Undergrad Research and Senior Thesis

Undergrad doing lab research.

The Earth and Planetary Sciences faculty enthusiastically supports independent study and senior theses as a way of involving motivated undergraduates directly in research.

Engaging in undergraduate research or a senior thesis is an excellent way to pursue a particular interest in depth that might not be available in a particular course. Students may find themselves helping with experiments in the lab, data collection in the field, literature reviews in the library, or other creative projects. With any of these projects, students will work under a faculty member, and closely with the other graduate students, postdocs, and research scientists in the lab. Participating in undergraduate research is invaluable in helping students choose the direction their careers will take. It can help students engage in the scientific process, apply classroom learning to the real world, and gain scientific experience and transferable skills for careers or graduate school.

Research Opportunities

See this list of current research opportunities in Earth and Planetary Sciences.

Research Opportunities

Students who participate in undergraduate research with a faculty member in Earth and Planetary Sciences may register for units – GEL 99 for lower division students or GEL 199 for upper division students. GEL 199 can be counted toward the Geology major (see the catalog for unit limitations). For every 3 hours spent per week on research, the student earns 1 unit.

Senior Thesis/Honors Senior Thesis

Students interested in expanding their undergraduate research into an independent, longer-term project may be interested in doing a Senior Thesis. A Senior Thesis (GEL 194A-B) or Senior Honors Thesis (GEL 194HA-HB) is a two-quarter sequence of courses for a total of 6 units. At the end of two quarters, students receive a grade for both classes. A Senior Thesis or Senior Honors Thesis is open to students who have completed 135 units; an honors thesis also requires that a student’s GPA is at least 3.5 before registering.

A senior thesis is like a smaller version of a Master’s thesis or PhD dissertation, so it provides excellent preparation for graduate school.

Undergraduate Research Center

The Undergraduate Research Center provides advice, help getting started in research, funding, and a chance to present your research at the Undergraduate Research Conference each April. We strongly encourage students doing research or a senior thesis to present their work at the conference as either a talk or a poster.


Finding a position in a research lab often means asking the professor directly if they have space and projects for undergraduates. This can be intimidating, so here is some advice:

  • Find the faculty member you would like to work with using the list of faculty in Earth and Planetary Sciences. Read about their research areas on their website.
  • Visit them at office hours or write an email to introduce yourself. You will want your email or conversation to be professional, succinct, and clear about what you are asking. You should let them know your name and year in school, and a little about your background (for example, what are you interested in learning more about?). It helps to let them know you’ve read about their work online so that it’s clear you are not sending a generic message. 

Becoming a researcher is different from taking a class for a grade. As part of a research team you will be expected to develop a level of responsibility and independence appropriate to the position. As with any job, you are expected to arrive on time and communicate closely with your project supervisor. Research can offer experience, skills, mentorship, networking, and recommendations for future jobs or graduate and professional school. It is important to commit to work hard in any role you accept. Please read Demystifying Undergraduate Research Experiences by UC Davis Ecology PhD student and Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute Lead Mentor Priya Shukla.

You can also talk with your research mentor about opportunities such as funding, travel to professional conferences, and getting published. 


The Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, campus as a whole, and external agencies all provide funding for research supplies and travel to professional conferences. Your research mentor should help guide you in finding and completing applications for research funding. Find a list of additional funding opportunities at Geology Honors, Scholarships & Awards.

It is UC Davis Earth and Planetary Sciences Department policy that paid research, senior thesis, or internship positions can also give unit credit.