reaching a 3.0 is only going to get harder and harder as my undergrad progress and more credits are added I’m assuming that I need to just get try to get a position with what I currently have. I’ve wanted to work for NASA since forever, and the very thought of being able to contribute something to the advancement of science, space travel and exploration, and humanity as a whole is somehting that has made me eager since I was even a little kid. I know that a PhD and MS may not be the easiest (or even the most practical from my current position), but its something that I am dead set on doing. If I wasent I would have changed my major after freshman year to something more “cozy”.

So far it has boiled down to to things as far as my future academics are concerned. Getting an MS in a specialization that will allow me to get hired and generate experience to make me a better candidate for PhD programs, as well as get work that will help me fund my PhD and avoid taking out loans. The second factor is getting a PhD in a Planetary Sedimentology or Geophysics/Geochemistry specialization. Planetary Sedimentology would be the best for what I PERSONALLY want to do, but NASA as of late has been leaning towards more Geophysicist and Geochemist, but this is something that I think I will be able to find out more on once I start hopefully doing research assistance with professors.

For me it is a combination of all of those things. Employment as an undergrad in my field is almost impossible, so an MS is regardless of anything a must. This is why at the very least I would like to try to get my MS in a specialization that is not only fine tuned for NASA, but widely applicable to most potential employers. I also love my major and the thought of being able to contribute something to it has always been a fun one to entertain. The day I can successfully expand the geologic profession by publishing a paper or two is when I truly think that I will find the sense of academic fulfillment that I have always wanted. Hand and hand with research however is my life ambition of working at NASA, and this alone is enough to count for both my love of geology as well as the requirement of grad school for getting a position.

As of now the biggest challenge currently is how to raise my gpa. I am unsure if it is wise to retake some of the classes from my freshman year since they average the grades of retakes instead of replacing them. Or take my 2.738 and focus strictly on the classes in front of me. Since more hours means grades impact my gpa less and less I am not sure if I will have enough hours between now and my graduation to adequately raise my gpa to even the 3.0 mark. I understand that I am essentially right there, and it is far more better than having a 1.6 or 2.0 at this point in my academic career, but I still need to reach a 3.0 as fast as possible to be able to get internships, and hopefully if nothing else seem like an appealing research assistant for the professors at my University. I would like to stress how much I appreciate everyone’s help and guidance so far, if all goes well I JUST may be able to get a decent nights rest.

If your goal is to work for NASA, you will need to understand federal hiring. It is VERY difficult to enter the federal system, and that’s another thing you will need to understand. You will really want to look in to federal internship opportunities, and the STEM Presidential Management Fellowship.

From time to time I browse the openings NASA has up on their website, and thought applying was as simple as clicking the opening and doing the application

The good news, though, is that you don’t have to be employed by NASA to work with NASA - the agency funds and collaborates on a huge amount of research, from remote sensing satellite work to astrobiology. The funding isn’t limited to established academics, either - NASA has research opportunities for undergrads and graduate students. If your goal is to work with NASA eventually, then start looking for the opportunities to work with NASA now.

And start talking to your professors about undergraduate research opportunities sooner than later - definitely don’t wait until you bring your grades up. Start with the ones who’ve taught the classes you enjoyed and did well in. If they know you’ve got a good handle on what you should know as a junior, they’re not going to care at all about your freshman grades. When you’re applying to grad schools, research experience and strong recommendations can rescue an application with mediocre grades. Those recommendations are going to make a much bigger difference in your application than anything you can do to bump your GPA a couple of tenths of a point, and the earlier you get into the research environment, the more material you’ll give professors for those letters.

The other recommendation I have is to be flexible. There’s nothing wrong with the University of Arizona or with Penn State, but you might find that they don’t quite fit exactly what you want to do, and that’s ok. As you get a clearer idea of what kind of research you want to work on, you’ll learn - first from the professors you work with, and then from reading the literature yourself - where that work is being done and who’s doing it. Go there, even if it isn’t Arizona or Pennsylvania, and work on the research questions that you want to pursue.

I’ve looked at just about every opportunity NASA has to offer, but more often than not it all comes down to the same thing eligibility wise, and that’s a 3.0 gpa minimum. I’ve been lucky enough to even have correspondence with some of the scientists that work in the geologic sector for NASA, and for the large majority of them a 3.0 was recommend as a great starting point. I’m going to look into talking to a few professors to see if they would allow me to assist them with any of their research, but would you recommend doing this now since the semester is almost over, or right at the beginning of next semester?

Not to be too much of a bummer but if NASA is your goal, you probably ought to find out what an acceptable GPA is before you go too much further thinking about NASA.

I know a bunch of folks who worked at national labs and the first sort for new hires with Phds was a 4.0. These folks worked with NASA at times and I assume that the GPA requirements are probably the same.

Did a quick google search and found this:


Note, I never finished school and am a network engineer so I respect anyone who goes on to a MS or Phd. Good luck.


Is there a complementary degree or a narrow focus of it that will make it more useful? As an example, engineers who specialize in welding have jobs waiting for them.