Why Choose Hawai‘i?

A message for prospective graduate students

The objective of our PhD program is to prepare students for careers in astronomical research and university-level education. To accomplish this, we emphasize:

  • Acquisition of a broad knowledge of astronomy, including observational, instrumental, and theoretical techniques
  • Exposure to a variety of state-of-the-art topics in modern astronomy
  • Extensive “hands-on” research, including two supervised research projects in the first two years of graduate school
  • Experience presenting talks, reviewing the literature, and discussing new research
  • Formulation of an original dissertation project
  • Experience writing research papers and observing proposals
  • Publication of results in peer-reviewed journals
  • Public presentation of original research to IfA astronomers and other scientists

Most students apply for the PhD program and obtain the MS degree en route. We occasionally accept students for the MS degree only, but these tend to be special cases, for example funded by a short-term fellowship. We are also happy to consider transfers from other graduate programs and offer a fast-track to dissertation research after one year of coursework (or even zero in special circumstances) for students who already have an MA/MS degree.

If you are a prospective graduate student reading this, you are probably trying to choose between the many excellent astronomy graduate programs in the US and elsewhere. Here are some reasons why you should choose Hawai‘i.

Unparalleled observing resources

Maunakea on the Big Island of Hawai‘i is the site of the largest, most capable collection of astronomical observatories in the world, and as a member of our graduate program you would be able to use these to conduct state-of-the-art research. UH faculty and students have guaranteed access to

  • The 10-meter Keck I and Keck II telescopes
  • The Gemini and Subaru 8-meter telescopes
  • Our own 2.2-m telescope, which is equipped with some of the largest-format visible and infrared cameras in the world
  • Three 3 – 4 m class telescopes, the CFHT, the UKIRT and the IRTF, which are optimized for visible and infrared astronomy
  • Two sub-millimeter telescopes, the Submillimeter Array (SMA, an interferometer with eight 6-m dishes) and the 15-m JCMT single-dish telescope

University of Hawai‘i faculty and students have access to 10-15% of the observing time on all of the Mauna Kea telescopes, in addition to almost all the time on the 2.2-m telescope. Graduate students can lead observing programs for observing time on any/all these telescopes. No other university in the world can offer you the observing opportunities available here.

In addition, the IfA operates its own solar telescopes at Haleakala on the island of Maui, and has access to the Air Force 3.7-m adaptive optics telescope and the NSF’s 4-m Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope on the same site.

Finally, students can be at the forefront of the growing field of transient astronomy through the Pan-STARRS, ATLAS, and ASAS-SN wide-field survey telescopes.

Breadth of research program

We have a very broad program, including cosmology, extragalactic, galactic, plasma, stellar, planetary and solar astronomy — these areas include observational, instrumentation, and theoretical faculty. If you already have an area you want to specialize in, there is probably someone here who would like to work with you. If you are equally excited by several branches of astronomy then you will have an enormous range of opportunities for specialization after you arrive.

Astronomy hub

We may be on an island, but we are far from being isolated. Look at our current and past lists of colloquium speakers to see how well we stay in touch. Some of the speakers are here at our invitation, others drop by en route to Maunakea.

Large faculty

Our distinguished faculty consists of over 40 PhD astronomers from all over the world. With about as many faculty as graduate students, you are assured of close attention at all stages of your career.

Solid course foundation

During your first two years, you will take a number of 600-level courses from our faculty that are designed to give you a sound basis of astrophysical understanding. You can also take a variety of graduate seminars that change every year and generally focus on the latest research and methods being pursued by our faculty.

Distributed Graduate Program

One of the unique aspects of the astronomy program at IfA is our presence on three islands (O‘ahu, Maui, and Hawai‘i). Under our Distributed Graduate Program, students are able to choose residency on any of these 3 islands. Students who are interested in this aspect of the program should contact the Graduate Chair (gradchair AT ifa.hawaii.edu).

Early research opportunities

We believe that students benefit from research experience early.  PhD students do two research projects in their first two years, each one starting from project conception and going all the way to presentation (oral talk and written report). These projects typically are done with two different IfA faculty members, giving students ample experience before having to decide on a dissertation topic and advisor.  These student projects are also designed with publication in mind, and most of them end up in refereed journals.  They often also become the springboard for PhD dissertations.

Financial support

Essentially all students are supported by either a teaching or research assistantship. The annual salary is approximately $33,000 and also includes a full tuition waiver. Since funding for most research assistantships comes from federal grants with a ~3 year lifetime, it is impossible to give you a formal guarantee of an assistantship for the whole of your PhD career, but our record of financially supporting our students in the program has been excellent over the past 30 years. No student has ever dropped out of our program because of lack of financial support.

Alumni and success rate

Our PhD success rate is high — if we accept you into our program we expect that you will complete your PhD in a reasonable time and move successfully to the next stage of an astronomical or technical career. Historically 75% of the students entering our program left with a PhD degree; another 10% gained the MS degree. Our graduates are successful: over 85% of our PhD alumni and over 50% of our MS alumni are currently actively employed as astronomers or physicists in universities, observatories, or government laboratories.

Foreign applications

With a faculty drawn from twelve countries, we naturally welcome foreign students. Foreign citizens can hold research assistantships and, if their English is good enough, teaching assistantships. In recent years, our graduate class has included students from Australia, Canada, China, France, Iran, Ireland, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, Lebanon, Mexico, Norway, Portugal, Taiwan, the UK, and the USA.

Life in Hawai‘i

The Institute is located in Honolulu on the island of Oahu, in a beautiful valley equidistant from hiking trails in the rainforest one way and warm ocean waves and beaches in the other. It is a ridiculously beautiful place to spend a few (or many more) years in. You only live once.

How do I apply?

Our admissions process is open in the fall semester with a mid-December deadline for admission the following fall. We do not offer spring-semester admissions.

More information

Explore our webpage for more information about the IfA’s people, program, facilities, and history.