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Information for Prospective Graduate Students

Information for Prospective Students:

Although I welcome queries from prospective graduate students with their own ideas for funding Masters or PhD projects that are related to any of my research interests, I currently am planning to bring on two students in the Fall of 2018 focusing on the following topics: 
  • Masters or PhD Student with interest in contributing to beaver ecogeomorhpology. With growing interest in beaver as a cost-effective restoration and conservation tool, much is made of the geomorphic responses that beaver's ecosystem engineering and dam building will yield. Yet surprisingly, no coherent framework for predicting and explaining what sort of specific responses we expect in what environments. Specifically, a masters student would focus on 1-2 of the following topics and a PhD would likely tackle all 3:
    1. Using geomorphic change detection on a long-term, repeat topographic dataset of geomorphic dynamics across 100's of beaver dams and beaver dam analogues to more clearly identify and explain geomorphic mechanisms of change  that shape beaver dam complexes through their life spans.
    2.  Using the Wheaton et al. (2015) fluvial taxonomy and our Geomorphic Unit Toolkit, develop a stronger empirical and conceptual basis for the geomorphic unit assemblages (i.e. landforms) that consistently make up beaver dams and beaver dam complexes, how these evolve through time and how these assemblages differ across different reach types.
    3. Build network riverscapes models that predict geomorphic responses to different degrees of beaver dam building activity throughout a watershed.  
  • Masters or PhD Student to shed light on diagonal bar dynamics. Diagonal what?  Diagonal bars are by far the most common mid-channel bar throughout the world's rivers and streams, yet many people have never heard of them. Diagonal bars split flow around themselves in a characteristically asymmetrical fashion, creating complex in-channel habitat and leaving behind distinctive islands and floodplain topography. Diagonal bars start their lives as margin or bank attached bars on the inside-bend of flow, but then proceed to detach from the bank via a process of chute cutoff formation along the inside bend. They seem to evolve through a similar progression in extremely different fluvial environments. Diagonal bars are an excellent geoindicator of river-health in many reach types (e.g. wandering gravel bed rivers) as they often disappear when lateral adjustment is artificially confined. Basic empirical data on diagonal bars, their occurrence, their evolution and their prevalence is largely lacking from the geomorphic literature and restoration practitioners are largely unaware of their importance. This student would work with myself and Damia Vericat to build-out, refine, and rigorously test a conceptual model of diagonal bar evolution we developed, and build important insights into this poorly understood but pervasive bar form.    
See here for more information on Geomorphology at USU.

Application & Funding:

Applying to Graduate School

You can apply for graduate study at USU at anytime. However, if you are to be accepted for graduate study at USU in Watershed Sciences, you will need sponsorship from a faculty member.  We offer PhDs and Masters in a) Watershed Science, b) Aquatic Ecology and c) Fisheries. If you are interested in working with me, make contact early in the process to discuss ideas. The application procedure itself is fairly straight-forward and involves:

  • Contacting prospective faculty Major Professor to discuss potential study topics and seek sponsorship
  • Completing a formal online application through the School of Graduate Studies.
  • Prepare a detailed statement outlining your objectives in graduate education, your future goals, and your specific area of research interest & submit to Department of Watershed Sciences.
  • If you are applying to work with me, I ask that you also send me directly a few examples of your writing (can be a report or essay or publication you've prepared) and at least one example of an output from a project you've conducted (e.g. figures, maps, analyses, etc.). This helps me assess how well you can communicate your ideas in writing as well as graphically. 

You can apply at any time, and no separate applications are required for financial assistance (see here for deadlines by semester). Deadlines vary for other sources of funding and it is best to contact the potential major professor. See also the admission requirements for the department.


There are various ways to fund your graduate education at USU, and your eventual acceptance to the Watershed Sciences program will be contingent on a funding source being secured for you. Unlike when you were an undergraduate, most graduate students are paid to study and do their research. As far as the University is concerned, there are four primary expenses for you as a graduate student: 1) living expenses (paid in form of stipend), 2) tuition and fees, 3) research expenses (e.g. equipment & travel), and 4) health insurance.

The most typical form of funding in Watershed Sciences is through a Research Assistantship. This generally pays you a living stipend, often covers your tuition and fees, and depending on the grant may cover research expenses. Other forms of funding at USU to make up short-falls include: fellowships, S.J. & Jessie E. Quinney Graduate Fellowship, scholarships & grants, tuition awards, residency tuition waivers, and travel awards. In addition, there are a plethora of external sources of funding and grants you can apply for to fully support (e.g. NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program) or augment other funding (e.g. student travel or research grants). SCEP (Student Career Experience Programs) and STEP (Student Temporary Experience Programs) are excellent ways to fund your education as well and gain invaluable work experience and are available through federal agencies like the US Forest Service, US Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Bureau of Land Management.

For you, the easiest thing is to be fully supported by funding your Major Professor has secured. However, there are many other possible funding sources and the experience of securing your own funding can be very valuable and look great on a resume.

What I Expect From You

If I accept you as a graduate student, my expectations of you are pretty simple. Fundamentally, I expect you to do what it takes to transition from a student to a professional researcher. I expect you to approach your graduate education and research as a professional. You need to treat it as a job, but one that you have tremendous freedom to shape to your liking and interests. Although you will be pushed and have to work hard, I expect you to have fun and chase your curiosities. Otherwise, what's the point?

Some students prefer lots of hands-on guidance and structure from their Major Professor whereas others prefer to work much more independently. I am willing to work by either model so long as your work is done rigorously, you make your deadlines and you behave collegiately (interact with others in lab, department and university). I will not micro-manage you, but I will let you know both when I think you're doing great or when you need to step it up. In the beginning we will work together to identify what works best for you and what type of tools and training you will need to pursue your program of study and research. We will meet regularly throughout your program of study to keep the lines of communication open and make sure you are getting what you need. No Masters or PhD ever unfolds exactly as originally conceived (especially when modeling and/or field work is involved), so you and I will have to adapt as necessary to make sure you get the most out of it.

Make a Deliberate Choice

No matter where you apply or who you choose to pursue working with, make sure your choice to pursue graduate education is a deliberate one. Graduate students are often treated as a disposable source of cheap, exploitable labor in academia. Even a major professor with the best intentions may end up inadvertently placing more emphasis on the products that academia and funders demand, at the expense of what is best for graduate students.  Given the potential for these realities, it is essential that you are clear about what you need out of graduate education.

Is it merely a stepping stone to prepare you for a specific career track? Is it to prepare you for a career in research? What skills do you need to develop over the course of your graduate education? Clearly articulated answers to the above questions will help you make a deliberate choice about what program is right for you. Such answers will also help you in working with prospective major professors to communicate your expectations, needs and aspirations. It is better to communicate these things up front and find out that a situation won't meet your needs before hand, then to ignore them and assume that your needs will be met and face disappointment two to four years down the road.

These deliberate choices aside, timing and circumstances can trump everything. In a perfect world, you will get multiple offers to choose from, all from your top choices, and when you are ready to pursue your degree. In reality, the graduate student market is highly competitive and you may be faced with the situation in your first attempt of no offers or only one offer from the bottom of your list. This is a great time to pause and reflect on what's best for you. It may be accepting that offer you were not that excited about. Or it may be Is this an opportunity to take more time, be better prepared for the next round of applications and keep pursuing the goal of graduate education? Or is it a good chance to

If you are thinking about pursuing a PhD, please carefully read this depressing article in December's Economist on  'The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time'. If despite those odds and challenges, curiosity has the better of you and your willing to make the requisite sacrafices in pursuit of scientific inquiry, then great. Go for it. A career in research and/or academia can be extremely rewarding and offer a tremendous amount of freedom.  However, to passively walk into a PhD program without a clear picture of the potential pitfalls ahead and why it is still worth while, can be a very disappointing experience. Masters and PhDs motivated by the prospects of better money and higher paying jobs alone are highly unrealistic. If money is what's important to you, there are much easier and smarter ways to make it ;).

What to Expect

Working Environment & Facilities

You will be provided a comfortable working space in my lab in the recently refurbished Janet Quinney Lawson building. The lab is part of the College of Natural Resources' Spatial Modeling and Analysis Center, which includes our lab, the RS/GIS Laboratory (Doug Ramsey), the Utah Climate Center (Rob Gillies), Tom Edward's BIOD Lab, and Eric Gese's Lab. The lab is centrally located on campus directly across from the Natural Resources Building, which is home to the College of Natural Resources, the Ecology Center, Watershed Sciences Department, Environment & Society Department, the Wildland Resources Department, and my office.

Our lab-space is in the Spatial Modeling and Analysis Center of the Janet Quinney Lawson building (above) on the Utah State University Campus (map) (room 147 ~ floor plan).


I will provide you with a workstation or laptop for your research and studies. You will have access to further state of the art computing facilities, IT support and an arsenal of field equipment through my lab, ICRRR and the department. You will find we are pretty well equipped for the type of research we do. In the event we don't have something, it is likely someone else on campus does.

Your Educational Course Work

The WATS Graduate Student Handbook covers all the basics for getting through the degree. You develop your own coursework curriculum with your Major Professor (see here for MS/PhD Degree Requirements). The only required course is the Departmental Seminar (WATS 6800/7800). Depending on your project and undergraduate education, you may need to make up some basic pre-requisites and undergraduate coursework. Other than that you have a plethora of courses across the campus to choose from. These include courses within the Watershed Sciences Department, or any relevant graduate course (if approved by supervisory committee) you can find in the General Catalog.

Professional Development & Collaboration

Utah State University offers an exceptional research environment for you to develop professionally. For example the Ecology Center and the Water Initiative span multiple Departments, Labs and Research Interests on campus. Graduate students in the Ecology Program are automatically part of the Ecology Center, and any graduate student doing research in a water-related field can apply to become a Water Fellow. Both bring with them benefits of being part of a broader research community, but in addition make you eligible for receiving funding from these programs (e.g. travel grants). The Ecology Center includes roughly 70 faculty whereas the Water Initiative includes well over 100 faculty. This is a big list of potential academics for your committee as well as potential collaborative opportunities.

Depending on your research interests, you may find helpful colleagues and collaborators in the graduate students and researchers of the following labs and centers on campus:

Living, Working & Playing in Logan

Logan is a great place to live and if you are into outdoor sports the mountains are hard to beat. On your doorstep are not only some fantastic field-work opportunities and potential study sites, but also a great playground for outdoor pursuits. This can be quite an important counter balance to your research and education. If you're scoping out places to live and trying to figure out neighborhoods, you may find this neighborhood map helpful.

Some helpful links:

Don't just take my word for it. Ask existing graduate students what they think of Logan and their program.

Jardine Juniper Trail ‎(from Sunrise Cyclery)‎

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