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Information for graduate students

Here is some information that may be of use to students at the U of O Geography department. I am putting these comments here in response to questions and problems that have arisen. These are my opinion and are not official policy of the U of O or the Department. Procedures change, and you can obtain the latest details from the Department of Faculty of Arts. In particular, consult the Graduate Handbook for procedural details. Here I am providing some supplementary advice.

Applying to graduate school

Paying for graduate school

Applying for grants

If you are going to graduate school, you are going to need money to live. There are two ways to get this: you can get a scholarship, or you can get funding from your supervisor and/or the department (research / teaching assistantships). Note that presently, the University has generous funding for students with a sufficiently high gpa. You should consult the University webpage for details.

Here we are talking about money to live on. Your advisor provides costs associated with doing the research, either field costs, lab equipment or a computer to do the analysis. There are some limits – for field work, you are typically required to supply your own clothing and personal gear, but transportation, equipment, etc, are covered by your supervisors grant. Incidental costs, such as photocopying, pencils, pens, diskettes, are also your own responsibility.

Scholarships - NSERC, OGS (Ontario residents), FCAR (Quebec residents)

There are three major sources of scholarships: NSERC, OGS, and FCAR. In September of each year, the University has a seminar providing information about these. You should definitively attend these if you intend to go to Graduate School. The application forms and information about these are available from the department office. You should read them, and you can also get tips on these from NSERC web site (www.nserc.ca). In particular, note that there is a minimum grade point average, and if you are below this, your application will simply be discarded. Here I will just give you some tips on applying.

The statement of your interests: Remember the procedure that is followed. The applications go to the Department Graduate Committee. Then they go to the University, then to the granting agency. At any step of the process, these applications may be read by non-geographers. You application should be readable by any intelligent person. Everyone knows what climate and climate change is, but fewer know paleoclimatology, and even fewer know the significance of late-Quaternary palynology (and they probably pronounce Quaternary wrong as well). GIS is meaningless, unless you are a geographer, and a scientist may not know deconstruction from semiotics. These groups want to know that you are motivated, and know where you are going, but don’t need to know that you will be extracting the pollen from your sediments using acetolysis.

Letters of reference: Every year I get requests for letters of reference. This is part of my job, so you needn’t be bothered about asking for these. But please carefully follow the procedures. All three groups have specific forms that need to be supplied. The top part, with your name, information, should be typed before you hand it to the referee. You should also supply a copy of your application. In that way, we know what you intend to do, and can tailor our letters accordingly. The very best and organised students also supply me with some information that helps me to write the letter. It really helps if you give a list of courses that you took (including the dates) and the grade that you got. If you want, you can provide a paragraph indicating your interests in graduate school, what you consider your strong points. In that way, the referee can take these phrases and include them in the letter!

The deadlines for these are absolute. Don’t wait to the last minute. Remember, you are making 20-40,000$ from these, so they are well worth your effort. When I apply for an NSERC grant, I start working on the application, due the 15th of October, in May.


If you are working in the north, then you must apply for an NSTP grant to help pay for your fieldwork. These are less formal applications than the previous ones. There is a University committee in charge of this process, and they will announce the procedure and supply infomration about the necessary forms. These are entered on-line, they must be well written and they must be organised. There are strict deadlines, and this is also decided very early in the academic year. The procedure is quite clunky, so do not wait for the last minute to do your application; it may need to be modified several times. .

Other sources of money

Use your imagination. There are many sources of fellowships and scholarships.

Getting the grant

You will be informed if you are successful, and this will include rules governing how you spend it, etc. The amounts of these grants is not large, and you will be living in poverty. So make the experience as short as possible, and finish the thesis!

When you begin Graduate studies

A masters should take around 2 years to complete. For a PhD, 4-5 years. In the first year, in both cases, you need to take some courses and prepare the thesis proposal. The number of courses you need to take is listed in the department handbook. this changes periodically, so make sure you get an up-to-date version. Unfortunately, the course choice is quite limited, so you may need to spend a semester studying in great detail something of little interest or relevance to you. Well, just do it. Remember that course grades can determine if you get grants, so you should get good grades in these.

The second major activity of the first year is to determine what you want to do and write a thesis proposal. See the next section.

During this year, you will need to do a lot of reading. You should be averaging a few hours per day in the library, reading not only in your specific field of interest, but also in the general field of geography and applied fields. Many scientists become successful by porting ideas from one field of study to another. You should make a serious attempt to be organised. Organisation is the key to being able to accomplish a synthesis of the literature of a field and is another trait of successful scientists. And you should keep an open and critical mind. If everyone in the field says one thing, then either it is obvious or it is wrong. So another way to make a name for yourself is to go against the "party line". Of course, you need the data and logical thought to back up your ideas.

The thesis

The thesis is the major activity of a graduate program. Although you need to take a few courses, these are a burden to get out of the way before beginning your real goal in graduate school, the thesis.

Choosing a topic

Consult your advisor. Especially for a masters thesis, you would not be expected to know the field well enough to decide a topic. Normally your advisor will suggest several potential topics, and you will together arrive at a subject that is interesting, significant, and feasible. There are several criteria that make a good thesis. First, you have to be interested, if not passionate, about the subject. If you do not accept the thesis as your work, it will at best be a routine thesis. Next, it should be a significant subject. Remember most people do the best work of their career in their thesis. You should choose a subject that is important. You should choose an approach where your own abilities can make a contribution.

Choosing a committee

The department has certain rules about this. This is an advisory committee that is there to help you finish, so consult them when you need help.

The thesis proposal

In the thesis proposal you need to convince the committee that you have a feasible project, that you have thought about it enough to complete it, and that it is an interesting subject worthy of spending 2-4 years. Generally, it should consist of: Introduction, Literature review, Methods, Anticipated results, Schedule, Reference list. In the introduction, you should set the context, define the problem, perhaps state the hypothesis. The literature review should be as comprehensive as possible. Sometimes, PhD literature reviews are good enough to be published, in, for example Progress in Physical Geography. The methods should be detailed and documented. You need to convince the committee that you know enough about the subject to actually do it. It would be good if you have already done some preliminary work. In biogeographic studies for example, you should already have some knowledge of the taxonomy of the organisms you are dealing with. In GIS or data analysis studies you should have some awareness of the software you will be working with. The anticipated results and schedule should be reasonable.

The thesis proposal defense

Although it will not seem so at the time of your proposal defense, this is an informal affair, designed to help you and ensure your thesis is feasible. You will need to make a short presentation. Then there will be a discussion between you, your advisor, and your committee. The purpose of this step is to ensure that you are in command of the subject and that the project is reasonable.

Doing the thesis

This varies, depending on the nature and type of project. Important considerations are (a) to be organised, and (b) to be persistent and work continuously on the research. Successful students are those that use their time wisely, and work on the thesis every day.

Writing the thesis

If your proposal was comprehensive, then a large part of the literature review should have been done. You would normally have parts of the methods written already. The problem statement, hypothesis, and general overview should also be there. So part of the thesis is already done before you start writing.

The format of the thesis must be decided. Basically, there are 2 formats. There is the "traditional" format. This is essentially a large document with great detail. The second is "article" format. See the graduate handbook for a discussion of these 2 formats.

Submission and thesis defense

This is a more formal affair than your proposal defense. In European universities, this is an extremely formal event, performed in a large auditorium and where the public is invited. Sometimes it is black tie and gown, so be thankful you are in North America!

At the U of O, this is a relatively formal event that marks the culmination of several to many years of work. It is taken seriously by the University. For the Masters, there is a public defense, and a committee is taken from the Department, usually the advisor and 2-3 other members. On occasion, one member can be from outside the Department. For Ph.D., the president is taken from another department, there is an external evaluator in addition to the committee members and a public defense.

Recently, I presided at a defense. In attendance were the committee and two visitors, who I didn’t recognize. Not one graduate student or other faculty member was in attendance. Compare this to my Ph.D. defense, where there were 50-60 people, (it was a large department), including people in subjects far removed from mine. This lack of interest is an embarrassment, especially given the high quality and considerable amount of work reported in the thesis. This, of course, is true of all defenses. I would expect that students would be attending the thesis defense of all your colleagues. If nothing else, you can observe the procedure, and see what happens in this closed room. And this gives you a final chance to see what this person has been doing. And who knows, you may learn something.

The procedure for a defense differs a bit between an M.A. and Ph.D. thesis.

Note that you must register for thesis defense for the semester in which you intend to finish. Sometimes, you may be overly optimistic, and not finish, this is not too serious; just register again the next semester. This means that you need to plan in advance.


The procedure for a defense is as follows. You write the thesis, and after several drafts for corrections, modification, and so on, the advisor approves it for deposition. Note that, if you want, you can show it to the committee members, you can give them drafts, give them the entire thesis, and modify it in reaction to these comments. This is, in fact, encouraged, if the members agree to this. But, there comes a time when it is as finished as it ever will be, so you submit it.

You give 4-5 copies to the department – one for the Department, one for your advisor, and one for every member of the committee. These are clean, complete copies, with nice drawings or maps, complete table of contents and so on. This starts the procedure of the defense. Note that even if you have given one or multiple copies of the thesis to the members of the committee, these formal copies of the thesis must be submitted. Then, the thesis is distributed to the committee members. Normally, they are given a month or so to read it and make comments. The committee members then turn in a thesis evaluation form to the Department. If the members of the committee have already read it, then the procedure may take less time. But a formal evaluation must be turned in. Based on the results of the evaluation, the procedure continues. The thesis can be accepted for defense, or sent back for more work, or rejected. The latter only rarely occurs, and should not if you are keeping in touch with the members of your committee. The comments are sent to the student, and a defense is scheduled.

A date and time is established and a room found for the defense. Note that this procedure is more difficult than it seems, especially in summer, so sufficient time should be left to find a period when everyone is available. But, if you are having difficulty, then you certainly have the right to insist that the procedure be pushed along. There is no reason for a long time lag between submission and defense, except when everyone is in the field. If there is a problem, see the chair of the Graduate committee.

The defense goes as follows: At the appointed time, the meeting is called to order by the president, a professor who is not a member of the committee. The candidate and visitors are asked to leave the room, while administrative matters are discussed (order of questions, etc). Then the candidate gives a short presentation - 10-15 minutes.

The presentation: The presentation seems to give students a lot of difficulty. We understand that you are nervous, but that is not the problem. They are almost always too long; and too frequently the students appear to be unorganized. This really shouldn’t happen.

In the first place, you should be well prepared for this. You should go through it several times before, so you are sure it is not too long. You should prepare the appropriate number of slides for your powerpoint presentation. For 10-15 minute talk, 5-6 should be sufficient. Certainly you would not want to present more than 8-10 slides, unless they are just tourist-type slides of your study area. Start by presenting a general overview explaining the subject. Your audience must be told, in 2 minutes, the field of geography of the thesis (that is, the general subject matter), what is known, and what is needed; i.e. why did you do this thesis. Then, explain the study area, if appropriate and very briefly the general methods. This must be very generalized – for example, you may have cored a lake, but you needn’t in the presentation tell how you did it. You may have processed your samples in the lab, but details, unless they are fundamental to understanding the results need not be explained. Then present the results. Just the most important results should be succinctly presented, with clean figures. For a study in which you have worked for 2 years, you should be easily capable of presenting the major results in 5 minutes, at most. If you can’t, this suggests to me that you don’t really understand what you did.

Don’t bother presenting long tables: people cannot absorb that during a presentation. Don’t bother with details, with rambling discussion of all the data that you have analyzed. The audience cannot absorb this and will get lost in the details. The members of the committee have the thesis in front of them, after all. You need to present a sentence or two outlining the major findings.

Then present a slide with the major conclusions. You really need to discipline yourself to only cover major points. Remember that the listeners know little or nothing about your subject. The idea is to explain what you are contributing to the general field perhaps with a note about unexplained questions and future work that is needed.

A few suggestions: Bring your powerpoint on a flash drive and set up the presentation in advance of the defense. You may want notes, but you should be able to make your presentation by memory or by refering to your powerpoint. But you need to find your own style. The tendency is for students to go too long with these presentations, so keep this in mind when preparing your presentation.

After your presentation, the committee members ask questions about the work. They can be general or specific, address technical points or be open-ended. A second round is frequently held. Sometimes there will questions from the audience. Then the advisor can make some comments. The candidate and visitors are asked to leave the room, and the verdict is decided. After you are asked to return, the verdict is announced. The thesis can be accepted as is, or some small changes can be requested. Depending on how the defense went, you may be asked to make the changes in consultation with your supervisor, or with the committee.

Next you need to make a final copy of the thesis and submit it. There is a time limit for this. There are papers to fill out. The thesis must be prepared according to certain criteria, and these are explained in a sheet from the graduate school.

That is the procedure. However, by attending the defense of some of the other students, it may give you a sense of what happens, and help you to prepare for your defense.

Ph.D thesis

The general procedures as discussed above for the M.A. are followed for the Ph.D. In particular, the presentation is the same, and you should see the notes above.

You have a committee, as for the M.A., although it is a bit larger. The committee has to be approved by the Graduate Committee, and this was done early in your graduate career. You have done the research and written the thesis. Again, this is done in collaboration with your advisor, and you should keep your committee advised of progress. You can schedule formal meetings, if you wish, or simply stop in periodically and talk with them. Normally, writing the thesis takes several drafts.

While you are finishing the thesis, you need to start planning your defense. A month or so before you submit the thesis, you should submit the names of two potential external examiners to the graduate committee. You need to provide the name, address and contact information (phones and emails), as well as a cv of the two persons. This needs to be done in consultation with your advisor.

Presentation of your results

If you discovered evolution by natural selection, but kept it to yourself, it would not do much good. So presentation of your results to the scientific community is an essential part of the scientific enterprise. There are 2 ways to do this. The primary is of course, publishing your work in a learned journal. You should be familiar enough with your field to know an appropriate venue. There is an elaborate procedure for doing this, and your advisor should take you through this. Doing things properly can save you a lot of trouble. Editors can spot a student submitting a paper for the first time, so try to avoid this. In particular getting figures in proper format and size is a major headache, so if you plan figures correctly from the beginning you can save a lot of time.

If your thesis was written in article format, then this should be an easy job. If in thesis format, then you will need to rework the thesis into the format of the journal you have chosen. Submitting papers is in transition, as journals are moving to entirely electronic submission and publication. Information is on the website of the journal.

Conference Presentations

It is important to present your work in conferences, either in the form of oral presentations or posters. Oral presentations can be intimidating, especially the first few times. It is important that the talk be organised and respect the time limit. These presentations are typically 15-20 minutes. Believe it or not, it is possible to present your results in this time limit. However, you must be organised and well-prepared. You are obliged to use Powerpoint. You should present a brief overview of the reason for the study, your hypothesis, the methods (briefly), and major results. Frequently, the work is in progress, so you cannot present final results. However, you can present one section of part of your project if it is appropriate. If you are presenting preliminary results, a poster presentation may be more appropriate. Here you can present preliminary results and try to get some feedback on your ideas. There are many examples of posters hanging in the halls, if you want ideas.


A big subject. There is a lot of discussion of this, in places such as Nature and Science, for example. You will have occasion to discuss this frequently with your advisor.



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