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Information for undergraduate students

By: K. Gajewski
Here are some note in response to questions that have arisen. Note that these are my opinions and not official department policy.

Physical geography in the U of O Geography Department

The traditional subject matter of Physical Geography consists of three major subdisciplines: Biogeography, Climatology, Geomorphology and three secondary subjects: Pedology, Hydrology/Cryology and Quaternary Studies. In addition, all physical geographers are expected to be conversant in Quantitative methods and computer applications. Here I will discuss those subjects in bold, in which I teach. You can find information about hydrology and geomorphology on other professors' web pages.


Climatology is the study of the thermodynamics and dynamics of the earth's climate system. This includes primarily the atmosphere, but also includes other components such as the oceans, the land surface and glaciers, which interact strongly with the atmosphere. This is a central field of geography, since air currents transport energy and materials from one region to another, and thus connect the entire globe. This subject is of critical importance to society today, as global climate change will have serious impacts on society in the future. The climatic environment needs to be taken into account in planning, as recent event have so clearly shown. Here at the U of O, we have two courses in climatology.

In the second year is GEG2304: Climatology

This is an introduction to the earth's climate, with an emphasis on the global climate and climate dynamics.

In the fourth year is GEG4129: Climate Change.

A course on the causes and impacts of climate change. A large part of the course is devoted to paleoclimatology; the study of past climate changes. Finally, the course begins with a study of the climate system, including ocean and ice dynamics. This part is a continuation of GEG2304. Also, since we do a lot of data analysis, should be comfortable using the computer.


Biogeography is the study of the biodiversity of the earth. This has also emerged as a significant societal issue, as the loss of biodiversity has been identified as a major global environmental issue. We have two courses in the general field of biogeography. There is no course in the second year.

Pedology is the study of soils and soil landscapes, and is closely associated with biogeography. Although we dont have a course in pedology in the department, the material is briefly covered in several courses, including GEG3114 and especially GEG4105, where some of the course concerns soil landscapes.

At the third year is GEG3114: Biogeography

This is a classical course in biogeography, covering the causes of biodiversity and distribution of organisms, the biomes of the world and biogeographic processes.

Quaternary Paleogeography - GEG3306

The Quaternary is a period of geological time: the last 2 million years. The study of the Quaternary is an interdisciplinary subject, and is concerned with environmental change at long timescales (decades to millions of years).

In Quaternary Paleogeography, GEG3306, we study the causes of climate change, on time scales from millions of years to centuries. We investigate the methods used to analyze environmental change on long timescales. We look at how these climate changes impacted the earth's surface, including the migration of the vegetation, the land surface and the state of the oceans. Note that this course is taught by several people, and is also taught in the Geology department. When the course is taught by others it may be more specialized.


Quantitative methods and computer applications (including GIS).

In all of the above courses, there are lab sections. This adds a fair bit of work to these courses. However, it in these sections that you get practice in using the computer to solve geographic problems. Using GIS and other computer applications takes practice, there is no way around this. These labs give you the hands-on experience that will prove invaluable in getting a job in geography, and being able to do the work required.

Applying to Graduate School

Graduate school is a different activity from doing a BA or BSc. You take only a few courses, and spend most of your time on your thesis. There is usually a grade point minimum to get in.

You tend to work with one person (your advisor) closely for several years, and interact mostly with a few other graduate students of your group. So obviously, you need to get along with your advisor. You need to be interested in the general field of study in which s/he has expertise. You need to be more self directed as you will have charge of your project. You need to be organized, patient and willing to take chances, to spend time going down dead-ends and then start again.

In grad school, you spend 2-4 years studying in great detail some subject. It needs to be a subject that can hold you interest. At the end, you may know more about this subject than anyone else in the world, that is the idea, in any event. The subject can be specialized or more general. Sometimes your advisor will suggest to you the subject, or may ask you to develop a project from a general set of ideas.

If you feel you are interested in doing a Masters, then you need to start the application process in September of your last year. If you have the grades, you should at this time apply for scholarships, which will make your life much easier. One key difference between grad school and undergrad, is that you can be making money while you study. Actually, it will not be much, especially given the tuition. But it should be enough so you wont need to go into debt. Someday, you will look back with fondness on your poverty-stricken graduate school days. You can get the money to live on through scholarships, if you have the grades. Otherwise, you can get a combination of teaching and research assistantships. You know about the former, these are the people who taught your labs and corrected your papers. Research assistantships are obtained from your advisor. These can be to work on some project for which the advisor has obtained money, or if you are lucky, to work on your thesis.

Step 1 is to decide what you want to do. What subject interests you? At this point, you are most certainly not expected to know exactly what subject you want to study. You should know the general field. For example, you might like to study climatology. You might find northern ecosystems interesting. Maybe you want to study climate change, or northern ecosystems.

Step 2 is to find someone who is working in this field. There may be someone in the department. You can search the web, or go through the journals in the library to see who is working in the subject. You can ask the professor of the course you took where you first got interested in the subject to suggest some experts in the field.

Step 3 is to write these people. You can get their email from their web site, and email them. Ask if they are taking on students, and what are potential thesis projects. If they answer in the affirmative, you may have an exchange of emails as you feel out if there is enough common interest for you to work with them. Now, the best thing is to visit the person. You should check out the lab, talk to the grad students (see if the professor is available for students, easy to get along with, more or less normal, etc), see the facilities, talk to the professor. This is not always possible, especially for a Masters, but is more or less obligatory for a PhD. You should probably feel out several people at this step.

Step 4: Once you have decided on 1-3 places, where someone has expressed possible interest, you need to apply. If you have done the above homework, this is routine. You need only request the forms from the appropriate department, fill them in, send your transcripts, arrange for letters of reference to be sent, and pay your application fees. Then you wait to see if you are accepted. Usually the acceptance letter will tell you how much money the department will commit to you as well.

Step 5: Decide on which place you wish to go. After acceptance, well, your advisor will now tell you what is needed.

Obtaining skills needed to get a job in Geography

Well, a university education is supposed to prepare you for the job market. But the market is fickle, and no matter what you learn, someone from the government or private sector will think you are incapable of doing anything. Many jobs want experience, but then how can you get this? There is no answer to this, but there are a few things you can do. Firstly, many courses have labs where you learn the practical aspects of geography. In all of the above courses, we do lab sections with real-life problems. Frequently, you can mention these on your cv, as an indication that you actually have done something. There are summer and work-study jobs (for those not in co-op) on campus that give you some experience. NSERC summer studentships are an example. Since we are in the capitol, you can try to get a part-time or summer job with some government department

Letters of reference from profs

Writing letters of reference is part of my job, so you needn't be bothered about asking for these. But please carefully follow the procedures. If you are applying for some grants or graduate school, there may be forms to be filled out. 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, I know what you intend to do, and can tailor my letters accordingly. The very best and organized 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!


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