students collecting water samples

Master’s Degree Requirements

Master’s of Arts Degree

Students in our Master of Arts (M.A.) program focus on a range of topics within human, environmental, and physical geography. There are two required courses in the M.A. program: one in geographic research design (Geog. 700) and the other in geographic theory (Geog. 701). Beyond this, with the help of a faculty advisor, M.A. students develop a program of study designed to support a thesis research topic. Diverse faculty interests make possible a wide variety of specializations in human, environmental and physical geography.

  • A minimum of 30 units of courses numbered 500 or above as approved by the geography department master’s advising committee. At least 24 of these units must be from the geography department.
  • A minimum of 18 of the 30 units of coursework must be 600- or 700-level courses.
  • Geography 700 and 701, normally taken during the first two semesters.
  • Completion of Geography 799A (Thesis)

Master’s of Science Degree

Concentration in GIScience

Students in this program will acquire and apply valuable skills in techniques such as geographic information systems (GIS), specialized applications of GIS in big data analytics and business location decisions, computer programming for GIS and spatial data bases, spatial database management, computer cartography, and/or remote sensing. Completing a thesis in GIScience provides the student with an opportunity to gain experience in real world applications or to further investigate more theoretical concepts.

  • A minimum of 30 units of which not more than six may be in disciplines other than geography and at least 15 units from 600- and 700-numbered courses in geography
  • Geography 700 and 701
  • A thesis in the area of geographic information science (Geography 799A)
  • Fifteen units from the following list of geographic information science courses: Geography 581 through 585, 589, 591 through 594, 683 through 688L, 780
  • Additional 500-, 600-, and 700-level coursework determined in consultation with the student’s thesis advisor.

Concentration in Watershed Science

Watershed science is the study of how ecosystems, landforms and soils, climate, water, and human activities interact within a spatial context. Although the movement of water defines the boundaries of watersheds, watershed science involves the study of a wide range of human and natural processes, their interactions, and the implications of this complex interplay for environmental assessment and management. Students in this program will develop expertise in integrating environmental science (geology, biology, hydrology, physics, physical geography, chemistry) within a spatial context to address environmental issues. Students will take graduate courses in core sciences, spatial techniques and environmental management and develop a thesis directed at a particular application on watershed science.

  • A minimum of 30 units with no more than nine units from disciplines other than geography and at least 15 units from 600- and 700-numbered courses
  • Geography 700 and 701
  • A thesis in the area of watershed science (Geography 799A)
  • Geography 511 and six units of methods courses selected from Geography 576, 581 through 585, 589, 591-592 (formally 587-588) 683 through 688L, 780
  • Advanced coursework (12 units) in watershed science to be determined in consultation with the student’s advisor.


Dr. Hilary McMillan
Office: Storm Hall 308B
Email: [email protected]

Important Links:


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

The following is a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) and answers about the Geography Master’s program at SDSU and completing the degree.


SDSU limits transfer credits to 9 semester units. Also note that during your first year in our program you must file an Official Program of study approved by the department Master’s advising committee. Transferring units is not automatic; they must be approved as appropriate to the Official Program of study.
Yes, Geography 701 and 700 during the first two semesters. All students must take these two classes.

We generally require that a student hold a Master’s degree before entering the Ph.D. program. Many of our incoming Master’s students come in with the expectation of eventually working on the doctorate. We believe that working on a Master’s degree provides important training for subsequent doctoral research.

Any inquiries regarding the doctoral program should be directed to: Professor Piotr Jankowski at [email protected].

Most students who have attempted this never came close to completing the program. Furthermore, most of the classes you may need to take may never be offered at night. Think very carefully before deciding to do this.

Yes. All students must complete the degree within seven years of matriculation.

Program of Study and Course Requirements

The POS is a list of courses that you will take in order to graduate with the MA/MS degree. Some courses in the POS are mandatory for all students (e.g. 700, 701, 799A), while many are elective. See the POS forms in the Master’s Handbook for the requirements for your specific degree program (MA, MS-GIS, MS-Watershed). See the forms page for programs of study.

If you filed for concurrent graduate credit while in your last semester as an undergraduate then the course would be footnoted in your undergraduate record and it will also be carried over into your graduate record. The course would be listed twice on the transcript; once under your undergraduate record and once under your graduate record.

If you did not file for concurrent graduate credit then you would need to make up the 3 units associated with the POS requirements in order to achieve the 30-unit total. The Graduate Advisor (Biggs) determines whether to 1) waive to content and have you take another course towards your POS requirements or 2) recommend that you retake it based on the grade earned or if you need to take it as a graduate student and be required to perform at the graduate level, since some courses require additional tasks/homework/papers for graduate students.

Before you take a class that is not on your POS, fill out a new Departmental POS form (select the appropriate form for your Degree), and have it signed by both your Thesis Advisor and the Master’s Program Advisor. Clearly indicate which course will be removed by crossing it out using Track Changes or a pen, and adding the new course in a line below the dropped course. Note that if you take a new course without checking with the Thesis and Program Advisors to make sure it meets program requirements, you may not meet the requirements to graduate.

Student are eligible to take courses through Open University as long as they are not matriculated into the University and have those courses count towards their POS requirements or possible pre-reqs should the student be admitted at a later point. Any course that is taken through Open University appears on the SDSU transcript so, if the student does poorly while taking Open University courses the SDSU cumulative GPA will be impacted. Students are limited to a maximum of 9 Open University or other university units for a 30 unit POS; this total includes a combined total of courses coming from another institution and Open University. Should the student include an Open University course on the POS, the 7-year deadline by when they must complete their degree requirements begins with the Open University course that is on their POS and not when they were admitted to the MA/MS program.

Open University courses count towards the GPA requirements, program requirements, unit requirements, and time to graduate as they basically are SDSU courses but are being paid through SDSU Global Campus should the student have missed admission deadlines, are trying to bring their GPA up prior to being considered for admission, or have pre-reqs and are not wanting to wait until the next admission cycle.

Job experience or current employment does not merit academic credit. However, if an employer along with faculty supervisor allow a student to perform a project at work outside of work hours, that could be considered. The student would have to propose a project and the content and contact hours would need to be approved by the department. The project would need to be a separate project/work with substantial time to work on the project outside of the student’s work hours and duties. The project cannot include a student’s current work duties and cannot be performed during work hours. The project would have to be evaluated by the supervising faculty, who would determine if it merits academic credit and the number of credit hours that would be allocated. Depending on the project, the supervising faculty member would determine if the department would count it as a 596, 797 or 798 course. Lastly, there would need to be some sort of contract with the supervising faculty member that outlines the objectives, learning outcomes, and assessment, which will be used to determine credit/grade, time spent on project and meeting with supervising faculty, and assignments.

Advancing to Candidacy and Thesis Proposal Defense

Advancement to candidacy means you have completed one year of coursework, maintained a 3.0 GPA, and can now formally declare your thesis committee with the Thesis Committee Form. You advance to candidacy once you a) submit your Program of Study to the Geography Department coordinator and b) finish at least 12 units of coursework with a 3.0 GPA. Most Geography Master’s Students will have completed 15 units by the end of their first year. The official advancement to candidacy in your my.SDSU account occurs in the summer after your first year, usually by July.
You should start forming your thesis committee by consulting with your Thesis Advisor in your first two semesters. You can convene your thesis committee for your thesis proposal defense anytime after your first semester. Do not wait until you have advanced to candidacy and get the Thesis Committee Form to form and consult with your committee.

You will need the Thesis Committee Packet, which includes the “Appointment of Thesis Committee/Project Form.” The form must be filled out by the student to the extent possible, approved via email by all Thesis Committee members and then emailed to the Graduate Advisor, who will forward to Graduate Division. It is the student’s responsibility to ask the committee members for their Employee IDs (EMPL ID) and enter those EMPL IDs into the Thesis Committee Packet form before sending to the Graduate Advisor.

The packet has two parts, including both the Appointment Form and a copyright agreement with your thesis chair, which is submitted as a separate document along with the Appointment of Thesis Committee/Project Form in the same Committee Packet email to the Graduate Advisor. Students are only able to file the Thesis Committee Packet after they have Advanced to Candidacy, which usually occurs during the summer after the first year. This form must be approved by the Graduate Division before students will be allowed to enroll in Thesis 799A.

The committee is normally composed of two members from the Geography Department and one member from another department (e.g. Geological Sciences, Anthropology, etc). In some cases the committee can have a fourth person, but note that this can complicate scheduling of the Proposal and Final Thesis defenses. The committee members are determined by the student consulting with the Thesis Advisor.
If the prospective committee member is adjunct faculty in a department at SDSU, that person can serve as the third member on your committee. If they are not adjunct faculty at SDSU, the person could only serve as a fourth member of the committee, and would need approval via the Petition for lecturers, Adjuncts, and outside experts without SDSU affiliation to serve on Thesis committees form.
No. The Thesis Committee Form will only be issued to you by Graduate Division after you advance to candidacy, which usually happens in summer after your first year. You are strongly advised to defend your thesis proposal in spring of your first year, before you are able to obtain the committee Form and Packet. Have the committee sign the Department Proposal Defense form when you defend your proposal in the spring of your first year, and Thesis Committee Form in the fall of your second year after you have advanced to candidacy.
Yes, pending approval of your thesis advisor, though this is strongly discouraged because it gives inadequate opportunity for the committee to have meaningful input to your thesis, and puts you at risk of the committee not approving of your study design, which could delay completion of the thesis.
Print out and bring the Completion of Thesis Proposal Defense form to your thesis defense, and give the signed form to the Program Coordinator.

Defending your thesis and graduation: Deadlines

799A is typically taken in the spring semester of your second year. The schedule number is obtained from Graduate Division. In order to get the schedule number, you need to have submitted your Thesis Committee Packet, which can be obtained in person from the Graduate Affairs Office (SSE-1410). It is not required to have defended your proposal in order to register for 799A, but it is highly encouraged to defend your thesis proposal before spring of your second year.

The deadlines to apply for graduation are posted at Graduate Affairs. Note that for spring and summer graduation, the deadline for application to graduate can be as early as January.

See Montezuma Publishing. The “Publication Deadline” is the most important. The “Submission” deadline does not apply to Geography students, whose advisors and not Montezuma Publishing approve the final thesis content and format.
No. That deadline is only relevant for students doing Plan B (Exam), while all Geography students are in Plan A (thesis).

Defending the thesis: Forms and procedures

The Signature page is the main document that will be signed by all committee members following the final thesis defense. If the thesis is in-person, the student should print out the form and have the committee members sign as agreed upon by the committee. If remote, the student will send the signature form via email to committee members for their signatures, per the committee recommendation. Committee members can print, sign and scan, or can include their digital signature on the Word file and email the form with signature back to the student. There is no need for all signatures to be on a single page—you can have 3 separate Signature page files, each with only one signature on it. See Montezuma Publishing - Thesis and Dissertation Services for more information, including MS Word Templates for Signature Pages.

The Completion of Thesis in an Approved Format Form will be signed by your main Thesis Advisor and sent to the Geography Department Graduate Advisor after you submit your revised thesis document to your main Thesis Advisor and/or thesis committee, per the committee recommendation at the thesis defense.

The Signature page is then submitted to Montezuma Publishing along with the final thesis PDF. See Montezuma Publishing’s website above for more details.

  1. If your committee requested revisions to the thesis document, you must complete those revisions to the satisfaction of your advisor and/or thesis committee, depending on what was agreed upon at the defense.

  2. Once your revisions are complete and the final format of your thesis PDF document is approved by your committee, have your main thesis advisor sign the “Completion of Thesis in an Approved Format” form.

    Covid update: A wet signature is not needed on the “Completion...” form; instead, the student fills out the form digitally as a pdf, and forwards it to their thesis advisor. The thesis advisor then forwards it to the Master’s Advisor, with a statement in the email that they “Approve the thesis in its final format.” The Master’s Advisor then files the Thesis Defense form with Graduate Division online; the student does not need to initiate the Thesis Defense form process.

  3. Submit the signed “Completion of Thesis in an Approved Format” to the Master’s Advisor.

  4. Submit a hardcopy of your signature page to Montezuma Publishing.

  5. Email a PDF of your thesis to Montezuma Publishing at [email protected]. See Montezuma Publishing for details.
No and no, except for the preliminary pages. Your thesis advisor is responsible for approving your thesis in its final format, except for the preliminary pages (Title page through Acknowledgements), which need to follow MP’s requirements. Formatting suggestions and templates. Please see sample theses at the SDSU Library website, which has online versions readily available; search for the name of a recent graduate--the record will be called “Dissertation” even if it’s a MA/MS thesis.

Graduation delay and Leave of Absence

If you file the thesis after the Publication Deadline but before the “Avoid Re-enrollment in 799B” deadline, then you will need to reapply for graduation in the summer, but will not need to enroll in 799B in the summer. If you file after the Avoid Re-enrollment in 799B deadline, then you need to enroll in at least one unit of 799B during the summer, and reapply to graduate in summer.

To reapply to graduate or transfer your graduation term, email [email protected] and they will send you a Cancellation form. You will not have to repay the application fee.

799B enrollment and deadlines 

Leave geography site

If you don’t finish and graduate in the spring semester of your second year, you must register in 799B the semester you plan to graduate and contact Graduate Division to change your semester of graduation (see previous question). Students who have completed all of the coursework on their POS and only have to complete their thesis are eligible to enroll in 799B through the SDSU Global Campus, and so do not need to file for leave of absence and do not have to enroll in 799B continuously, only in the semester they plan to graduate. Students would only need to apply for the leave of absence if they planned on enrolling for 799B through main campus. As long as you plan on registering through Extended Studies, you do not need to file for a leave of absence.

The Handbook for New Graduate Students has information regarding leave of absences policies.

799B enrollment and deadlines

A leave of absence occurs when a student needs to take a semester off of their graduate program and has not completed all of the courses on their Program of Study. Students may request no more than four semesters of leave of absence during their time at SDSU. If a student needs more than four leaves or if they do not file for a leave of absence, they will either have to remain continuously enrolled e.g. in 799B, or reapply for admission to the program. See the previous FAQ and the Graduate Handbook for details on how to apply. Note that starting in Spring 2019, application for leave of absence is done online through their webportal account.