Graduate Program


The goal of the graduate program in astronomy is education and mentoring of our students toward their long-term careers in research and teaching in astronomy or related STEM fields.  More specifically, the program aims to produce doctoral graduates with a broad knowledge of Astronomy, effective communication skills, and experience in cutting-edge research.

Astro Grads 2016

Broad knowledge of Astronomy is gained through a full set of graduate astronomy courses covering every major research area in astrophysics (see the curriculum below). For most students, the curriculum during each quarter of their first two years includes: two main graduate courses in astronomy, which provide a sequenced set; a third formal course in a related field (e.g., astrobiology, physics, statistics, computer science, etc.) and/or faculty supervised research; and, weekly participation in astronomy colloquium, seminars, and journal club.

Effective communication skills are gained partly through the required one year of service as a teaching assistantship.  This is usually done during the student’s first year.  Being a teaching assistant also helps to broaden knowledge of astronomy.  Other activities that help with communication skills include the journal club class, in which students present recent literature to their peers.  Many of the graduate courses also require oral presentations.  For those students wishing to hone their teaching skills, opportunities are available to be an instructor during the summer term.

Development of research skills starts in the first year.  Students are encouraged to start with a small research project with a faculty member while they are taking classes.  After two years of classes, the focus turns research leading to the Ph.D. dissertation, which is usually completed around the 6th year.

Two major exams need to be passed before becoming a Ph.D. candidate. The first is the “Qualifying exam”, a 6 hour written exam that focuses on the course work.  This must be passed by the end of the third year. The second is the “General Exam”, which is an oral presentation by the student on a topic related to the Ph.D. research topic.  As well as demonstrating that the student is ready for state-of-the-art research in the area of interest, this exam is yet another opportunity for the student to improve their communication skills.

Although most students obtain a masters degree along the way, our program emphasizes the doctoral degree.  Students are eligible to receive a master’s degree after adequate performance on the Qualifying Exam and when they have met the Graduate School requirements.

Core Curriculum

The “core” curriculum for graduate students is as follows, with the ‘A’ and ‘B’ sequences offered in alternate years. Depending on when a student enters the program, he or she may take Year ‘A’, with emphasis on stellar astronomy, followed by Year ‘B’, with emphasis on galactic and extragalactic astronomy, or vice versa.

Autumn Thermodynamics-Statistical Mechanics (507)
Radiative Processes in Astrophysics (519)
Hydrodynamics-Magnetohydrodynamics (508)
Interstellar Matter (541)
Winter Stellar Atmospheres (521/522)
Origin of the Solar System (557)
Astrophysical Dynamics (509)
Galactic Structure (511)
Spring Stellar Interiors/Evolution (531/532)
High Energy Astrophysics (561)
Extragalactic Astronomy (512)
Cosmology (513)

It is expected that all graduate students will take the above 12 courses during their first two years, regardless of whether or not they pass the qualifying exam after their first year. Because of the importance of these courses, they should be taken for a grade, rather than credit/no-credit. Students who elect not to take one of these courses should have an extremely strong reason for doing so, and should discuss that decision in advance with the Graduate Advisor. A student who has elected not to take a course, and then does poorly on relevant questions on the qualifying exam, may be asked to take the course the next time it is offered.

Students must register for at least 10 credits each quarter. Typically 6 of these are from core courses, with additional credits coming from Journal Club (575 – 1 credit), in which each student presents a paper of general interest, and Colloquium (576 – 1 credit), in which visiting faculty give lectures to the entire department. The remaining 2 credits may come from other courses of the student’s choice, or from independent research with a faculty member (600).

In addition to the core courses, there are other courses which the student may elect to take, such as Nuclear Astrophysics (cross-listed with the Physics Department) and courses in Planetary Astronomy and Observation and Instrumentation. Click here for a full listing of graduate courses offered by the Astronomy Department.