Oct 04, 2023  
USC Catalogue 2022-2023 
USC Catalogue 2022-2023 [ARCHIVED CATALOGUE]

Earth Sciences

Return to: USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences  

The Department of Earth Sciences includes a spectrum of disciplines united by curiosity about the Earth and its natural environment, from microbial to planetary scales, and from human to geologic time periods. Teaching and research in the department focus on integrative understanding of Earth’s systems and the processes that influence the environmental “state” of the planet, on using this understanding to read the record of Earth’s history written in rocks and sediments, and on developing models that can be used to understand mechanisms at work in the past and to predict future changes due to natural phenomena and recent perturbations caused by humans. Earth Sciences involves many issues of societal concern including: seismic risk and other natural hazards; climate change; sustainability of natural resources including petroleum and natural gas as well as water and air; origins and limits of life and survival/adaptation strategies; and environmental contamination. Subdisciplines housed in the department include geophysics, geochemistry, geobiology, hydrology, structural geology, petrology, marine geology, sedimentology, physical and chemical oceanography, climate science, paleoceanography and paleontology.

The department is committed to emphasizing both educational and research programs and views these efforts as complementary. Instruction is offered on several levels and includes an emphasis on hands-on learning through lab and field experiences. Courses include introductory classes for non-science majors, undergraduate courses that are appropriate for those majoring in Earth Sciences or other science and engineering disciplines, and graduate classes appropriate for advanced degrees. A close working relationship exists between students and faculty members. Classes beyond the introductory level are usually small, permitting personalized instruction. Field trips are an important part of the instructional program. Two major research centers are led by faculty within the department: the Southern California Earthquake Center and the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Interactions. The department also hosts one of NASA’s Astrobiology Institutes. The graduate program is closely linked to faculty research efforts, and both graduate and undergraduate students participate in research projects and workshops that include oral and poster presentations. Collaboration in both research and teaching has led to close ties with other programs, including the Department of Biological Sciences (Marine Biology), the Environmental Studies program, the graduate program in Ocean Sciences and several other departments in Dornsife and in other schools (Viterbi School of Engineering, Price School of Public Policy, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism).

For students interested in pursuing careers in the Earth and environmental sciences, the department offers BA, BS, MS and PhD degrees. The undergraduate majors offer student-focused, experiential training, with capstone experiences including a unifying course on Earth systems and field training in locations including Catalina Island, Spain, Morocco and South America. Many graduates now hold positions in academia as faculty and researchers, in industry as environmental consultants or geologists, in government and private industry as managers or researchers, and as teachers. The BA degree is recommended for students interested in the Earth Sciences but who intend to pursue careers in other fields, such as business, law, medicine or education.

Three minors are available. The Geohazards minor is recommended for those who wish to broaden their background in natural hazards, global change or environmental problems. It is accessible to both non-science and science majors. The Geobiology minor is recommended for those interested in interdisciplinary work in Earth and biological sciences. The Earth Sciences minor in Climate Change, Stewardship, and Resiliency is recommended for those interested in international relations, public policy, economics, business, management and/or politics. In addition, the department works closely with the Dornsife Environmental Studies program, offering science-focused course work for students in this program and facilitating joint degrees (double-major or major/minor combinations) for students seeking further scientific grounding in their study of the natural environment.

The Los Angeles and Southern California regions provide diverse and spectacular geological settings, enabling students easy access to varied field sites. The department conducts field trips to study Southern California geology, has access to oceanographic vessels for marine research, and regularly conducts workshops and research at the Wrigley Marine Lab on Catalina Island. Many state-of-the-art laboratory instruments are available for use in research and instruction, and both undergraduate and graduate students are involved significantly in most research groups.

Proof of health insurance is mandatory when participation in field trips is required for credit in any Earth Sciences class.

Zumberge Hall of Science 117
(213) 740-6106
FAX: (213) 740-8801
Email: earthsci@dornsife.usc.edu

Chair: Frank Corsetti, PhD


University Professor, W.M. Keck Foundation Chair in Geological Sciences and Professor of Earth Sciences: Thomas H. Jordan, PhD

Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies and Professor of Earth Sciences and Biological Sciences: Kenneth H. Nealson, PhD

Wilford and Daris Zinsmeyer Early Career Chair in Marine Studies and Associate Professor of Earth Sciences and Biological Sciences: A. Joshua West, PhD

Dean’s Professor of Earth Sciences and Professor of Earth Sciences: John Vidale, PhD

Gabilan Assistant Professor of Earth Sciences: Emily Cooperdock, PhD

Professors: Jan Amend, PhD; Yehuda Ben-Zion, PhD; William M. Berelson, PhD; David J. Bottjer, PhD*; Frank A. Corsetti, PhD*; James F. Dolan, PhD*; Sarah J. Feakins, PhD; Douglas E. Hammond, PhD*; Heidi Houston, PhD; Steven P. Lund, PhD*; James W. Moffett, PhD (Biological Sciences); Scott R. Paterson, PhD; John P. Platt, PhD*; Sergio Sanudo-Wilhelmy, PhD (Biological Sciences); Lowell D. Stott, PhD

Associate Professors: Sylvain Barbot, PhD; Julien Emile-Geay, PhD; Seth John, PhD

Assistant Professor: Naomi Levine, PhD (Biological Sciences)

Associate Professors (Research): Douglas LaRowe, PhD; David A. Okaya, PhD

Emeritus Professors: Gregory A. Davis, PhD; Thomas L. Henyey, PhD; Teh-Lung Ku, PhD; Terence G. Langdon, PhD, DSc (Materials Science); Bernard W. Pipkin, PhD*; Charles G. Sammis, PhD*; Ta-liang Teng, PhD

*Recipient of university-wide or college teaching award.

Undergraduate Degrees

Honor Society

The Department of Earth Sciences has one honor society: the Omega Chapter of Sigma Gamma Epsilon, the national honorary earth sciences fraternity. “Sig Gam” is an undergraduate organization that sponsors undergraduate activities within the department.

Undergraduate Honors Program

The department offers an honors program for students pursuing either a BS or a BA in Earth Sciences. Students wishing to participate in this program must complete GEOL 494x Senior Thesis . Honors will be awarded upon successful completion of the thesis and attainment of an overall GPA of 3.0 and a GPA of 3.5 in courses in the major.

Grade Point Average in Major Subject

A grade of C or higher is required in each course in the earth sciences courses used to complete the department or physical sciences major.

Progressive Degree Program in Geological Sciences

This program permits exceptional students to receive both a BS and MS in geological sciences in not more than 10 semesters. It is intended for students with extraordinary geological sciences preparation and performance who demonstrate a superior level of overall scholarship, including a GPA of 3.5 or better. Students may apply on completion of 64 units of course work but not later than the end of the junior year (or the completion of 96 units). The application for admission to a progressive degree program must be accompanied by an approved course plan proposal and letters of recommendation from two USC faculty members in the Department of Earth Sciences. The requirements for both the BS and MS degrees must be satisfied. Further details about progressive degree programs can be found here.

Graduate Degrees

The department prepares professional Earth Scientists for careers in academia, government and industry. A wide range of specializations is offered in the department including climate science, sedimentary geology, paleobiology, paleoclimatology, paleoecology, micro paleontology, paleoceanography, geochemistry, geobiology, geophysics, geodesy, geomorphology, seismology, engineering geology and properties of Earth materials, igneous and metamorphic petrology, structural geology and tectonics, and interdisciplinary options. Degrees in ocean sciences (through the Graduate Program in Ocean Sciences) are available.

Admission Requirements


An applicant for admission should have the equivalent of the courses in Earth sciences, chemistry, mathematics, and physics required for the BS degree in geological sciences. Applicants with an undergraduate degree in science or engineering who lack required Earth sciences courses will also be given consideration. Other degrees may be acceptable on a case-by-case basis.


The Department of Earth Sciences requires the following evidence for admission to its doctoral program: strong undergraduate background and a superior academic record as documented by GPAs in undergraduate and any completed graduate work, Graduate Record Examinations scores no more than five years old in the verbal and quantitative General Test, and at least three letters of recommendation from undergraduate and, if applicable, graduate advisers and professors. The number of students accepted in any one year depends on available space in the department and acceptance for advisement by one or more professors.

Funding is offered for MS degrees only when completed en route to the pursuit of a PhD degree.


The online USC graduate admissions application will refer applicants to a required supplemental departmental application. The department admits students for both the fall and spring semesters; however, applicants for assistantships and fellowships are encouraged to apply for the fall semester.

Degree Requirements

These degrees are under the jurisdiction of the Graduate School. Refer to the Requirements for Graduation  section and The Graduate School  section of this catalogue for general regulations. All courses applied toward the degrees must be courses accepted by the Graduate School.

Interdisciplinary Programs

Interdisciplinary programs can be arranged for students also interested in astronomy, bioscience, chemistry, engineering, oceanography and physics. The Department of Earth Sciences maintains laboratories for micro-paleontologic, paleobiologic, mineralogic, petrologic, geophysical, geochemical and oceanographic research, and collections are available for comparative work in invertebrate paleontology. Students interested in systematic studies will find a wealth of material, available for comparative purposes, in the adjacent Los Angeles County Museum. Facilities for research in sedimentation, oceanography and marine geology are provided in the department and by the university’s research fleet.


    Bachelor’s DegreeMinorMaster’s DegreeDoctoral Degree


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