This document is meant to provide some general guidelines for a typical graduate career in the GPS Division. The focus is on the key stages between matriculation and the thesis defense and graduation. However, there can be situations that cause an individual's timeline to differ, which is always possible if communicated and agreed upon ahead of time with your option representative, academic adviser, and/or thesis adviser(s). Please note that there are some slight differences between the GPS and ESE timeline. The latter will be updated on the ESE website during summer 2022.
GPS Grad Student Timeline
Graduate student orientation. Students are assigned a first-year buddy (senior graduate student) prior to arriving on campus to provide informal mentorship. During orientation, this graduate timeline (posted on the GPS website) is shared with the first-year students and discussed at the meetings with the option representatives. During this meeting, responsibilities of the Division, option representatives, faculty advisers, and the students should be discussed. During the first year, the option representative for each option serves as the Academic Adviser for students in that option. The Core Committee, the committee that administers and oversees the qualifying exams, should be formed in the fall term, and introduce themselves to the first-year graduate students.
During the fall term, students should identify at least one of their two proposition advisers. It is the responsibility of the student to work with their option representative and to contact faculty members in order to initiate conversations about proposition projects.
Students should continue to work towards establishing two proposition projects. It is the responsibility of the option representative to contact each first-year student at the start of winter term to check on progress and provide advice on confirming advisers as needed. The Core Committee will meet with the first-year students during winter term to discuss the qualifying exam and preparations. At this time students should be made aware of resources available through Caltech Accessibility Services for Students (CASS). It is the responsibility of the student to make the Core Committee aware of any accommodations that may be necessary during the qualifying exam.
First year students must submit tentative proposition titles and the names of proposition advisers to Julie Lee by the end of winter term. Faculty proposition advisers must confirm/approve the project titles. The Core Committee will approve that the two projects are sufficiently different and provide notice to the graduate student by the start of the spring term. The Core Committee may request additional clarification from students about research directions and analysis techniques in order to approve topics.
Students should now be advancing both propositions and must complete two short reports by the end of the spring term. A template will be provided, but the report should be no more than one page with 2-3 bullet points under the headings Project Motivation, Activities to Date, and Future Plans (to be completed by the student) and Recommendations (to be completed by the adviser). The report must be signed by both the student and project adviser, submitted to Julie Lee and will be approved by the Core Committee.
By the end of July, students and proposition advisers must meet and review progress based on the spring reports. Julie Lee will mail the spring reports to both student and adviser. The student and adviser should update plans for the remainder of the summer and assess whether progress has been adequate. Advisers should highlight aspects of the student's work that have been successful and areas where the student needs to improve; advisers should make concrete recommendations to address these issues.
At the end of summer term (during the month of September), qualifying exams will be held. See discussion below on the qualifying exam.
Upon successful completion of the qualifying exam, students should formalize their research adviser(s) by the end of fall term. Students are required to meet jointly with both proposition advisors and identify a short-term (6-12 month) research plan that may include completion of proposition projects or new work. This meeting is also a time to start identifying potential members of the Thesis Advisory Committee (TAC). It is the responsibility of the student to organize this meeting; this meeting need not last long if the thesis adviser and short-term research plan is clear.
Students that do not pass the qualifying exam may petition the Core Committee to retake the exam. These petitions are typically granted, but first-year spring reports may be considered by the Core Committee in this decision. Qualifying exam re-takes should be completed no later than the end of winter term, unless there are extenuating circumstances.
In GPS, an academic adviser needs to be assigned by the start of the second year. It is the responsibility of the student to identify an academic adviser and then communicate this to Julie Lee. The appointed adviser will continue as a mentor with broad responsibility for a student's academic welfare throughout the graduate program.
We recommend that all graduate students organize their first Thesis Advisory Committee (TAC) meeting before the end of the second year, even if the TAC is not fully formed (additional members may be added at a later time). The student is responsible for initiating a conversation with their research adviser(s) on suitable TAC members before the spring term. The student must complete any annual reports required by the option. Reports should be signed by the student, research adviser, and academic adviser. The report should be a two-page summary of their research progress during their second year (~1.5 pages) as well as plans for the start of the third year (~0.5 pages). Reports should be submitted to the student's TAC and Julie Lee. It is the student's responsibility to organize the TAC meeting and confirm to Julie Lee that it was held.
At this point, most students will be focusing primarily on thesis research. Research progress can vary greatly during this period of your thesis work. This is an important time to keep open communication with your thesis adviser and other mentors regarding expectations about research results, experiments, publications, etc. It is primarily the student's responsibility to initiate conversations outside of TAC and candidacy meetings, but academic advisers should be viewed as resources to help initiate these conversations.
We recommend that all graduate students advance to candidacy prior to the end of spring term of the third year. Details of what is required to advance to candidacy are listed below (note that there are differences in GPS and ESE candidacy requirements).
Students that have advanced to candidacy should continue to hold TAC meetings and submit a TAC report each year until the completion of their thesis. We appreciate that certain circumstances may lead students and thesis advisers to hold candidacy during the fall term of the fourth year. However, any student who has not advanced to candidacy by the end of the fall term of their fourth year must petition the Academic Committee to complete this during the winter or spring term. The student must submit a short written report to the Academic Committee that provides the reason for the delay in candidacy and proposes a plan to reach candidacy before the end of the spring term. Students who have not advanced to candidacy after their fourth year will have their registration put on hold and will need to petition the Academic Committee to continue in the degree program
Most students defend their thesis in their fifth of sixth year of graduate school. Starting from the beginning of the fifth year, it is important to hold regular discussions with your thesis adviser(s) and TAC about the timeline to graduation. It is the joint responsibility of the student and adviser to find a suitable time and date for graduation so that all members of the students' thesis committee can attend. Once a date has been decided, this should be communicated to Julie Lee who will help organize a seminar room and will advertise the defense to the Division.
The examination's purpose is to provide a structured and, as far as possible, objective basis for determining whether students can successfully complete the requirements of a PhD in a reasonable period of time. The examination is designed to be a challenging but fair opportunity for students to display both general knowledge in their field (based on first-year coursework and reading of relevant scientific literature) and their ability to motivate and develop research projects (based on the first-year propositions). The qualifying exam also provides an opportunity to identify areas where research skills and adviser-student mentoring can be strengthened.
The qualifying examination consists of an oral presentation of two research propositions, supplemented by a written description of one of them. Students will also be expected to relate these projects to more general aspects of their field, especially those that would have been covered in the students' first-year course work. Students are encouraged to consult with various faculty members concerning their ideas on propositions, but the proposition slides and written report must represent the work of the student. There must be a different faculty member associated with each of the two propositions. All propositions must have a Caltech faculty member as an adviser, although external scientists, e.g. JPL colleagues, may contribute or even lead the mentoring, if appropriate. In these cases, it is the responsibility of the student to discuss the mentoring plan with the option representative for these propositions.
A student's propositions are based on research projects carried out during the first year of residence. It is important that the student demonstrates the ability to carry out meaningful research on a given topic, to place the work in the context of previous knowledge, and to recognize the implications and possible interpretations of the proposition.
It is not necessary to have final results, a working computer program, a functioning piece of equipment, or fully analyzed data in order to have a successful proposition. More often, the proposition will be a carefully-worded statement based on what has been learned up to the time of the examination, together with a discussion of the implications that might be forthcoming with either more data or more sophisticated analysis. Naturally the proposition may be supported by evidence: maps, graphs, photographs, samples, etc., but these need not be in final form or represent the last word on the subject and should be limited in number.
The student must choose propositions dealing with subjects pertinent to more than one research area within the division. The student should demonstrate versatility by choosing proposition topics that will provide experience in different types of tools or methods. The propositions defined by the student should not deal with the same topic as investigated by different techniques, nor should they represent different research problems studied with the tools of a single discipline. In the course of developing successful propositions, it is essential that each student seek the advice of faculty. Consultation with postdoctoral scholars and senior graduate students is also encouraged. The name of the faculty member most closely involved should appear on the written abstract of each proposition. The same faculty member should not be the most closely involved with both propositions.
The timeline to the quals is as follows:
- Winter term: Students meet with Core Committee; students communicate any requests for accommodations (potentially in consultation with Caltech Accessibility Services for Students); two proposition titles and adviser names are submitted to Core Committee for approval.
- Spring term: Students submit two short reports to Julie Lee based on a provided template; the Core Committee reviews these reports.
- Summer term: Students and advisers should review spring reports and update plans as needed; qualification exam times and examination committee members are scheduled in early summer and communicated to the students. We aim to have most exams completed before the start of fall term.
The student's written abstract and the 12-minute presentation summarizing the proposition should be carefully designed by the student to concisely convey to the examining committee the motivation behind the research project, the results of the investigation thus far, and any implications for broader issues in geobiology, geochemistry, geology, geophysics, or planetary science. The organization of the presentation is up to the student, but the student should understand that the presentation is the principal vehicle by which most of the examining committee will be introduced to the proposition, and by which the initial questions are motivated.
The purpose of the Thesis Advisory Committee (TAC) is to establish a small group of faculty members and senior scientists that can provide mentorship to students on research, career paths, scientific communication, and other aspects of a successful scientific career. Students are required to meet with their TAC annually, but TAC members should be willing to provide advice and support to their advisees throughout their time in GPS. The purpose of the TAC meetings is to both assess student progress and to provide guidance on future research directions.
During the second year, students should consult with their academic adviser and thesis adviser (or a faculty proposition adviser if a thesis adviser is not yet determined) to select a TAC. The TAC should be composed of at least four members, three of which must be division faculty, including the academic adviser, who will chair the committee. Students are encouraged to invite specialists from outside the division or external to Caltech. This is an opportunity to include expertise and representation that may be lacking in the Division, but would be beneficial to the student, as well as to develop a broader network of mentors. TAC membership should be approved by the student's academic adviser. TAC members may provide research feedback, contribute to building a student's scientific networking, or offer career advice; TAC members should be kept informed about research progress. Membership may be changed if a student's research interests change or there is a need to bring in additional expertise.
During your TAC meeting you should address the following questions:
- What first-author papers, if any, have you published since arriving at Caltech? What projects are you currently working on, and what is the estimated timeline to publication?
- What is the overall focus/topic of your planned thesis work? If you don't have one yet, what are some of the ideas you're considering for potential thesis topics or directions?
- What upcoming projects are you planning to include in your thesis? Particularly for younger grad students, this can also simply be a menu of potential project ideas or possible future directions.
Most students typically prepare a small set of slides covering the topics listed above; however, you should limit the time you spend presenting these slides to at most 20-30 minutes. The primary purpose of the TAC is to discuss your thesis plans with the committee, so it's important to leave a generous amount of time for this discussion. If you fill the full hour with your presentation, you'll miss out on useful feedback and advice. These slides can also be very informal— i.e., this doesn't need to be a polished talk, just a set of images and points to facilitate discussion.
When the student and thesis adviser have determined a realistic date for completion of the thesis dissertation, the TAC evolves into the thesis examining committee. Some advisory committee members may leave the committee, and division policy may require that others be added.
Candidacy is a formal recognition of a student's completion of their qualification examination and course requirements as well as the identification of thesis research topic and one or more thesis advisers.
By the end of the third year, students should have their Application for Candidacy form completed, approved by their thesis adviser, academic adviser, and option representative, and sent to Julie Lee. A copy of the Core Committee's qualifying-exam letter should be attached to the application, along with a one-page description of the student's thesis proposal/research. The Candidacy package must be submitted by the end of April to provide sufficient time for the option faculty to review the application package before it is discussed at the May faculty meeting. Candidacy packages submitted after this time will be considered at the first Fall faculty meeting.