Supporting Successful Graduate Thesis and Dissertation Projects

by Delores M. Robinson, Geological Sciences

How do we best help our graduate students graduate on time?

This is a question the Department of Geological Sciences asked ourselves in 2013. We had quality graduate students, but the time needed for them to reach graduation seemed excessive. The Graduate Program Committee identified the problems and began to change the graduate program to address the problems.

Another post is required to outline the problems; however, one specific problem was that the MS and PhD students were not meeting the deadline to defend their research proposals. Because that deadline is at the beginning of their tenure — 2nd semester for MS students and 3rd semester for PhD students — the timing of their entire experience at UA was delayed. To write a research proposal, a graduate student, in conjunction with their research advisor, must formulate a hypothesis, identify objectives, construct methods and understand the research significance.

New Course: Communicating Geology

After consulting the graduate students, we learned they needed more help in the construction of the thesis and dissertation proposals. The faculty voted to implement a required first-semester class for all incoming graduate students. The goal of the class was to help students conceive of and construct their proposals, though there were other objectives to be met in the class. As the Graduate Program Director at that time, I volunteered to teach the class and called it “Communicating Geology.”

Course Objectives

  1. The professor will work with the students to understand the construction and develop all parts of a proposal.
  2. The professor will help the students develop oral speaking skills.
  3. The professor will provide best practices for geologic writing, speaking and presenting.

Student Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize effective structure and style in technical writing, including proposals, abstracts, journal articles, papers, reports, peer review
  2. Recognize and effectively communicate characteristics of good science, including hypothesis testing, scientific proposals, published scientific research
  3. Demonstrate proficiency in informative, persuasive, and concise communication in forms, including professional elevator pitch, email, cover letter and resume/C.V., scientific paper, technical oral and poster presentations, peer-review
  4. Conduct themselves with integrity and honesty, including avoiding plagiarism, citing references appropriately, relationships within science

The course is a 3-hour course taught every fall at the master’s level (GEO 502) and PhD level (GEO 602). The main deliverable and final project is the master’s thesis or dissertation proposal, but students also produce a resume/CV and cover letters, give four oral and one poster presentations, learn how to peer review, and produce multiple drafts of their writing.


After five years of having the class in geological sciences, I wanted to know if graduate students were meeting the research proposal deadline more frequently. I gathered data for five years prior to 2014 and for five years from 2014–2018.

Dr. Grey Nearing analyzed the data and determined that on-time proposal defense rates went up by more than 40%, from 35% to 59% (p < 2e-3) between the pre-2014 (n=66) and post-2014 (n=80) graduate students.

This translates to an additional 19.5 students defending on time in the post-2014 students, which is ~ 4 more students per year defending on time.

Written feedback from the graduate students at the end of each semester influences how I construct the next class. Graduate students come in with different skills; thus, one graduate student will find one aspect to be helpful, where the same exercise is not so helpful for another graduate student.

I understand that I need to flexible to meet the needs of the incoming class whose composition varies every year. The class is demanding because I need to provide prompt feedback and learn enough of each subject to be helpful, and it is fulfilling to teach because I am launching the graduate students toward a more productive career.

In summary, the implementation of a graduate-level class has more graduate students meeting the research proposal deadline, prepares students to behave professionally, and sets students up to be more productive while at UA.

Dr. Delores Robinson is a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences.