Grad FAQs

Here are some questions visiting prospective graduate students frequently ask the graduate students. The answers are just the informal opinions from some current grad students!

What are the academic requirements for the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees?

It is possible to qualify for the M.S. degree after one full year of classes (3 classes per quarter, each for 3-4 credit hours) if you pass the written qualifying exam at the 60% level (roughly). The qual is a 6-hour written test offered each June during which you answer at least 10 of 15-16 problems, most of which are based on the Astronomy classes offered to graduates in a two-year cycle, with a few testing more general knowledge. Students are not expected to pass the exam at the Ph.D. (70%) level until their second year, but a few do pass at the M.S. level their first time, and a very small number pass at the Ph.D. level on their first try!

Passing at the Ph.D. level does not admit you to Ph.D. candidacy, however. It simply allows you to proceed on to the next exam: the General, a 45-minute talk followed by rigorous oral questioning on a subject related to your thesis topic (you get one full week to prepare). Then comes the dissertation writing, of course. The last step is the Final Exam: a thesis defense, usually a formality. You also have to complete a certain number of credit hours, but that’s never a problem.

The typical student completes the general exam during their third to fourth year. (There are exceptions in both directions.) Two+ years later you should be completing your thesis and looking for jobs.

What will my class schedule look like?

The classes offered here are described in detail in the official UW course catalogue (see also the link to the curriculum).

Generally, enough classes are offered per quarter to give you a full schedule, though you have the option of taking or auditing any class at the University (for which you are qualified). You may also choose to sign up for research credits (this is what is known as a “600” course) with a faculty member of your choice, as long as you both agree beforehand on a topic and so forth. This can go from a small one quarter reading project to a labor intensive several quarter observational/data analysis one, and often results in some work (either theoretical or observational) that is published.

Most students take standard classes for their first two years here and then concentrate almost exclusively on research classes with faculty in later years. Once you pass your general exam and advance to candidacy, you take “800” level dissertation credits.

Will I need to be a Teaching Assistant?

Everyone must serve as a T.A. at least three times before they get their Ph.D.; typically, grads T.A. their entire first year to meet this requirement. In addition, some of the night and summer classes have traditionally been taught by upper level grads. Most astronomers eventually end up in jobs which involve some teaching, and we try to prepare our grads for this.

Being a T.A. involves running a discussion section that meets in conjunction with a large lecture in one of the introductory Astronomy courses offered (here is the page for one of the courses offered every quarter, Astro 101). Typically, 4-5 grad students will T.A. for a particular course; more experienced T.A.s are mixed with newer T.A.s so that they will have some help with their responsibilities. The other classes you might TA for are Astro 150 (The Planets), Astro 102 (1 TA; basically its 101 for science majors), Astro 480/481 (upper-level undergrad observation and data reduction courses), and sometimes Astrobiology 115 (three TAs but available for grads from all AB departments).

If you aren’t supported on a fellowship or the research grant of a professor, you will be given the opportunity to earn salary by being a T.A. This is not guaranteed during the summer, but traditionally, the department has not had any problems finding support for graduate students who choose to stay with the Department during the summer (good thing because summers are so nice in Seattle!).

What other responsibilities will I have besides my own classes?

You’ll only be responsible for your classwork and any research you choose to pursue. If you’re a T.A., you’ll also be responsible for teaching two sections of about 25 students each and some fair fraction of the grading for the course (the maximum number of hours you can spend on T.A. work is 20/week. In practice the number of hours varies significantly, with the peak being around exam times!).

But always bear in mind that the Ph.D. is not a free ticket to a job. Being fully prepared to win a professional position is your goal. To this end watch the job market and fully prepare yourself for a bumpy ride. This means that you may wish to hone secondary skills such as instrument design, software development, and highly effective teaching. These are the extras which can give you the edge in the battle for a satisfying career upon graduation.

What is Seattle like?

It doesn’t rain here all the time. We just tell people that so they won’t move here. During the winter months, the days are pretty short and it rains for much of the day for at least half of the days. The other half of the days (from October through April or so) tend to be partly to mostly cloudy with rare periods of a few sunny days in a row. On the other hand, the summer months (from May to September) are just gorgeous, with long warm days and temperatures rarely going above 85.

There is plenty to do here; but don’t take our word for it–try following some of the local links from the Life in Seattle page.

What is the cost of living in the Seattle area?

Most first-year students make in the neighborhood of $2200/month after taxes (your salary goes up when you pass the qual and again when you pass your general exam). Typical rent for a single-occupancy liveable apartment in Seattle is around $1200-1400/month, but you can save a lot by finding shared housing. Several grad students are recent home buyers and would be happy to discuss the current market with you.

An informal survey of the grad population and their recent apt-hunting experience forms the basis for the following table (last updated 2015):

Area Description Total Rent
Capitol Hill studio $950 – $1050
Capitol Hill 1 bedroom apt. $1450 – $1600
Central District/Madison Valley 2 bedroom house $2300
Montlake/Portage Bay 2 bedroom apt. $1675
Eastlake 1 bedroom apt. $1600
Greenwood 1 bedroom apt. $1400
Queen Anne 1 bedroom apt. $1200 – $1400
University District 1 bedroom apt. $1050
Wallingford 1 bedroom apt. $1300 – $1600
Wallingford 2 bedroom apt. $1600 – $2000
Fremont 1 bedroom apt. $1450 – $1600

Quarterly fees must be paid by all non-fellowship grad students, and this amounts to around $350-$400. This is good for a universal bus and light rail pass (UPASS) and access to the athletic facilities (the intramural athletic center here is very nice).

Electricity is cheap in Seattle (especially compared to the East Coast). For a 1 bedroom, the yearly average is ~ $20/month. W/S/G is more expensive, but typically you only have to worry about it if you’re renting a house, which can run $150-$300 depending on usage. Apartment buildings usually include W/S/G in rental price. For older apartments/homes, gas is used for heating and/or cooking, which for a 1 bedroom averages ~$20/month.

What about transportation?

As a grad student, UW issues you a U-PASS (subsidized and absorbed into your student fees), which allows you to use, in addition to the lightrail, all six central Puget Sound transit agencies (buses and water taxis): King County Metro Transit, Community Transit, Sound Transit, Pierce Transit, Everett Transit and Kitsap Transit. . There are several routes that go to and from the University in a variety of directions at regular (small) intervals every day. It’s quite easy to find a good place to live near a bus route, and many students here survive easily without owning cars. If you want to live even further away from Seattle itself in order to save a little money, there are a few good inter-county public transportation options, but you have to suffer from less flexibility as far as bus schedules are concerned. Commuting on a daily basis in and out of Seattle is not fun, though. See here for details on the UPASS and transit tools.

If you’re interested in commuting via biking, Seattle is a very bike friendly city (despite the hills). The Burke Gilman trail (which runs East-West and is flat) is a major means for people who live in Ballard, Fremont, Wallingford, Sandpoint, and Wedgwood neighborhoods to commute to the department. Your bike ride North-South will have more hills, but there are many greenways and roads with protected bike lanes. See here for a Bike Map.

I would like to pursue research in “x”. Does anyone here do “x”?

The best way to find out is to check out the faculty research page.

If you’re planning on doing mostly observational research, you should check out the information we have here on the Apache Point 3.5m telescope. It is available to the department for about 1/4 of the nights each year, and the proposal cycle is currently quarterly, with greater priority given to thesis-related proposals by graduate students. The telescope is capable of optical and infrared imaging and spectroscopy and the plans are for more capabilities in the near future. See the APO web page for more details.

What health insurance benefits am I entitled to?

You can visit the University’s Graduate Appointee Insurance Plan page for all of the technical details. Here are the basics: you get free dental insurance, free optical insurance (good for exams and lenses/frames/contacts up to $100 or so) and free health insurance with the preferred provider being the University of Washington Medical Center, probably one of the top five hospitals on the West Coast (the insurance pays 90% of the cost of using the hospital, and there’s a $75 per quarter deductible). You get totally free health care for minor health problems at the campus clinic, Hall Health.

What kind of facilities do the grad students have here?

The new building we have here is state-of-the-art, with plenty of windows, spacious offices and nice classroom facilities. There is the e-Science institute  on the 6th floor of the building with beautiful views and meeting rooms, as well as study spaces. There is also a coffee bar down on the first floor, the H-Bar (get it?). All grad students have offices shared by at most two other people. Undergraduates who wander in to office hours always compliment us on how nice they are.

Astronomy graduate students at the University of Washington have access to an extensive array of superb computing resources. Each grad student in our program has his or her own Linux desktop computer. When these computers are not being used by their owners, they are added into our department’s “Condor Pool.” This is a system which manages a network of idle computers (usually 30-60) and allows them to be utilized for high-power research tasks that require the use of many computers simultaneously. All of our grad students have accounts for this pool and many use it on a regular basis.

In 2015, the Student Technology Committee (STF) awarded several nodes on the Hyak supercluster to the High Performance Computing Club (HPCC). All graduate and undergraduate students are now eligible to receive free access to Hyak nodes through the HPCC. (Also – there’s a backfill queue, so “shadow” nodes are available at some times beyond the student ones). To get started, take a look at the HPCC website and create an account. There are some requirements to get access to the nodes, depending on your experience with supercomputing and/or Hyak. At most you will have some reading to do on the Hyak Wiki. If you become a member of the Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) research group you will have access to additional dedicated VPL nodes on Hyak as well.

In addition to large amounts of processing power, the graduate students in our department have a vast amount of disk space for data storage. In the last three years, our graduate students have acquired 8.5 terabytes of disk space to store research data. This breaks down to roughly 300 gigabytes per student.

Lastly, many of our graduate students spend a great deal of time traveling to conferences and workshops. To help financially support these and other research-related activities, the department offers grants Jacobsen Fund for graduate students, which accepts applications every quarter.

What do grad students do in their spare time?

The grad students regularly put together softball (Infrared Sox), ultimate frisbee (Scattered Disks), and soccer (Pulsar Kicks) teams to compete in intramurals. The recent addition of a brand new foosball table has also contributed to “camaraderie.” All in all, it’s a very sociable department, with weekly pizza fests on Friday, daily coffee get-togethers (both events for students, staff and faculty) and Friday afternoon “whine time” for grad students. Students keep wildly varying schedules since the only real constraint on your time once you’re done taking classes is any T.A. responsibilities you might have.

I’m interested in big data. How can I get involved in data science?

For students who want to supplement the astronomy education with data science skills, there are two related but different big data programs: (1) the Advanced Data Science Option (see here)  and (2) the Big Data IGERT Fellowship Program (see here).

The advanced data science option is open to anyone who is interested; students just have to get the consent of their advisor and send an email saying you want to do it. Students must complete 3 out of 4 possible data science related classes on top of the courses required by the astronomy department and attend a 1 hr/week seminar for 4 quarters. This does NOT involve funding of any sort; it’s just extra coursework designed to prepare students to tackle data science problems.

The Big Data IGERT program is an NSF funded fellowship program (NB: only US citizens are eligible). This program requires a formal application which is due in the summer, and the program is only open to students entering either their first or second year of the graduate program. If you are accepted into the program, you get 2 years of funding! The coursework requirements are exactly the same as for the advanced data science option, but on top of that, your thesis must involve data science and you also have to have a secondary advisor in a different department, work closely with that secondary advisor for 2 quarters, and do an industry internship.

Both programs are run by the eScience institute and encourage interdisciplinary work between participating departments, including computer science, statistics, chemical engineering, genome sciences, biology, and oceanography. Participating in these programs guarantees that you will be exposed to ideas and scientific approaches outside of astronomy.

I’m interested in the astrobiology program; what is it like?

Astrobiology is an intrinsically interdisciplinary field. The UW Astrobiology (UWAB) program offers 2 graduate-track options: 1) Graduate certificate in astrobio and 2) Dual-Title PhD in astrobio. Both tracks require almost the same interdisciplinary coursework: ASTBIO 501 + 502 (two 4-credit blitz that launches you into astro disciplines and topics); ASTBIO 575 + 576 (1 credit astrobio seminar and colloquium); a professional career development course (a super helpful class that covers what to expect and how to prepare yourself in academia and industry careers; it culminates in a mock proposal panel which familiarizes you with proposal writing AND critiquing/selection); and a cognate course outside your home department (students in astro often choose statistics, compsci, atmospheric science and geology courses that also benefit their research). These courses must be taken on top of our required astro classes (yes, it’s a lot of classes, but definitely manageable).

To go the extra mile and get a PhD in astronomy and astrobiology, you must participate in 3 UWAB workshops (these are super fun, past workshops include excavating dinosaur bones in Montana, studying microbial mats in Yellowstone, learn to be an oceanographer on a UW research vessel), conduct a research rotation, outside your home dept (and often outside the UW) for a quarter, and, most importantly, your dissertation project must be astrobiology-related (see the program’s research areas here). Chances are that if you’re interested in the astrobiology program and willing to go through with all the requirements, your PhD is astrobiology related (a committee determines astrobiology relevance, but this is basically a formality if the AB faculty in astronomy have signed off). There is almost no reason for an astronomy PhD student to choose the certificate over the dual track (unless you are leaving the program with a Masters or you change your focus of study midway through).

The Astrobiology Program currently has some funding for TAships available through ASTBIO 115 in the fall and funding for your research rotation quarter, but that might not always be the case. Check with your advisor and the AB Program Director (currently Professor Vikki Meadows). Professor David Catling in the Earth and Space Sciences department currently approves rotation assignments. He also maintains a list of potential projects and mentors on campus, so ping him if you can’t think of one. You’re encouraged to plan your rotation at the end of your second year and do it your third year. In reality, the quarter students do their rotation ranges wildly from second year to last year, and location ranges from at UW, to NASA centers, to international collaborations. Just don’t let it sneak up on you. The quarter after the conclusion of your rotation you must give a ~30 minute talk at an astrobiology program seminar.