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College of Arts & Sciences
Department of Geography

Master's Program Requirements

The Department of Geography awards both the MA and MS degrees. The MA is typically awarded to students who specialize in Human Geography subject areas in their coursework and/or who utilize qualitative methods in their thesis research. The MS is typically awarded to students who specialize in Physical Geography or GIScience in their coursework and/or who utilize quantitative methods in their thesis research.

Coursework, Course Load, and Coursework Planning

Master’s students are required to complete a minimum of 31 credit hours. This includes a minimum of 25 coursework credit hours, plus 1-6 hours of thesis preparation credit hours (799). At least half of the credit hours on the Master’s Program of Study, exclusive of thesis preparation, must be earned in courses numbered 700 and above.  Students should consult the Graduate Bulletin for information about transfering credit hours from another graduate program and about re-certifying courses more than six years old for inclusion in the Master's Program of Study. 

Coursework requirements include:

1. Core Course (1 credit hour)

GEOG 740 — Research Trends in Geography

2. At least one course in each disciplinary cluster (9 credit hours)

The disciplinary cluster areas are as follows:

  • Physical/Environmental
  • Human/Regional
  • GIScience

A complete listing of courses that fall into each of these three categories is available here. All courses used to fulfill this requirement must have a GEOG prefix. The classification of certain courses may change depending on the content taught in a given semester. Students may not use GEOG 595, 705, 706 or 805 to fulfill course cluster requirements for the Master’s degree.

3. Specialized Course Work (15 credit hours minimum)

Master’s students should consult with advisors in selecting appropriate specialized courses for their degree program.  No more than 6 credit hours of independent study in Geography (GEOG 705 or 706) may be included on the Master's Program of Study.  No more than 9 credits of independent study with any designator may appear on a Master's Program of Study.

4. Thesis Preparation (GEOG 799) (1-6 credit hours)

After successful completion of coursework requirements and the successful defense of a thesis proposal, students may enroll in thesis preparation hours (GEOG 799). Master’s students may not enroll in thesis credit hours until they have successfully defended a thesis proposal and completed any remediation required by the thesis committee (see details below). 

For planning purposes, the university considers 9 credit hours during a regular session to constitute a full load for students without an assistantship, and 6 credit hours to constitute a full load for students with an assistantship. In order to complete the 31 required credit hours in 4 semesters, the department recommends that Master's students take 9-10 credit hours for the first two semesters.  Students holding an assistantship during a summer term must enroll in at least one credit hour. Please note that the minimum residency requirement for the Master’s degree is two regular semesters or the equivalent in summer sessions (see Graduate Bulletin for details).

In planning course work each semester, students should consult with their advisors using a Master’s Program Worksheet. Students and advisors should keep a copy of the worksheet and should update it each semester. After consulting with the advisor, the student must fill out an Advisement Form in order to register for the next semester’s courses. Students will not be cleared for registration until the advisement form has been filled out, signed by the advisor and student, and submitted to the graduate program coordinator, Mr. Capers Stokes.

Within the first 12 months of full-time enrollment in the Master’s program, students must file a completed Master’s Program of Study Form (M-POS) with the Graduate School. If necessary, an approved Master’s Program of Study can be modified with a Program Adjustment Form (POSA). 


As soon as possible, normally following the second full semester of coursework, the candidate begins the thesis phase of the program. Please note that during the preparation of the thesis, any student who wishes to use university facilities or to confer with the faculty must be enrolled officially in at least one credit hour of GEOG 799. 

The student’s advisor serves as thesis director and, in consultation with the student, selects the second and third members of the Thesis Committee. The Thesis Committee should be composed only of faculty from the Columbia campus. Regular graduate faculty of any rank may serve on or chair thesis committees. Research faculty who have been appointed to associate membership in the Graduate Faculty may serve on or chair a thesis committee.  Faculty members with term appointments in the Graduate Faculty may serve on, but may not chair, thesis committees. 

1. Proposal and proposal defense

The thesis proposal includes an explanation of the topic to be investigated, a review of the relevant literature, and a discussion of the research questions and the research design. The student submits a formal thesis proposal to the committee and sets a defense date in consultation with the committee. The candidate must distribute the proposal document to committee members at least two weeks prior to the defense date. The proposal defense should be scheduled at least two weeks ahead of time with the department administrator. 

The master’s thesis proposal defense may be open to the public or closed (i.e., restricted to the candidate and the committee). More often, the proposal defense is open, involving a short (15-20 minutes) public presentation and questions from the audience, followed by a closed session with committee members. If the proposal defense is open, the advisor announces it at least one week ahead of time to all faculty and graduate students via email, and the candidate makes available a copy of the proposal in the department office. If the proposal defense is closed, only the student and committee members attend.  Regardless of whether the proposal defense is open or closed, the candidate must bring a copy of the departmental Thesis Proposal Defense Form to the defense. This form is signed and submitted to the graduate program coordinator, Mr. Capers Stokes, only when the student passes the defense.  More information about the proposal defense is available here.

At the proposal defense, the student, with agreement from the committee, may request either the traditional or manuscript-style thesis. The request for a manuscript-style thesis should include the journal name and brief justification explaining the journal selection. Students seeking the manuscript option should discuss their intentions with their advisor prior to the thesis proposal defense (see further details below under 'Thesis Style and Format'. 

Students are encouraged to complete their thesis proposals as early as possible. To reiterate, students are not allowed to register for GEOG 799 without the committee’s approval of the thesis proposal and the student’s satisfactory completion of any remedial action required by the committee.  Committees can allow a maximum of one month for the student to complete remediation.  Students have only one opportunity to complete remediation.  Students should be mindful of their committee members' schedules and should not assume that committee members will be available for a defense between semesters or sessions, over the summer months, or during the first or last week of any semester or session.  Failure to submit an acceptable proposal well in advance of the end of a regular semester may lead to a serious delay in obtaining committee approval of the thesis proposal.  The department may revoke funding for any full-time student on an assistantship who has not had a proposal accepted by the end of the third semester. A student who has not successfully defended a thesis proposal by the fourth semester may be terminated from the program.

2. Thesis Style and Format

Students, after conferring with the advisor and committee members, can choose to do either and traditional thesis or a manuscript-style thesis.  The manuscript-style thesis is structured as a peer-reviewed journal article with introductory and concluding chapters.  It may include additional chapters (e.g. an expanded literature review) and appendices.  The student must be the first author on the manuscript, and the manuscript must be judged by the committee to merit submission to a reputable academic journal.  All theses, whether tradtional or manuscript style, must follow the formatting guidelines specified by the Graduate School.  Students should be aware that they are required to submit the final thesis document to the Graduate School for a format check prior to graduation.  Students should check with the Graduate School and/or the Graduate Director for information about thesis formatting workshops, which are offered each semester.

3. Thesis Defense

A public defense of the thesis is required before final committee approval and must be held at least 30 days prior to graduation. The defense is scheduled with the departmental administrator at least two weeks ahead of time. The student should submit a complete draft of the thesis to his/her committee no less than two weeks prior to the scheduled defense date (three weeks in the case of a manuscript-style thesis). As with the proposal defense, students should be mindful of their committee members' schedules and should not assume that committee members will be available for a defense between semesters or sessions, over the summer months, or during the first or last week of any semester or session. 

The student must make a copy of the thesis available for public view in the departmental office at least one week prior to the defense. The advisor announces the defense to the faculty and graduate students via email at least one week ahead of time. The defense itself typically consists of a short (15-30 minute) public presentation followed by a closed session with the student and committee members.  The student should bring a copy of the departmental Thesis Defense Form to the defense.  This form should be signed and submitted to the graduate program coordinator, Mr. Capers Stokes, following a successful defense or satisfactory completion of any remediation required by the student's committee. The committee can allow a maximum of one month to complete required remediation.  Students will have only ONE opportunity to complete remediation.  The final thesis document must be accompanied by the Graduate School Thesis Signature and Approval Form (G-TSF).  Students must also submit a Master's Comprehensive Examination Verification form (the thesis defense serves as the 'comprehensive examination' at the Master's level).

To reiterate points made above, students should allow plenty of time to complete the process of defending, revising, and submitting the thesis.  All students should assume that they will be asked to make some remedial actions to their thesis and should allocate time to complete such remediation.  Students must also allow sufficient time to submit the document to the Graduate School for a format check upon completion of the thesis.  Students should consult the Graduate School website and the University's academic calendar for deadlines relating to applications for graduation, format checks, and deposit of approved theses with the Graduate School.  In general, the department recommends that to graduate during a given semester, students should be prepared to give a complete thesis draft to the thesis committee no later than the mid-point of that semester. 

Please note that students must be enrolled for at least 1 credit during the term of graduation.  However, students who miss the final thesis submission deadline but who complete all graduation requirements—including the thesis defense, the format check, and deposit of the final document—by the end of the semester may graduate the following semester without enrolling in additional thesis credits or paying tuition fees. 


Academic Progress

A student must demonstrate satisfactory academic progress to continue in the program.  It is the mutual responsibility of the advisor and the Graduate Director to monitor student progress. To aid in the process of evaluation, continuing students must submit a Professional Development Plan (PDP) near the end of each academic year.  The PDP requires students to list their achievements over the past academic year and to state their aims for the coming academic year. The PDP will include a compilation of instructor evaluations of students' performance in courses and seminars.  The PDP is intended to provide students and advisors with a clear picture of the student's overall performance (both strengths and weaknesses) and to assist in the setting of target dates to reach program milestones.  By helping students to keep track of conference presentations, article submissions, grant applications, and awards, the PDP also helps students to create and to update a curriculum vitae.  The PDP must be signed by the student and the advisor following a end-of-academic-year advisement meeting to discuss its contents.  The advisor specifies at this time whether the student is maintaining adequate progress.  The PDP is then reviewed and signed by the Graduate Director and filed in the graduate program coordinator's office.  Students and advisors should retain an electronic or paper copy of the PDP.

Students are advised that departmental guidelines for academic progress are more stringent than those set by the university. At the time of graduation, the student's graduate cumulative grade point average (GPA) must be at least 3.00 on a 4.00 scale. Additionally, the grade for any course listed on the Program of Study must be at least a B.  Graduate degree-seeking students whose cumulative grade point average drops below 3.00 (B) will be placed on academic probation and allowed one calendar year in which to raise the grade point average to at least 3.00.  Financial assistance may be terminated or reduced for a student who is on probation.  Students who do not reach a cumulative 3.00 grade point average during the probationary period will not be permitted to enroll for further graduate coursework and may be terminated from the program. Other causes for termination may include, but are not limited to, the following: (1) failure to complete all requirements for previous degree by the end of the first semester; (2) failure to have an approved thesis proposal by the end of the fifth semester for full-time students; (3) failure to produce a defensible thesis; and (4) acts of academic dishonesty. A student will be notified of termination, in writing, prior to the beginning of classes for a semester.



Student Rights and Recourse  

All students are assigned an advisor upon admission to the graduate program.  The first meeting between student and advisor should include a thorough review of graduate program requirements and a discussion of student and advisor expectations.  Students and advisors should complete and sign the Advisor-Student contract [create link].  The contract template can be modified by the advisor to reflect his/her particular expectations and requirements. 

All students from the start of their program should be aware of their rights vis-a-vis their advisors and other faculty members.  The rights of graduate students in the Department of Geography include:

  • The right to meet face-to-face with the advisor at least once a month to discuss the student's progress;
  • The right to timely (within 2 weeks under normal circumstances) feedback from the advisor and course instructors on written work, including seminar papers, proposal drafts, thesis/dissertation drafts, and written comprehensive exams;
  • The right to professional advice relating to conferences, grant opportunities, publication activities, and other aspects of academic life; 
  • The right to confidentiality and privacy (i.e. faculty members should not share the details of a student's academic record or personal matters with other students);
  • The right to be treated in a professional manner and not to be harassed or bullied by any faculty member (see USC Policies and Procedures for definitions of harassment and bullying).
  • The right to request a different advisor.

Students have avenues of recourse if they feel that they have been evaluated unfairly or that their progress in the program has been hindered by the actions or inactions of faculty members.  A student who feels that his/her rights have not been respected by a faculty member and who is not able to resolve the problem directly with the faculty member should consult with the Graduate Director, the Department Chair, the Department Ombudsperson, and/or the Graduate School Ombudsperson.  Students should note that the role of the Department or Graduate School ombudsperson is not to advocate on behalf of a student, but to evaluate the situation at hand in an impartial manner and to propose a fair resolution to whatever problem exists between the student and faculty member.  For the graduate student who has not reached a satisfactory resolution to the problem, the ombudsperson can explain University grievance procedures.  The ombudsperson can also assist a student who feels that he/she has been unfairly put on probation or terminated from the program. 

Updated November 2015