Planning Coursework

Original Content created by Heather R. Houlton (heather dot houlton at gmail dot com)

The following information is for students trying to figure out coursework who have just chosen a major or who are pretty sure they know what to major in but haven't yet declared. Once you have that goal in mind, it's important to get the basic courses done first. Your department will have a list of classes that are required for your chosen degree program. In many cases, you can find this list on your department's website. The website will also list additional coursework needed in other science topics to supplement your education. 

For example, if you want to major in physics, you'll need to take basic physics courses plus whatever other science you choose (like chemistry or biology). Now say you want to major in geophysics.  Your additional science will be with the geology department!

These extra science courses count toward your degree program. They are not necessarily "electives." Elective courses are well outside of your chosen degree program. Elective classes give you exposure to other topics, such as language, history, humanities, music, etc. Don't be fooled! These courses are just as important as your science classes! Choosing your electives carefully can give you a robust skill set that tailors to your interests. Electives can also supplement your major's coursework to give you a competitive edge. 

Do you also love to write? You could take a technical writing or communication course(s) in addition to your science classes. The knowledge and skills that you develop in a technical writing or science communication course will give you a competitive advantage upon graduation.

Specific Advice for Majoring in the Geosciences

The geosciences are very broad. This is exciting because you can tailor your coursework plan to whichever geoscience discipline you choose. You could pursue Geology, Meteorology, Geography, Environmental Science, or even Planetary Science.

Let's provide an outline of what coursework would be helpful if you choose Geophysics as a major. Please note that students may not have to take ALL of these courses. We're listing out some of the common options for a Geophysics degree program. 

Major Courses:

  • Entry-level geology courses and labs, to include Physical, Historical, and Structural Geology
  • Entry-level and Advanced physics courses and labs, to potentially include quantum and optics
  • Surface Processes Courses: Hydrogeology and/or Oceanography
  • Quantitative Courses: Geophysics, Geodynamics, and/or Geomorphology
  • Introduction to Field Geology (if applicable)

Required Non-Geo Courses:

  • Calculus I (Limits and Differential Calculus), Calculus II (Integral Calculus), and Calculus III (Multivariable Calculus)
  • Linear Algebra and/or Differential Equations
  • Calculus-Based Physics courses (usually 2 semesters plus a laboratory), like Classical Mechanics and/or Principles of Electricity and Magnetism
  • Computing or Computer Science courses
  • Chemistry (usually 2 semesters plus a laboratory)

Helpful Electives:

  • Technical Writing
  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
  • Public Speaking or another communications course

Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Programs:

There is a large number of REU programs across the country. REUs are funded by the National Science Foundation. An REU "site" has about ten to fifteen undergraduate students studying in a similar field. Students will work in one or more research group(s) of a university. Each student will be assigned a specific research project, where he/she will work closely with the faculty and other researchers. These are paid research experiences where students are granted stipends and will often also get financial assistance with housing and travel. Below are some REU programs specifically in the geosciences!

And many more!