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Student Impressions of the Graduate Program

Jamie McFarlin, Ph.D. Candidate

"Working on my PhD in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department at Northwestern University has been such a rewarding experience. The department challenges students to be independent, creative researchers and supports their growth in this role. There are diverse opportunities to develop skills in science writing, public outreach, teaching and field geology, along with encouragement to learn analytical tools inside and out of your primary research area of interest. I have loved that my PhD experience has allowed me to bridge across lab groups to learn and utilize skills in paleoecology and organic geochemistry, access amazing analytical facilities regularly, and work with advisors that are thoroughly invested in the success of all my dissertation work."

Howard Chen, Ph.D. Candidate

"My graduate school experience thus far at Northwestern has been extremely pleasant. I have been constantly challenged and provoked to think of new research ideas. Specifically, the EPS department encourages their graduate students to rise beyond their daily comfort zones. For instance, it is required that each of us conduct a secondary research project outside of our primary research topic. This requirement fosters out-of-the-box thinking and helps us navigate and clarify our research directions. As my research topic resides at the intersection between Earth, planetary science, and astrophysics, I highly benefited from the wide array of departments/center such as CIERA and ISEN associated with EPS. For example, the existence of Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration & Research in Astrophysics (CIERA) offers a host of opportunities for collaborative projects between astronomy and geosciences. These various initiatives represent the sort of attitude towards scientific research that EPS and Northwestern as a whole stand for. During my time here thus far, I have worked closely with my mentor, who has provided me with the resources and freedom to craft research projects aligned to my interests in answering the big questions such as "where do we come from?", "where are we going?", and "what else is out there?". The faculty, students, and staff are all very helpful, supportive, and approachable and make me feel like I am an integral part of the community. In summary, I believe that Northwestern and EPS have provided me with the perfect environment that will nurture me into a creative, knowledgeable, and independent researcher."

Joshua Townsend, Ph.D. 2016. Joshua is a postdoctoral researcher at Sandia National Laboratories.


“My experience as a graduate student at Northwestern was singular largely because of the limitless support and encouragement of my advisors Professors Steven Jacobsen and Craig Bina. In addition to working closely with my advisors, I was able to collaborate internationally through an NSF EAPSI fellowship to Japan in 2012. It’s no exaggeration to say that that experience fundamentally changed my research. I am so thankful that at Northwestern I was encouraged from the start to pursue my own scientific curiosity and passion. That experience and others helped me develop as an independent researcher. Now as a postdoc in a national laboratory, I find myself well prepared to engage and collaborate with my colleagues on a variety of interesting scientific endeavors. ”

Laurel Childress, Ph.D. 2016. Following a postdoctoral scholar position at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Laurel is now an Expedition Project Manager/Staff Scientist with the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) at Texas A&M University.

"The Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences helped not only to broaden my research interests and experience, but allowed me to better explore who I wanted to become as a scientist. The broad range of faculty research led me to exciting and truly innovative areas of research that would not have been possible in many programs. Encouragement from the department and my committee to write my own funding proposals was an exceptionally valuable aspect of my graduate career. Not only did this lead to additional funding for research, but it allowed me to study and practice this process during a time where my career was not dependent on it. My committee allowed me a large degree of latitude with defining my own research and networks, including the opportunity to sail multiple oceanographic expeditions during my degree. In addition to the wonderful research resulting from these expeditions, I was able to cultivate my own scientific network, acquire international collaborations, and focus my research and teaching toward a field about which I am passionate."

Maya Gomes, Ph.D. 2014. Maya is an Assistant Professor in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at Johns Hopkins University Krieger School of Arts & Sciences

"I thoroughly enjoyed my graduate experience at Northwestern because of the fabulous community that fosters high quality geoscience research and instruction. The department was small enough that I was on first name basis with all of the faculty and graduate students, but large enough that there was a broad range of research opportunities and knowledge. I was able to work closely with my advisor, who gave me the tools, freedom, and support to both pursue my graduate research and develop as an independent researcher. The entire faculty was very approachable, so I always felt I could ask any faculty member for help or advice. The graduate student community was also very supportive; people were always willing to watch a practice talk, proof read a document, or water the plants when someone was out of town. The staff did an amazing job ensuring that everything ran smoothly in the department. In addition to the state-of the-art labs and computing capabilities in the department, the local resources (Argonne National Labs, Chicago Botanical Garden, The Field Museum) allowed for excellent research opportunities. I am also so happy that I had an opportunity to live in Chicago; it is really a wonderful city! Overall, I am confident that the preparation and instruction that I received at Northwestern has put me in a excellent position to pursue a career in geoscience research."

Simon Lloyd, Ph.D., 2011. Simon is a former postdoctoral fellow at the University of Vienna.

"When at work, I felt as if I was a member of something extending beyond the walls of Locy Hall, which is home to the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. The faculty make a point of exposing their students to the latest trends within their respective fields, and let them feel the "pulse" of the entire scientific community, but also expect the research of their students to be as dynamic as the community itself. To this end, students are given a high degree of academic freedom, while receiving all the support they need to reach their goals. This unique relationship between student and adviser is certainly aided by the intimacy of the department and the small student to faculty ratio, but it would not be possible without the commitment and the trust of all involved. I am grateful to all people who were involved in my life and work in Evanston; I profited enormously from the competent faculty and their willingness to take their time and share their knowledge with me (also those who were not directly involved with my research), the kind and tremendously helpful office staff, and all the great friends I have made both inside and outside of the department."

Lingling Wu, Ph.D., 2008. Lingling is an Assistant Professor of Aqueous geochemistry, isotope geochemistry, and geomicrobiology in the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department at the University of Waterloo. During her graduate career at Northwestern, she has authored or co-authored eight journal articles and has received the Horace Scott Award for outstanding graduate research accomplishment.

"I have greatly enjoyed my time at Northwestern. In my four years here, I have been lucky to work closely with three faculty members and have enormously benefited from their broad knowledge and expertise. Working on multiple research projects simultaneously, a unique feature of the EPS graduate curriculum, is both challenging and fun. By immersing students in distinct but complementary research areas--I have participated in theoretical modeling, field-oriented studies, and laboratory work--this approach both broadens and deepens scientific understanding, thereby facilitating the rapid intellectual growth of EPS students. In particular, I feel the graduate program trains students to be creative, independent, and resourceful, qualities that are vital for any scientist. As an experimentalist, I have consequently learned how to overcome the inevitable problems that arise in laboratory science. When I do need help resolving particularly challenging issues, though, I have always found the faculty easy to approach. There’s no question that Earth and Planetary Sciences is a great department with great faculty who are enthusiastic and gifted teachers."

Jason Flaum, Ph.D., 2008. Jason is an Expert Exploration and Research Geoscientist with ExxonMobil. As a graduate student at Northwestern, he was named the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Assistant in 2006 and won the department's Marion Sloss Award for an outstanding graduate teaching assistant in 2005.

"The outstanding academic qualifications of the faculty and my fellow students have made this department a place that has challenged me intellectually from the day I began my graduate work. However, the intimate nature of the entire department provides all of the necessary resources a motivated student could ever need in order to meet and surpass each and every challenge presented. This dynamic--an atmosphere of high expectations and ample student support--fosters both independent thought as well as a stimulating group dynamic that has allowed me to become a far better scientist than I ever imagined I'd become".

Joniell Borges, Ph.D., 2007. Currently a staff geologist at Chevron, Joniell published several journal articles as a graduate student. He was also named the department's most outstanding teaching assistant in 2004.

"My tenure in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences was motivating, challenging and enlightening.  Because of the department's small size, I had the opportunity to work very closely with several faculty members and benefited a great deal from their expertise.  In addition to learning from the department's extraordinarily talented faculty, I have also been encouraged to explore collaborative research projects with faculty members from other Northwestern departments as well as with researchers from outside the university. This work has given me a tremendous opportunity to broaden my intellectual horizons.  Additionally, I have always appreciated the department's ample resources to fund domestic and international travel for field work and professional meetings, crucial aspects of education in the Earth sciences.  The invaluable guidance from the departmental faculty and the resources provided both by EPS and Northwestern have greatly accelerated my development as a researcher and scientist."

Rob Locklair, Ph.D., 2007. Presently a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University, Rob won a Best Student Paper Award in 2001 at the Society of Organic Petrology Annual Meeting and the Marion Sloss Award for an outstanding graduate teaching assistant.

"The opportunities available to graduate students are tremendous. Research with multiple faculty members through the development of two qualifying propositions is one example.  The advisors not only provide their expertise and guidance, but also promote independence of thought.  Students are highly encouraged to take a proactive role in acquisition of research funds and presentation of research results at national and international meetings.  I feel that, in many ways, the faculty treat the graduate students more like future colleagues than as students and I enjoy the challenge of trying to meet those expectations.  I also like the proximity to Chicago, a great city, and one of the reasons I decided to come to Northwestern. When you're taking a break from your work, Chicago offers many entertainment options such as the Summer festivals at Grant Park, the Cubs, and a number of great museums. And although the Midwest is not (in my opinion) the most geologically interesting part of the globe, I have not had a problem reaching more interesting locations through field research paid for by the department or one of  my advisor's grants". 

Alberto Lopez, Ph.D., 2006. Currently the Mendenhall Postdoctoral Research fellow for the U.S. Geological Survey in Woods Hole, MA. While at Northwestern, Alberto was elected president of the Graduate Student Association and co-founded the Graduate Student Association for Latin and Spanish Activities (G-SALSA), a hispanic student advocacy group.

"The time I spent at Evanston during my graduate student years was the most joyful period of my life so far. This is true because I was not only given the best education possible, but also because of all the great friends I made there and the diverse cultural environment that made me, a native of Puerto Rico, feel very much “at home”. One of the biggest advantages of the department is the nearly even student-to-faculty ratio that guarantees professors will treat students more like their colleagues than as students. This egalitarian approach exposes students to high-level research problems from the time they start their graduate careers and is outstanding preparation for future scientific work. While preparing two research proposals for the qualifying exam is demanding, I feel that meeting such a high standard has helped me realize my potential, something that might not have happened elsewhere. One last thing: After a hard week of work, there is nothing better than taking a short “L” ride to Chicago and exploring all the opportunities for fun and relaxation that the city provides."

Kimberly Schramm, Ph.D., 2006. Kim is a postdoctoral fellow at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. She received the Marion Sloss Award for an outstanding graduate teaching assistant.

"A review of  Seth Stein's recent book, An Introduction to Seismology, Earthquakes and Earth Structure, said that it was for tenacious  students.  The same can be said for the graduate program here. It is a lot of work - but I'm not in grad school because I like things to be easy.  I wanted to be in a program with high expectations for all of its students, and believe that my degree will be worth more than degrees from many other schools because everyone here is held to the same high standard. That was what I figured out in my previous graduate program before I transferred here. I learned what I wanted, and so far Northwestern has been what I hoped for. I really like the academic focus here, and the small department size insures that students get all the faculty attention they can handle.  Despite all the work, there is time for fun, and being located so close to Chicago makes it easy to find the occasional distraction."

Stephen Meyers, Ph.D., 2003. Steve recently completed a Gaylord Donnelly Environmental Fellowship at theYale Institute for Biospheric Studies and is currently an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. As a student, Steve was the first author on a paper that was recognized as the best submission of the year by the editorial board of the Journal of Sedimentary Research.

"My experience as a graduate student in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences proved to be the most challenging and rewarding phase of my academic career so far. The department provides a very open and engaging environment within which to develop as a scientist. I have benefited greatly from close relationships with faculty, from participation in research groups that foster interaction among fellow students and faculty, and from interactions with the departmental community at large. There are ample resources to support graduate student research, including travel funds for meetings and departmental research awards. Most of all, I valued the quality of the scholarship at Northwestern, where the primary focus is on creativity and innovation in research."

Andrew Newman, Ph.D., 2000. Andy is currently an assistant professor at Georgia Tech. As a graduate student, he won the Horace Scott Award for outstanding graduate research accomplishment.

"When I started at Northwestern I was a little disoriented--adjusting to graduate school in a completely new environment can be difficult--and didn't really know what to expect.  However, I was not alone because there were five others starting with me--a large group by Northwestern standards. The department's relatively small size is a real bonus. Because the graduate program has a low faculty-student ratio, students are not treated like numbers (like at some larger programs), but people!  I am not saying graduate school at Northwestern was easy. It was a lot of hard work with numerous late nights and uncountable cups of coffee.  But, because of the department's intimate environment, the graduate students all became great friends (and in some cases spouses!), and we got through it together. I worked on several very exciting and worthwhile projects while at Northwestern (constraining deformation and earthquake hazards in the Central US; real-time identification of tsunami earthquakes; and modeling volcano deformation in Long Valley), which have made me into the scientist that I am today. And for that I am very thankful.  To sum up my experience at Northwestern: Hard work; great friends; accessible faculty; wonderful research possibilities; and all in an exciting, eclectic and incredibly fun city."

Erin Beutel, Ph.D., 2000. An associate professor of Geology and Environmental Geosciences at the College of Charleston, Erin was named the department's most outstanding teaching assistant in 2000.

"I went to Northwestern for the science and found great people doing great science.  The best part of the program, though, was that the students were all studying different types of science, looking at things in different ways, asking different questions, but still TALKING to each other about what we were doing.  Northwestern isn't the type of place where you are locked into your research group and rarely interact with students or faculty working outside of your specialty. Rather, it is the type of place where the people who helped you through qualifiers take classes in geochemistry while you take them in continuum mechanics, where you benefit from a diversity of perspectives and a range of ideas you might not otherwise encounter.  And finally, it is the type of place where, above all else, you are taught to think and to analyze, and then to use the tools of your trade."

John DeLaughter, Ph.D., 1998. Presently staff geophysicist at Murphy Exploration and Production Co. in Houston, John DeLaughter has previously been educational director for Earthscope, science director at the Miami Science Museum, and a geophysicist at Chevron. At Northwestern, he received the Department's Horace Scott Award for outstanding graduate research accomplishment and potential and the Marion Sloss Award for an outstanding graduate teaching assistant.

"My years at Northwestern were among the best of my life. I worked with people who valued my contributions and encouraged me to learn. My research projects investigated two areas--the tectonics of Venus using Magellan data, and the thermal evolution of oceanic lithosphere using satellite observations of the geoid. Northwestern paid the way so that I could present the results at both national and international conferences. One summer, I worked at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center continuing one of my research projects, and I spent a week at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory getting information about the other - neither opportunity would have happened without the help of the faculty, who are well-known as leaders in geophysics and geodesy. In addition, I was encouraged to improve myself as a teacher as well as a student. The experience I gained was invaluable."

Philip Richardson, Ph.D., 1998. Presently Research Geophysicist at Chevron Petroleum Technology Company. He received the Department's Horace Scott Award for outstanding graduate research accomplishment and potential and the Marion Sloss Award for an outstanding graduate teaching assistant.

"Even in my fifth year here in some ways it seemed like I`d just arrived. One aspect I think was special about our department is the opportunity to work very closely with the faculty on a wide range of research projects. If you want to be interdisciplinary, you can have as much of it as you can handle. Also, because we have a low student-faculty ratio you won't need an appointment five weeks in advance to see your advisor. I had two research projects with outstanding scientists who are also really nice guys (and I am not just saying this because they signed my dissertation). One used satellite altimetry to understand how the oceanic lithosphere evolves with time. This was a truly rewarding venture, enabling me to spend my first summer at NU working at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. My other project took me (along with much equipment and excess baggage charges) to Micronesia in the far reaches of the Western Central Pacific. In 1994 I installed a portable broadband seismic network on four remote islands that ring the north edge of the grandest of the Large Igneous Provinces, the Ontong Java Plateau (OJP). The purpose was to constrain the crustal and upper mantle structure of the OJP using surface wave inversion techniques. The field work was exciting and challenging, both scientifically and culturally - I made very good friends in Micronesia. I presented some my results at the Western Pacific Geophysics Meeting in Brisbane, Australia, and at a special session on the OJP at the AGU meeting in San Francisco."

John Weber, Ph.D., 1995. Presently Associate Professor, Grand Valley State University (Michigan). He received the Department's Horace Scott Award for outstanding graduate research accomplishment and potential and a Best Student Paper Award from the Geodesy section of the American Geophysical Union.

"I studied an exciting mix of research topics at NU: the exhumation and structural geology of a metamorphic complex in Trinidad (West Indies), and intracontinental and plate boundary zone neotectonics using GPS (the Global Positioning System). I was trained to write good research grant proposals, several of which were funded while I was a student, and to understand what it takes to really do good science. I learned a lot from these varied research experiences, which blended together nicely, giving me a broad, rigorous `tool box' with which to study (and now teach!) Earth deformation and continental tectonics. I feel fortunate that I was encouraged to learn from experts outside the Department too (e.g., my experiences as an intern at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab were great). This reflects a very high level of `scientific openness,' and faculty who are stretching themselves and their students to get at interesting problems. Growing and maturing as a scientist was inevitable in this environment. I am really impressed by the large number of recent NU geoscience graduates holding jobs in the field, who are doing significant and interesting work. This, I think, may be the most accurate reflection of the quality of the program."

Tom Shoberg, Ph.D., 1994. Presently Associate Professor, Pittsburg State University (Kansas). He received the Department's Horace Scott Award for outstanding graduate research accomplishment and potential.

"I have been involved in more graduate programs than I should care to admit, but Northwestern was unique to the bunch. The opportunities for research were the most diverse and enjoyable I have experienced. The faculty had a rich and diverse expertise in all aspects of geophysics and encouraged my participation in as many projects as I could accomplish. The support facilities to the research were phenomenal, and we learned almost as much about computers as we did about geophysics. Another plus to NU is the explicit understanding that national meetings are the life's blood of scientific excitement and progress (I believe that, at least for graduate students, the great majority of all research is done in the month leading up to the Fall AGU conference). The department never balked at sending me to any conference at which I was presenting a paper. All-in-all, a highly recommendable education."

Mark T. Woods, Ph.D., 1993. Presently Research Seismologist at the Air Force Technical Applications Center in Florida, where he works in the field of seismic detection, discrimination and verification. He received the Department's Horace Scott Award for outstanding graduate research accomplishment and potential.

"NU Earth and Planetary Sciences was one of the most intellectually stimulating environments I have ever been in. Ideas often seemed to crackle in the air, especially about plate kinematics and dynamics. There were always lots of interesting problems to work on, interesting people to talk to, and good support for all of our efforts. We had an excellent local area network of Sparc workstations, very similar to the one on which I work now. We had good access to archived and current seismic data. We had ample travel money - I especially appreciated being able to attend so many meetings of the AGU, the SSA, and the IUGG while a student. I think most important though, was working with faculty who were among the leaders in the field. There can be no substitute for such experience.

Gary Acton, Ph.D., 1991. Presently Staff Scientist at the Ocean Drilling Program at Texas A&M University, where he is involved in a variety of seagoing drilling programs. As a graduate student, he received a Best Student Paper Award from the Tectonophysics section of the American Geophysical Union.

"My first year at Northwestern remains my most productive as a scientist: not only did I learn about the fundamentals of plate tectonics and paleomagnetism, I learned how to ask questions and conduct research in a manner that would advance these fields of science. The graduate program is designed for those who wish to learn through doing research and for those who excel through interaction, which is provided in abundance by professors who are truly intellectual leaders in their fields of expertise."

Donald F. Argus, Ph.D., 1990. Presently Research Geophysicist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where he works in the field of space-based geodesy and tectonic studies. As a graduate student, he coauthored a paper which received a Best Student Paper Award from the Geodesy section of the American Geophysical Union.

"After being disappointed with graduate study at another university, at which I was receiving little attention, I was happy to find Northwestern. Northwestern's low student-professor ratio allowed me to work closely with 2 or 3 professors in my first year: I soon initiated two projects on unsolved geologic problems. The direction given thereafter allowed me to present innovative research at professional meetings in San Francisco and elsewhere. Enough help was given to me to produce compelling studies, but not so much that I could not do most of the work myself. With the help of the professors I was able to publish two articles in scientific journals before graduation. Northwestern gave me an unparalleled opportunity to do research. I treasure my five years in Evanston."

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