John Pitlick
Department of Geography
Office: Guggenheim 315
(303) 492-5906
Office Hrs: Tues. 3:00 - 5:00 PM

Meeting Times: Wed. 4:00-6:50 PM

Location: Guggenheim, 201e


This course is the second semester in the sequence of required courses for first-year graduate students.  The overall goal of the second semester is for students to define specific research questions and develop a research strategy for their masters thesis or doctoral dissertation.  We will discuss methodologies in a general context, but this is not a course on experimental design or specific research techniques.  Those subjects are highly specific to sub-disciplines and are treated in numerous other courses (e.g. quantitative methods, remote sensing, GIS).  Instead, the methodological component of this course deals with general research approaches in physical geography and their relationships to broader scientific issues.  The course emphasizes practical aspects of getting started in a research career and a range of career development topics including ethical issues in conducting and communicating research.

The principal written product of this semester will be a research proposal written in the format of a proposal for a funding agency.  Consequently, the amount of reading assigned in this course is relatively modest to allow you sufficient time to concentrate on developing your own research proposal.  Early in the semester you need to agree on a research topic with your advisor and on a reading list appropriate for that topic. 

We will begin the semester with a discussion of the role of science in policymaking, and the increasing politicization of science.  We will then move to a discussion of scientific theories or models which are most closely related to your thesis or dissertation topics.  The following several weeks will consist of workshops on the writing of grant proposals, strategies for publishing research results, and practice in the oral communication of research results.

The final section of the course will consist of student presentations and discussions of drafts of their individual research proposals.  Students will receive peer reviews of their research proposals to aid them in the final version of the proposal.    

The success of the course depends on each student's identification of specific research questions early in the semester.  I expect that there will be a substantial range in students' plans during their first year in the program, but everyone should have a research proposal completed by the end of this semester.  It is essential that you seek advice from your faculty advisor, especially during the early part of the semester, to help you define your thesis topic.

Acknowledgments: This course closely follows the format of previous courses in Research Design taught by Tom Veblen; I am grateful to Tom for developing the course structure and for sharing his reading lists and course assignments.


    Written critiques, short writing assignments, and class participation               30%
    Oral (15-minute) professional paper presentation                                           10%
    Oral presentation on research proposal                                                           10%
    Written research proposal                                                                               50%

Comment: The research proposal must represent your own work, meaning it should be written by you, and it should describe the work you intend to do for your thesis.  Proposals that reflect significant input from others, or are built primarily around the broader goals of a large research project, are not acceptable.  I will provide guidelines for structuring proposals in such cases.


Date    Topic and Assignments

1/18    Course Overview

Assignment (due Jan. 24):
In addition to reading the papers listed below, try to locate a formal statement of a professional society’s position on advocacy, and bring this to class with you.  Professional societies- AAG, AMS, AGU, and ESA- have somewhat different views on this, thus it might be interesting to compare positions.

1/24    Emerging Issues 1. Science, Advocacy and Policymaking


Costanza, R. 2001. Visions, values, valuation, and the need for an ecological economics. Bioscience 51:459-468. [costanza_01.pdf]

Schmidt, J.C., Webb, R.H., Valdez, R.A., Marzolf, G.A., and L.E. Stevens, 1998, The roles of science and values in river restoration in the Grand Canyon, BioScience, v. 48, p. 735-745. [schmidt_98.pdf]

Pielke, Jr., R.A., 2006, When scientists politicize science, Regulation, Spring, pp. 28-34.  [pielke_06.pdf]

Union of Concerned Scientists, 2004. Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration’s Misuse of Science, available at


Assignment (due Jan. 31): a 250 to 500 word statement that tentatively defines your research problem and discusses its significance to your sub-field.  Try to justify your problem in terms of its potential contribution to your sub-field (e.g. conceptually, methodologically, in terms of new data, a new application, etc.).  If appropriate, also comment on its practical significance and potential broader impacts for society.

1/31    Emerging Issues 2. Interdisciplinary Work


Brantley, S.L., and many others, 2006, Frontiers in Exploration of the Critical Zone: Report of a workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), October 24 26, 2005, Newark, DE, 30p. [CZEN_booklet.pdf]

Torgersen, T., 2006, Observatories, think tanks, and community models in the hydrologic and environmental sciences: How does it affect me?, Water Resour. Res., 42, W06301, doi:10.1029/2005WR004466.  [torgersen_05.pdf]

Graybill, J.K., and others, 2006. A Rough Guide to Interdisciplinarity: Graduate Student Perspectives, BioScience, v. 56, p. 757–763. [graybill_06.pdf]

If you are interested, have a look at the web site for ROMEO, the proposed observatory network for the Rocky Mountains []

2/7-2/14    The Use of Theories and Models in Research Design

Reading: Ch. 8-9 of Haynes-Young and Petch

Assignment:  Select a model or theoretical concept (probably a small part of a theory) which will be important to your thesis or dissertation research.  Prepare a 250 to 500 word critique of the model or theory and a 20 minute oral presentation.  The goal of the presentation is to provide an opportunity for you to explore some of the conceptual background to your proposed research.  In some cases it may be appropriate to treat your presentation as a tutorial on a key concept/model in your field to inform a more general audience.  Explain the use of the model in your subfield, and try to identify general questions to which your research will be related.  If your research will be on a method (e.g. remote sensing applications) then your presentation might focus on the theory underlying the method.  The presentation is not intended to be a summary of the thesis or dissertation proposal that you will present later in the semester.  Instead, focus the presentation on the development and application of a model relevant to the research questions you will examine.

2/21-2/28  Writing Research Proposals and Ethics in the Conduct of Research

In these two sessions we will go over the practical aspects of developing a research proposal for a funding agency.  We will discuss issues of style and structure of the proposal and, especially, the evaluation criteria of proposals for research funding.  We will also consider ethical aspects of writing and reviewing research proposals.

Reading for 2/21: Chapin chapters 1-4

Reading for 2/28: Chapin chapters 5-8; sample NSF proposals and reviewers' comments (read these to gain a sense of what reviewers consider important in a research proposal).  Familiarize yourself with the Geography and Regional Science Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Awards at

3/7-3/14    Workshops on How to Write a Scientific Paper Present an Oral Scientific Paper

Anonymous. 2005b. Not-so-deep impact. Nature 435:1003-1004.
Clapham, P. 2005.  Publish or perish. BioScience 55:390-391.
Gibaldi, J., 2003. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 6th Edition, Modern Language Association of         America, New York, 361 pp. (handout)
AGU Publication Guidelines:


1)  Identify approximately 10-15 journals that publish research results in your subfield and classify them into one of the following three categories:  (a) elite journals,  (b) highly respected but not elite journals, (c) refereed journals of lesser impact. 

2)  Use the Science Citation Index (see CU Library WEB Site) to explore citation patterns in your field.  Take a list of 5 or 6 contributors in your subfield and examine how their work is being cited.  A formal analysis is not required. I just want you to be familiar with citation patterns in your field.

3/21   Practice in the Oral Presentation of Research Results

Assignment:  Prepare a 15-minute formal research presentation according to the instructions for the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers.   Prepare an abstract according to the AAG guidelines.  The focus of the exercise is on effective communication rather than the science itself.  The presentation should be on completed research (either your own or that of someone else) in which your goal is to practice communicating research findings as if you were presenting a paper at a professional/scientific conference.

Note:  this 15-minute research presentation should not just be a preview of your research proposal that you will discuss at length during a later week.

3/28   No class: Spring Break.

4/4    Scientific Methods and Research Approaches in Physical Geography

I would like to hold a session to discuss some of the qualitative methods (interviews and assessments) that are used more commonly now to gauge people’s perceptions of the environment or environmental issues, and/or to track the success of an a new method or technique.  I need to find an appropriate person to lead this session.

4/11-4/25    Term Paper Presentations (three classes)

Each student will lead a 30-minute discussion of the draft of his or her thesis or dissertation proposal.

Assignment:  Write a research proposal which conforms to the guidelines for the NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Awards (see the Geography and Regional Science website).  The written draft of the research proposal must be circulated to the entire class at least three days before the date of its discussion in class.  The final, revised version is due May 8.

Each student will write a 1-3 page review of two of the draft proposals (circulate these reviews to the class by April 30).  The review will respond to the evaluation criteria of NSF.  

5/2    Mock NSF Panel Discussion

For each draft proposal, two students will be assigned to briefly summarize and evaluate the proposal and lead a panel discussion of the proposal.  Based on that discussion and their own reading of the proposal, each student will rank the proposal according to the NSF criteria (excellent, very good, good, fair, poor or no ranking).