Ph.D in Astronomy

last updated April 2024

Two paths toward a PhD

There are two possible paths toward a PhD in astronomy. (1) Students starting with a STEM Bachelor’s or Master’s degree take a series of courses and research projects during their first two years. (2) Students who already have a Master’s degree in astronomy or equivalent may be able to fast-track through many of the prerequisites their first year. Both paths converge with an oral interview to assess understanding in the research the students have conducted and their broader knowledge of the field. Subsequently, all students propose a dissertation topic at the Comprehensive Examination, conduct the research, write a PhD dissertation, and present their work at a Final Examination.


Students entering with BA/BS degrees

Most students enter our program with a Bachelor’s degree. During their first two years, they are required to take a series of courses and to undertake two directed research projects.

Formal requirements

UNIVERSITY

  • Maintain cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher
  • Take and pass Comprehensive Exam
  • Research and write Dissertation
  • Take and pass Final Exam/Defense within seven years of admission
  • See Official PhD requirements
 

ASTRONOMY PROGRAM

  • Take 23 credits of grad-level astronomy (or equivalent – see below) classes, comprising:
    • ASRT 601 (Prof Development)
    • ASTR 633 (Techniques)
    • 4 out of 6 core ASTR 6xx classes
    • ASTR 734 (Order of Magnitude)
    • ASTR 790 (Astro-ph)
    • 4 other credits of astro-related classes
  • Complete two directed research projects (7 credits of ASTR 699) and pass the associated evaluations by end of the 4th semester
  • Pass Comprehensive Exam by end of the 5th semester
  • Research and write a dissertation
  • Pass final thesis defense within 7 years of admission


Students entering with MA/MS degrees

Students admitted to the PhD program with a Master’s degree or equivalent in astronomy or a closely related field (e.g., physics or planetary geosciences) often — but not always — have extensive coursework and research experience. Some may be ready to advance to the fast track, while others may need considerable preparation.

Formal requirements

UNIVERSITY

  • Maintain cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher
  • Take and pass Comprehensive Exam
  • Research and write Dissertation
  • Take and pass Final Exam/Defense within seven years of admission
  • See Official PhD requirements
 

ASTRONOMY PROGRAM FAST TRACK

  • Take 6 credits of grad-level astronomy per semester
  • Complete one directed research project and the associated evaluation or submit prior work (see below) shortly after coursework requirements are completed
  • Pass Comprehensive Exam by the end of the 5th semester
  • Research and write a dissertation
  • Pass final thesis defense within 7 years of admission


Coursework

The core of the graduate astronomy curriculum is a series of “600-level” three-credit courses that provide a broad base to which specialized knowledge can later be added. In addition to ASTR 633 (Astrophysical Techniques), PhD students entering with a Bachelor’s degree must take at least four of courses numbered AST 622 to 631 (descriptions here).

In addition, there are a number of “700-level” courses, some consisting of specialized seminars on topics closely related to ongoing research while others offer development in practical skills. These are usually given for 1-2 credits. Some seminars are presently offered on a bi-annual basis: ASTR 740 (Astrobiology), ASTR 750 (Grant Writing), ASTR 758 (Programming for Astronomers) and ASTR 777 (Star/Planet Formation). Other seminars (ASTR 734, 735 & 736) change from year to year and are sometimes be taught by visiting scientists.

Normally students take all their courses within the astronomy program. However, a student may ask the Graduate Chair for permission to substitute a course from another program, such as physics, mathematics, computer science, or planetary geosciences, so long as the substitution forms part of a coherent plan of study.

Directed research (a.k.a. 699 projects)

There’s no substitute for real astronomical research experience early in one’s graduate career. The IfA graduate program puts considerable emphasis on research, including during the first two years when students are also taking courses. This research is normally done in collaboration with a faculty advisor for credit as Directed Research (ASTR 699).

During their first semester, students are required to take ASTR 601, a one-credit seminar focused on professional development, including how to choose research topics and advisors. This is supplemented with presentations by faculty about current research opportunities for new students. During their second, third and fourth semesters, PhD students normally carry out two research projects, each of 8-month duration and usually with two different faculty advisors. A faculty committee (GROG = Graduate Research and Oversight Group) manages the process and provides advice/feedback for the student’s work, including an initial research proposal and a mid-project check-in.

At the end of each project, the GROG is also responsible for evaluating the student’s work, which consists of (1) a research paper, (2) a public talk, and (3) an interview with the GROG.

  • The interview for the 1st project (a.k.a. “699-1”) will typically be 30 min in duration and centered on the student’s research and associated field.
  • The interview for the 2nd program (a.k.a. “699-2”), the interview is expanded in time (typically 60 minutes) and in scope. This extended 699-2 interview will address both the student’s research and broader topics in related astronomical fields.

If the student does not pass the extended 699-2 interview, they can have a second (and final) attempt before the end of the summer after Year 2. If they fail the 2nd attempt, then the faculty who have had official academic responsibilities for the student (instructors + research advisors + GROG) will convene to determine how to proceed.

PhD students entering with a Bachelor’s degree are generally expected to complete two ASTR 699 projects, although in some cases a single expanded project may be accepted instead. Students entering with a Master’s degree on fast-track status may complete only one ASTR 699 project or may submit research done at other institutions to be considered as fulfilling the full directed research requirement.

Annual funding arrangements

Incoming students will be arranged with TA or RA appointments prior to entering the program, unless they are supported by a fellowship. For more senior students, May 31 is the annual deadline for providing input to the Graduate Chair about TA and RA appointments for the upcoming academic year. (This coincides with the May 31 deadline for current first-year students to select their 699-2 advisor). Students in good standing are assured financial support.

  • A full description of the annual process for RA and TA assignments is here.

Second-year review and earning an MS degree

Before advancing to PhD candidacy, a student must complete all coursework with a minimum GPA of 3.0, complete their directed research projects to the satisfaction of the GROG, and pass the extended 699-2 interview. Students who have successfully completed all these elements after their first two years are granted an MS degree and allowed to proceed to develop a dissertation proposal, which is the final step in advancing to candidacy.

Since the departmental requirements for students entering the PhD program with a Bachelor’s degree are a super-set of the requirements for students earning a “non-thesis” (Plan B) Master’s degree, once students have completed the coursework and research (699) requirements, they earn a MS degree along the way (“en route”) while continuing toward the PhD. Once receiving officially notification from the Graduate Chair of having fulfilled all the requirements, students should fill out the Graduate Application for Degree with the following info:

  • Graduation date: the semester after completing all the requirements (usually the 5th semester in the program)
  • Program: Astronomy
  • Degree: B-nonthesis

Students who do not fulfill all these elements after two years will be reviewed by the faculty in order to establish a plan to remedy deficiencies and thereby continue on the candidacy process. Alternatively, the faculty may decide that the student is better suited for the Master’s program. Students who are given a remediation plan but do not complete it by the specified date will be dismissed from the program.

Proposing your dissertation

In brief, students select an advisor, develop a dissertation topic, write a proposed research plan, assemble a doctoral committee, and pass their Comprehensive Exam. The exam comprises a public talk (~30-40 minutes) and then a closed-door interview to answer questions from their committee.

For students entering the program with a BA/BS degree, the deadline for proposing a PhD topic is the end of the fall semester of your 3rd year, i.e., after 5 semesters in the program.

Passage of the Comprehensive Exam grants approval to the dissertation topic and leads to the granting of PhD candidate status.


Applying for telescope time

Graduate students may submit one observing proposal as principal investigator. Proposals can involve one or multiple telescopes. Prior to advancing to candidacy, students are eligible to apply for telescope time on the UH 2.2-meter, UKIRT, and up to 2 hours of time on Gemini or CFHT. Once they have advanced to candidacy, they observe for any telescope given a successful observing proposal. The TAC also offers dissertation students the opportunity to have their first observing proposal “pre-reviewed” to garner an initial round of feedback. Full details are here. Note that student-led proposals receive no special consideration or long-term status from the TAC but are reviewed on an equal basis with all other proposals.

Doctoral committee meetings

The student should meet annually with their doctoral committee once a year. Committee meetings are particularly useful if it becomes necessary to redefine the scope of a dissertation project due to unforeseen circumstances. After the meeting, please fill out the annual progress form and return it to the Graduate Chair.

Writing the dissertation

Students must write a dissertation that conforms in style with the “Style & Policy Manual for Theses and Dissertations” available from the Office of Graduate Education (formerly Graduate Division). Some additional suggestions for astronomy dissertations are here — students should check with their dissertation committee for specific expectations. It is generally expected that the main components of the dissertation are largely ready for publication in the standard peer-reviewed astronomy journals with minimal changes.

LaTeX macros have been written by past astronomy graduate students to facilitate the conversion of papers drafted in ApJ style into the appropriate UH dissertation format.

How to graduate (a.k.a. Final Exam)

To graduate, students should set a time for their dissertation talk (a.k.a. Final Exam), notify Graduate Division, give their completed dissertation to their committee prior to the exam, and then carry out the Final Exam. The exam comprises a public colloquium (~45 minutes) and then a closed-door interview to answer questions from their committee.


The seven-year time limit

It is a university rule that candidates must finish all work for the degree within seven years of entry into the program. After that, they are automatically placed on academic probation and are subject to dismissal in the following semester if they do not make progress toward completing their degree. Details are here and here.

Leaves of absence

A student may request a leave of absence from the program for a period of up to one year. Such an action should be discussed with the student’s PhD committee and the Graduate Chair.

Nomenclature

Be aware of some differences between Graduate Division jargon and the common usage in the astronomy program. According to Graduate Division:

  • A PhD candidate writes a dissertation, not a thesis. Theses lead only to masters degrees.
  • Correspondingly, a PhD candidate has a dissertation committee, not a thesis committee.
  • There is no such person as an advisor. That role is undertaken by the chair of the doctoral committee
  • After you submit your dissertation you are subjected to a final examination, rather than a thesis defense or a PhD oral.