Among the leading programs conferring graduate degrees in geoscience, the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern University offers students a unique educational experience. While the quality of scholarship favorably compares with the best graduate programs--from which most of the faculty hold their degrees--the size of the combined faculty and graduate student community amounts to a fraction of our sister institutions. With a “think tank” model in mind, the department has worked to build critical faculty mass in two main areas of research: solid-Earth geophysics, highlighting the intersections between plate tectonics, seismology, and mineral physics, and sedimentary geology, focusing on the links between biogeochemistry and climate change. These choices reflect our departmental mission to pursue fundamental, leading edge research that makes important contributions to the most pressing geoscience questions of our day. Currently, much of our effort is directed towards understanding the driving forces of plate tectonics, the structure and composition of the upper mantle and lower crust, the causes and consequences of major earthquakes and tsunamis, the natural and anthropogenic causes of large scale perturbations in Earth’s biogeochemical cycles, and the nature of thresholds and feedbacks within the carbon cycle-climate system linkage.
Our graduate program has long maintained a reputation for producing outstanding geoscientists and is specifically designed to train students for academic careers. As such, it blends an intensive research program with ample opportunities for teaching experience. Yet a portion of our graduates are also consistently successful in finding careers with energy companies or non-academic research labs. The department is currently engaged in construction of a highly innovative analytical facility that will integrate a series of labs into a unique interdisciplinary complex. The lab functions range from cluster computing for seismic tomography, to a high-pressure, high-tempertaure mineral physics and petrology component, to a lab with two isotope ratio mass spectrometers for the study of biogeochemical cycles, to a clean lab with thermal ionization mass spectrometry for research on radiogenic isotopes. Clearly, this is a very exciting time to be studying geoscience at Northwestern University!
Departmental faculty, nationally and internationally respected in their fields, pursue a diverse set of research projects that include active data collection from localities spanning the globe as well as planetary science projects employing NASA data from moons and planets of our solar system. Specific locations of ongoing work include North America, South America, Africa, the Pacific Islands, China and Tibet, the Mediterranean Basin, the planets Mars and Venus, as well as the moons of Jupiter. Faculty members commonly develop new research projects in collaboration with graduate students and have been consistently successful in obtaining external funding for these projects. In addition, the department is able to support graduate student research with endowment funding. EPS enjoys an exceptionally collegial but intellectually rigorous atmosphere, a combination we believe is particularly valuable to students when they first enter the graduate program.
Shortly after settling in their Locy Hall offices, first-year students pick two research projects to develop. Because the department maintains a student-faculty ratio that facilitates individual contact between students and professors (faculty are accessible in academic and social settings fostered by the department), students can easily consult with each faculty member before deciding upon a research path. As students pursue their research, individual contact with professors continues. Each project is supervised by a single faculty member, and students must select a different advisor for each topic. This requirement was formulated to help students build strong working relationships with multiple faculty members, thus broadening their intellectual foundations and providing them with potentially strong references for fellowship competitions, internships and jobs. Generally, one of these projects evolves into a dissertation theme, although students sometimes pursue topics entirely unrelated to their first-year projects. In either case, by gaining exposure to advanced research methods while working closely with faculty advisors, first-year students rapidly develop the scientific and analytical skills necessary to produce conference papers, publications, and dissertations of scholarly significance—a fact underscored by the frequency with which our graduate students publish their work, win outstanding paper awards, and garner external fellowships and grants. The first year is not, of course, limited to work on research projects, but also includes courses, discussion groups, and weekly seminars. In most cases, teaching experience is deferred until the second year of graduate study to allow new students sufficient time to focus on their research projects. The curriculum includes a series of courses designed to enhance research skills, analytical writing, and scientific literacy in the selected subdiscipline. Classes include seminars requiring literature searches and classroom discussion, geo-applied computer programming, and independent study. All students attend weekly seminars presented by visiting scholars, who also discuss their work with interested students in individual meetings or social functions hosted by the Department. This provides students with excellent educational and networking opportunities. Many first-year students also participate in research discussion groups, which focus on research presentations by group members. Following the first year, all graduate students receive substantial teaching experience as part of their degree program and thereby learn how to transform creative research into effective pedagogy.