The Department of Geography is a leader in the field of geography and offers exceptional opportunities for graduate education. The department has been consistently rated as one of the best in the country and, for over 100 years, has been the training ground for generations of geographers. The department's strength is reflected in its ability to attract top-caliber students, compete for significant research funding, and publish foundational scholarly work. The department maintains strength across the full spectrum of subfields within the discipline, and is organized into four major thematic areas: physical geography, people and environment, human geography, and cartography/GIS.

Department faculty and graduate students represent a diverse community within which a wide range of perspectives, approaches and research strategies is accommodated. The faculty has long been recognized nationally and internationally for outstanding contributions to geography and beyond. Many graduate students have gone on to prominence within government, industry, and academia and some of the most influential names in geography received their training in Madison.

The Ph.D. degree is founded primarily upon specialized advanced training and research. Students may specialize in a single subdisciplinary area or a combination of areas and are expected to engage in research leading to a dissertation that makes an original and significant contribution to geographic knowledge and ideas.

Currently 69 students are enrolled in the graduate program: 7 are pursuing the M.S. in geography, 13 are pursuing the M.S. in cartography/GIS; and 49 are completing the Ph.D. The department takes in roughly 10–15 new graduate students each year.


Housed in historic Science Hall, the Department of Geography offers exceptional facilities for advanced study in geography, cartography, and GIS. The department maintains the University Cartographic Laboratory, the Arthur Robinson Map and Air Photo Library, the Geography Library of 65,000 volumes, a computer lab, several computer classrooms, and laboratory facilities specializing in biogeography, biogeochemistry, paleoecology, geomorphology, and soil research. In addition, the building houses the Wisconsin State Cartographer's Office, the History of Cartography Project, and the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

Graduate students may supplement their work in the geography department with study in other departments of the university, and there are frequent opportunities for advanced work in interdepartmental seminars. The location of the state capital at Madison makes possible easy contact with the state agencies, and some federal agencies.

The department evaluates applicants to its graduate program on the basis of previous academic record, Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores, letters of recommendation, and personal statement. The personal statement of research interest is very important to the department in imagining how the student might benefit from pursuing research with the faculty.

Students are accepted in the fall semester only. The deadline for applications wishing to be considered for financial aid is December 15 of the preceding year. (Applicants to the online professional masters named option in cartography/GIS can apply as late as the summer prior to courses beginning. Students in the GIS development named option are not eligible for departmental or university financial aid.) Contact the department for other admissions deadlines.

Graduate School Admissions

Graduate admissions is a two-step process between academic degree programs and the Graduate School. Applicants must meet requirements of both the program(s) and the Graduate School. Once you have researched the graduate program(s) you are interested in, apply online.  

Graduate School Resources

Resources to help you afford graduate study might include assistantships, fellowships, traineeships, and financial aid. Further funding information is available from the Graduate School. Be sure to check with your program for individual policies and processes related to funding.

Program Resources

Roughly half the department's graduate students receive financial aid in the form of fellowships, teaching assistantships, or research assistantships. Most forms of financial assistance include eligibility for health insurance coverage and remission of tuition.

Minimum Graduate School Requirements

Review the Graduate School minimum academic progress and degree requirements, in addition to the program requirements listed below.

Major Requirements


Face to Face Evening/Weekend Online Hybrid Accelerated
Yes No No No No

Mode of Instruction Definitions


Minimum Credit Requirement 51 credits
Minimum Residence Credit Requirement 32 credits
Minimum Graduate Coursework Requirement Half of degree coursework (26 credits out of 51 total credits) must be completed graduate-level coursework; courses with the Graduate Level Coursework attribute are identified and searchable in the university's Course Guide.
Overall Graduate GPA Requirement 3.00 GPA required.
Other Grade Requirements No other grade requirements.
Assessments and Examinations Students must pass a general exam covering one of the breadth areas and a specific exam devised and graded by individual’s committee. Student must orally defend dissertation proposal before a thesis committee.
Language Requirements Competence in a non-English language can be used to fulfill skills requirement.
Doctoral Minor/Breadth Requirements All doctoral students are required to complete a minor. Students who choose to complete the Culture, History and Environment doctoral minor can use no more than one Geography course for the minor and that course must be outside of the student’s primary subarea of study

Required COURSES

Breadth Requirements

Students must complete the equivalent of one undergraduate-level course in each subarea (Physical Geography, Human Geography, People-Environment Geography, Cartography/GIS) and one undergraduate-level course in Statistics. One course taken for breadth can also be used to fulfill degree requirements. Typically, these courses are not seminars. Most students complete this coursework for breadth requirements prior to entering the program. Students who begin the program lacking one or more of the breadth courses are expected to complete such coursework by the end of the 2nd semester in the Ph.D. program.


GEOG 765 Geographical Inquiry and Analysis: An Introduction (1 cr); two (3 cr) geography seminars with two different faculty members (cannot use seminars completed as M.S. student); skills coursework (6 credits of intermediate or advanced courses)—any coursework completed as a graduate student can be used. Competence in non-English language OR quantitative and/or qualitative skills.

Graduate School Policies

The Graduate School’s Academic Policies and Procedures provide essential information regarding general university policies. Program authority to set degree policies beyond the minimum required by the Graduate School lies with the degree program faculty. Policies set by the academic degree program can be found below.

Major-Specific Policies

Graduate Program Handbook

The Graduate Program Handbook is the repository for all of the program's policies and requirements.

Prior Coursework

Graduate Work from Other Institutions

With program approval, students are allowed to count no more than 9 credits of graduate coursework from other institutions. coursework earned five or more years prior to admission to a master’s degree or earned ten years or more prior to admission to a doctoral degree is not allowed to satisfy requirements.

UW–Madison Undergraduate

No credits from a UW–Madison undergraduate degree are allowed to count toward the degree.

UW–Madison University Special

With program approval, students are allowed to count no more than 9 credits of graduate coursework as defined above taken as a UW–Madison Special student. coursework earned five or more years prior to admission to a master’s degree or earned ten year or more prior to admission to a doctoral degree is not allowed to satisfy requirements.


The Department of Geography expects graduate students to progress through a sequence of benchmarks within prescribed time periods. These benchmarks constitute a reasonable rate of accomplishment for full-time students holding teaching or research appointments. The department recognizes that individual circumstances vary, and not all students progressing toward their academic goals will hit the benchmarks exactly. Thus a student’s progress is considered unsatisfactory only after a period of time elapses following an unmet benchmark. A student not making satisfactory progress is placed on probation. For detailed information about these benchmarks and triggers for probationary status, see the department’s Criteria for Satisfactory Progress.


Committee must have a minimum of five members. Four must be graduate faculty (or former graduate faculty up to one year after resignation/retirement) and at least two of whom must be Geography faculty. At least one must be non-geography (i.e., not affiliated with the geography program).


15 credits

Time Constraints

For program-specific time constraints, please see Probation Policy above.


We consider all applicants for multi-year guaranteed funding packages. This funding, however, is not plentiful and it is competitive. Decisions about funding are typically made by late February. These funding guarantees (typically two years for M.S. students and three years for Ph.D. students) are most commonly in the form of teaching assistantships and are guaranteed at a level such that students are eligible for health insurance and tuition remission.

Graduate School Resources

Take advantage of the Graduate School's professional development resources to build skills, thrive academically, and launch your career. 

1. Articulates research problems, potentials, and limits with respect to theory, knowledge, or practice within geography.

2. Formulates ideas, concepts, designs, and/or techniques beyond the current boundaries of knowledge within geography.

3. Creates research, scholarship, or performance that makes a substantive contribution.

4. Demonstrates breadth within their learning experiences.

5. Advances contributions of geography to society.

6. Communicates complex ideas in a clear and understandable manner.

7. Fosters ethical and professional conduct.


Department Chair: Lisa Naughton

Professors: William Cronon, Robert Kaiser, Joseph Mason, Lisa Naughton, Kris Olds, Matthew Turner, John (Jack) Williams, A-Xing Zhu

Associate Professors: Ian Baird, Holly Gibbs, Erika Marin-Spiotta, Morgan Robertson, Robert Roth, Keith Woodward

Assistant Professors: Song Gao, Qunying Huang, Ken Keefover-Ring, Jenna Loyd, Sarah Moore, Stephen Young