Greetings all. As the application season is coming around soon, I've been getting a lot of questions lately about how to find the right graduate school or project. So here are some comments about the criteria I think are important... and how to go about looking for the right match. This is by no means a comprehensive set of instructions, more like an incomplete list of FAQ...
You best find something that turns you on right from the beginning. You're probably going to hate it at some point, sooner or later, and you'll need some serious motivation to help you get through the low spots. You should be interested in both the BIG QUESTIONS and the PIDDLING DETAILS of your project.
The project ought to be the right scale for the degree you are seeking (MS or PhD) or have the potential to scale up or down if needed. It ought to afford you the opportunity to learn some specific skills or get experience which will make nice bullets on your CV.
THE RIGHT GROUP FOR THE PROJECT AND FOR YOU
The adviser, and members of the research group, should be experts in the background of your intended research projects. Someone should have those specific skills that you intend to learn. It is common for a student project to require a skill which is not currently in the group repertoire - something the student can learn and then contribute to the group. This depends on the past experience of the student.
Adviser personal skills and attitude toward advising can affect the quality of life for a newby grad student to a great extent - take a look at the rest of the group and ask current students privately about the group dynamics. However, keep in mind that graduate students are nearly always disgruntled. It's a point of pride. After a campus visit or two, you will easily pick out happy/functional groups and... other groups. There are sometimes sad mismatches of adviser and student style/personality. Learning about the group dynamics can help you avoid these.
Think about how you enjoy spending long hours. If you are fascinated by the outer core, but hate math, you may be out of luck because most people who study the inner core are seismologists and modelers. Even if you don't know exactly what topic you want to study, but have an idea of what you enjoy/are good at, you will have a better chance of finding the right project for you.
STARTING THE SEARCH
Use a search engine to find journal articles that interest you. Google the authors. Nearly everybody teaching at a university has a website that includes a summary of their research, publication list, and past student projects. I googled about 50 people and narrowed down 12 to email directly. I have no idea if these are typical numbers. Ask your professors for advice. If you are able to, go to conferences! GSA and AGU are great places to shop programs/advisors/projects and distribute your CV. Watch the ads in EOS and GSAToday
When emailing potential advisors:
Learn what you can about the advisor/group and write a personalized email showing that you have done your homework. I immediately delete emails of inquiry which make clear that the student has not looked at my webpage and is not interested in anything I do. Ironically, anything that says "Dear Sir" will get a response - A strongly worded response.
Keep it short. One paragraph is plenty. Be focused and organized. Include a sentence or two summarizing your background and offer a CV on request or a link to your CV download (do not attach it to the first email as you might end up in the spam folder, and it's presumptuous). Clearly state why you are interested in this particular person's research. If your interests are broad, you may write to more than one member of a department. It is expected that you are shopping around.
Don't kiss ass. Don't alter your email so strongly for different targets that you look like you're kissing ass or being fake - people do talk, especially people in related fields. Keep your CV short (1 page is usually plenty) and if you have job experience which is not related to your application, just summarize it briefly (e.g. no list of babysitting references here!)
Edited to add: read FSP's post before you send that email!
In the USA - finding funding is usually a joint effort between advisor and student.
Students typically support their education by some combination of grants, teaching assistantships, research assistantships, and loans.
Grants/Fellowships: can come from the Univ, Advisors' grants, or any number of private institutions. Potential advisors will have knowledge of appropriate opportunities in your field. These could be for direct support (living, tuition) and/or research expenses.
-- NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. This money follows the student even if they switch universities, advisors, projects for 3 years. quite competitive and lucrative. Obama just tripled the number of Fellowships!!! applications open in August 2009.
Most of the advisors' grant money comes directly or indirectly from the National Science Foundation, or in some fields, DOE or other agencies. Many of these grants are written with some student support in the form of TA or RA positions. Expect to be asked to work ~20hrs/wk and receive adequate compensation for tuition, health insurance, and a small living allowance. FYI that 20hrs is a completely made up number and has almost nothing to do with your workload in practice.... (see above reference to graduate student disgruntlement).
In South Africa...
If you are South African, you can apply for an NRF bursary. This is something like R35 000/yr for MSc students and R60 000/yr for PhD. Not enough to get by in Cape Town but maybe in some other cities it's enough? I'm not sure. Many students get support from an employer and nearly everyone supplements that with demonstrating (TA) jobs. There are other pools of money available specifically for scarce skills development (including geology) and for previously disadvantaged populations (everybody but white males who had citizenship or permanent residency before 1994, varies whether white females are still considered disadvantaged. But that's another topic for another post.)
In any case, your supervisor will have more insight on funding opportunities and again, it should be a joint effort between student and supervisor to get the money together.
AND NOW SOME UNSOLICITED ADVICE...
Don't be afraid to apply overseas for your graduate studies. It's a great stage of life to try out living in a foreign country, as your life is relatively institutionalized so it's not as lonesome as moving somewhere entirely on your own. There are additional challenges - funding is often earmarked for citizens of that country, there are issues with translating transcripts and qualifications... but it's an excellent chance to spend a few years building relationships/support networks in the international community. In particular, for South African students it's a chance to get a world view in your field in a short period of time, during which somebody (your supervisor) is officially committed to supporting you and your development as a scientist. You can bring those relationships back to your home country, but it's far more difficult to develop them without investing the time overseas. When so much research funding is available through international collaborations with Europe or the US, those connections can help support you through subsequent decades of your career.
Alright i'm off the soapbox... did I forget anything?