ASTR 699: Directed Research

Last updated September 2023

Overview

Students entering the Astronomy program with a bachelor’s degree complete two ASTR 699 research projects during their first two years, each lasting about 8 months. Completing these “699 projects” is a requirement to advance to PhD candidacy and also typically results in peer-review publications led by students. The timeline for these projects is shown here, with orange for 699-1 and purple for 699-2 milestones.

During their first semester, students meet with faculty who currently have research opportunities. By the end of the semester, students select advisors for their first ASTR 699 research project and write brief project proposals.  Proposals are reviewed by the Graduate Research and Oversight Group (the GROG) and approved before research officially begins.

The first research project begins at the start of the spring semester and concludes at the start of the following fall semester. A brief progress report is due at the end of the spring semester, and a final paper, presentation, and interview of the first research project are due at the start of the fall semester.

The second research project spans the fall and spring semesters of the second year. First-year students must select an advisor by May 31 of their spring semester in order to have their funding in place by the start of Year 2. Proposals for the second project are due shortly after the presentation of the first project and will be reviewed by the GROG. A progress report is due at the start of the spring semester. The second project concludes with a final paper, presentation, and interview at the end of the spring semester of Year 2.

Below is a summary of the key milestones.  If a deadline listed below falls on a weekend or academic holiday, then the deadline will be the next business day.   Students should not make any travel plans in the relevant Sept 1-15 and May 15-31 windows until the presentation dates are finalized.

699-1 milestones

  1. Project proposals [due on last day of classes for Fall semester]
  2. GROG feedback on projects [mid-December]
  3. Midterm report [May 1]
  4. Selection of 699-2 advisor [May 31]
  5. Final reports [first day of classes for Fall semester]
  6. Oral presentations and interviews [Sept 1-15]

699-2 milestones

  1. Project proposals [October 1]
  2. GROG feedback on projects [mid-October]
  3. Midterm report [February 1]
  4. Final reports [last day of classes for Spring semester]
  5. Oral presentations and interviews [May 15-31]

Credits and grades

Students entering with a bachelor’s degree  and working toward a PhD take 7 credits of ASTR 699: 2 credits during their second semester, 3 credits during their third semester (1 credit for the first project, 2 credits for the second), and 2 credits during their fourth semester. The first project thus receives a total of 3 credits, while the second project receives 4.  ASTR 699 must be taken for a letter grade. The advisor gives a letter grade based on the work performed, and the GROG decides if the student has passed.

Students with Master’s degrees

Students entering with a Master’s degree or equivalent in Astronomy or a related field may be granted  “fast track” status, which entails completing only a single research project and associated GROG review (including an extended “699-2 style” interview) by the end of their first year to fulfill the ASTR 699 requirement for PhD candidacy.

Project guidelines

Here are the guidelines for ASTR 699 research projects. The GROG recognizes that innovative research sometimes entails unusual approaches that may not follow these guidelines. However, anyone proposing such a project should be prepared to justify the choices they have made in their 699 proposal.

Advisor

All IfA faculty (tenure-track and non-tenure-track) are eligible to be advisors for 699 projects. Students are welcome to work with a postdoc provided there is a faculty member involved as co-advisor.  Advisors and students should meet regularly, typically for at least once a week.  

When choosing an advisor, it is often helpful to talk with more senior students to hear about their 699 experiences.

  • A compilation of past 699 projects and advisors is available here. (UH email account needed for access.) 

Research Topic

ASTR 699 projects may be drawn from any field of research conducted at the IfA and can be observational, theoretical, computational, and/or instrumental in nature. The selection of a research advisor and topic is the responsibility of the student. Research projects — including those involving instrumentation — must be science-driven and represent original work. Some guidelines for research projects include:

  • Observational or theoretical projects: The proposal should frame a hypothesis and outline a way to test it. Observational projects should be feasible with data already in hand. This does not prevent students from doing observations, and data taken during a 699 project may be added to the project. But a project which depends exclusively on data not already available may be vulnerable to a single-point failure — one cloudy night can ruin everything!
  • Instrumentation projects: Some potential projects in this category may represent contributions to a larger instrument-building effort. In these cases, there should be a discussion of how the 699 project (e.g., designing or testing something, simulating performance, or making a component work) contributes to the larger science goals.
  • Proposals should describe research that has a good chance of publication in a refereed journal, or in the case of an instrumentation project, in the Proceedings of the SPIE. In other words, the body of research and its presentation (see below) should be original and of high quality.
  • The total amount of time required should fit within the deadlines given above. Keep in mind (1) that very few people can accurately estimate the time required for any non-trivial task, and (2) work expands to fill the time allotted. It is almost guaranteed that the project will take longer than initially expected, so plan accordingly.

Project proposal

The 699 proposal should be no more than two pages of text (11 point font or larger; 12 point font if using New Times Roman), with no more than two additional pages with figures and tables. (Students exceeding these limits will be asked to reduce the length of their proposals, which can delay the approval of the project.) References do not count towards the page limit. The proposal must include:

  1. Context: Introduce the problem to be solved. Provide background information for the proposed work. Describe what has been done before. Explain why the proposed work will be scientifically interesting.
  2. Method: Describe the techniques used to solve the problem. Identify the source of the data. Place special emphasis on what you will do and describe what is expected of the advisor or any other collaborators.
  3. Timeline: Outline a schedule for your project, at a time resolution of about 1 month. Describe major milestones and their dependences on each other, incoming data, etc. Again, research always takes longer than anticipated, so your schedule should have some built-in contingency.

A proposal should also include references to any work cited in the text, though these do not count towards the page limits. Proposals which do not meet these basic requirements will be returned for revision.

This Code of Conduct provides the requirements and expectations for mentors and students. Students and their 699 mentors are required to read and sign it. Students should turn in the signed form with their 699 proposals.

Midterm progress report

About halfway through each 699 project (deadlines above), the GROG will check on the student’s progress using these materials:

(1) To report the project status and prognosis to the GROG, students should complete this summary form. (Make a copy for yourself.)

(2) To confirm that the student’s experience with their advisor is going smoothly, students will complete a short poll provided by the GROG on this topic.

(3) Finally, students have the option to submit an initial/incomplete draft of their paper to the GROG, thereby doing some of the writing well before the deadline and garnering initial feedback. Feel free to reuse/revise/expand the original 699 proposal for this draft and to include figures with your results to date.  Use of AASTeX format is strongly encouraged and citations are expected, since these are required for the final paper. For most projects, it is suggested that the draft have at least three elements (adjust as appropriate):

  • an introduction with a description of the motivations for the project, explaining the context for a non-specialist audience
  • a description of the data in-hand and initial analysis, as it would appear in a refereed paper
  • the path forward and expected outcome, in view of the work already completed (e.g., if an idea will be tested, there should be a clear description of the hypothesis and possible outcomes of the tests)

Continuation into a second year

If the student and mentor both agree, they can continue working together for the second year. The second-year project must be a significant effort in its own right, include the development of new skills and, in the GROG’s judgment, should not simply be an extension of the first-year project. If approved, the project continuation would follow the same requirements and timeline as other second-year projects.

Problems

Not all ASTR 699 research projects “succeed” as judged by the objectives of the original proposal. Some failures are necessary or even valuable. Some projects may prove unproductive or fruitless or they may not prove to be feasible. Such an outcome does not necessarily reflect badly on the student (provided that the student has made a substantial effort to make the project succeed) or on the supervisor. They should be recognized as a normal part of research.

If it becomes clear either to the student or to the supervisor that the project should be abandoned, this should immediately be brought to the attention of the GROG. If the GROG agrees that the project should be abandoned and a new project substituted, it will be the responsibility of the student to find a new project and to present it to the GROG as quickly as possible.

Presentation and Evaluation

Student products

At the conclusion of each project, the student will be evaluated on 3 components presenting their research:

  1. Research paper: The student will write a paper describing the objectives, methods, results and conclusions of their research. This paper should be written in a professional style appropriate for submission to a major journal (e.g., AAS Journals or Proceedings of the SPIE), including an abstract and complete references. You are strongly encouraged to write in LaTeX using the AASTeX style file or the corresponding style file if the paper is aimed for a non-AAS journal.  In addition, the paper should contain a brief “Who Did What” appendix to help the GROG better understand the in’s and out’s of the research effort, including any use of generative AI (e.g. ChatGPT) — some examples are given here. (Some thoughts on the use of AI in scientific writing are here.)
  2. Science talk: Shortly after submitting their papers, students will give short (∼15 minute) talks on their research to the IfA community. These talks should cover the same material as the research papers, and students should be prepared to answer questions from the audience about their work.
  3. Oral interview: Following these talks, students will meet individually with the GROG to discuss their papers and talks (notionally for 30 minutes). Students will be asked questions related to their research project, which could include topics directly related to their work and/or the broader scientific/technical context associated with the project and its corresponding research field. The 699 advisor is present during the interview but does not participate. For the 699-2 interview: students can expect a longer session (notionally 60 minutes) with questions that go in more depth and span a broader range of astronomical knowledge. The GROG will provide the students with a set of questions in advance from which at least one of the interview questions will be drawn.

In addition, the student will:

  • Complete a short poll provided by the GROG to confirm that the student’s experience with their advisor is going smoothly, as was done during the midterm progress report.

Advisor evaluation

At the completion of the 699 process, the advisor will fill out a feedback form for the GROG that provides:

  • An overall score of the student’s 699 performance following the 1-4 scale described below
  • Numerical scores for categories in a rubric that assess the student’s readiness to pursue independent research
  • Written comments on the student’s performance

The advisor’s feedback serves as input to the GROG, but the final evaluation is done solely by the GROG.

In addition, the advisor and student will arrange:

  • An exit interview at the completion of the 699 project, to discuss the scores in the first two bullets above. (The advisor’s written comments to the GROG are not shared with the student.)

Finally, the advisor attends the 699 interview process as indicated above and also serves as a resource for the GROG’s planning and discussion. The advisor does not participate in the interview or in any grading/voting on the outcome.

GROG evaluation

Astronomy 699 research projects are formally evaluated by the GROG, which reviews the 3 components as well as written assessments provided by the advisors. Factors that are considered by the GROG include the scientific content, the presentation, the depth of understanding, the level of difficulty, and the guidance provided by the faculty advisor. The GROG uses the following voting scale, which is informed by a rubric for each of the components:

     1 = Fail
     2 = Incomplete, needs revision
     3 = Pass
     4 = Excellent

At the conclusion of the process, the GROG will give each student a written evaluation of their project, addressing the strengths and limitations of the paper, presentation, and interview. Depending on the scores, the GROG may require students to revise the paper or repeat the interview and/or presentation to reach a passing score.

Confidentiality

GROG meetings are conducted with the usual expectations of academic confidentiality. Once the committee has finalized its discussions, feedback will be provided to the students and advisors under the following confidentiality practices.