ESE Graduate Program FAQ

Do I need a specific degree/background to apply to ESE?

No. Students in ESE come from all sorts of backgrounds: math, physics, chemistry, biology, atmospheric science, oceanography, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, applied math, etc.

What are you looking for in a successful candidate?

We are looking for candidates who are passionate about STEM and research. We want to see that you mastered advanced courses in your relevant field. It is often helpful if applicants have had previous research, field, or laboratory experience, but it is not required. Proven critical and independent thinking is key, your life as a graduate student will focus more on original research than coursework.

What are former graduate students doing now?

Pathways differ but many stay in academia as faculty at Universities or research scientists at larger centers such as NASA, DOE, NOAA. Please check our alumni page.

What is an “option”?

At Caltech we have a unique organizational structure. An “option” is our word for “department”. Each option (typically) lives within a “division,” although ESE is somewhat unique as we have faculty members that span multiple divisions. ESE is most closely aligned with the GPS Division (GPS=Geological and Planetary Sciences), but students spend significant amounts of time interacting with students and faculty from other divisions as well.

When you apply to Caltech you apply to an option, not a division. Your option will determine what classes you take, the requirements for completing your Masters and then PhD, and also the structure of your qualification exam. These requirements are similar across the GPS division, but not identical. At Caltech, our small size allows us to be flexible in terms of course requirements and research projects often span multiple options. Some faculty members have dual appointments in different options and Divisions, and you are allowed to work with faculty outside of your option. We strongly encourage applicants to contact potential advisers to seek advice on the option to which you apply.

How many grad students are in the ESE program?

There are approximately 3-8 students per cohort (i.e. per incoming year), for a total of around 30 graduate students in the ESE program. It is common for other students in GPS to work with ESE faculty as well; the GPS Division has roughly 110 graduate students.

How many apply to the program?

We typically receive just over 100 applications to the ESE program each year. The option is dedicated to giving each application a full review.

How long does the MS/PhD typically take to complete?

Students complete their MS within two years. The average time to complete the PhD is 5.5 years. Almost all students finish within 6 years.

Will I get/have to be a TA (Teaching Assistant)?

Yes. Graduate students in ESE are expected to TA one term per year. Caltech is on the quarter system and has three “teaching” terms: fall, winter, and spring. You do not have to TA your first year. Many of the classes ESE students TA are graduate level classes and are an excellent opportunity to hone your experience as an instructor.

What are the salary and benefits for graduate students?

Graduate students are paid a stipend of $35,000 a year (as of 2019-2020, this typically increases year-to-year to account for cost-of-living increases in Pasadena). Stipends are uniform across ESE and does not depend on whether the student is serving as a teaching assistant or not. Caltech also offers a subsidized health insurance plan that covers a majority of physical and mental health needs as well as a Health Center on campus. There is also subsidized dental and vision insurance available.

When will I get paid? What costs will Caltech cover?

You will receive your stipend payment at the end of every month (beginning with your first month at Caltech, typically October). Caltech offers subsidized housing (see next question) and subsidized health care (see previous question). If the initial costs are a barrier, you can apply for a New Graduate Student Start-Up (NGSS) Loan of $2,500 from Caltech, which is disbursed during orientation week and payments begin 6 months later. For further details, you can confidentially contact the Dean’s Office or the Graduate Options Manager for GPS, Julie Lee.

Is it expensive to live in Pasadena?

Yes, unfortunately. However, the stipend does adequately cover housing costs for students. Many students choose to live with roommates to reduce costs, as housing near campus can be expensive. Information about graduate housing in the Catalina apartments and other Caltech-owned and rent-controlled properties is available through Caltech Housing.

What funding opportunities are available for graduate students?

All ESE students are guaranteed funding through the department through the fall term of their second year. We are committed to funding students throughout their graduate career, which transitions to support organized by the faculty advisor in year 2. We encourage and support students to apply for external fellowships, including but not limited to:

Assistance and advice for applying to fellowships is offered by the Caltech Fellowships Advising office.

Can I visit campus before I make a decision about where to attend graduate school?

Yes! The GPS Division as well as ESE hold an Open House weekend for admitted prospective students in late February or early March. We can generally provide support for the cost of flights and accommodation during the visit (we often cost-share with other universities that hold similar events). We highly recommend that prospective students come to campus and interact with your potential faculty advisors and their research groups, meet the potential members of your cohort (and your future collaborators!), and explore campus and Pasadena. If you are unable to make it to the scheduled visit weekend, you can be in touch with the Graduate Options Manager Julie Lee to schedule an individual visit.