So you want to go to graduate school in
Seeking advice on choosing a place to earn your Ph.D. in Astronomy/Astrophysics?
As a veteran of the process, and a past member
of a graduate admissions committee, I wanted to pass on
tips I received and my own advice. -Jane Rigby
do you really want to go to graduate school in
astronomy/astrophysics? It's a lot of work, long hours,
crappy pay and benefits, and things won't be easier when you graduate
-- astronomers have difficult jobs, they must move every few years from post-doc to post-doc
until they find a permanant job, and there are far fewer permament job openings per year
than newly-minted Ph.D.s. Plus, industry pays much better.
No matter how serious you are,
or how long you've dreamed of being an astronomer, you should step back and carefully
consider whether professional astronomy is right for you.
Have you investigated other career paths that might let you express
your love of science and technology?
I'm not saying, "Don't go to grad school" -- I'm saying,
"Do the research and the cost-benefit analysis, and make sure you have a realistic
understanding of the academic job market." If you're gonna dive in, dive informed, with
your eyes open.
Here's some suggested reading to help you do that:
Also, you may be interested in these two resources for women and minorities in
If you've seriously considered these issues and are still committed to
getting an Ph.D. in astronomy, next consider
should you take a year off between undergrad and grad school?
Most departments, once they accept a student, are willing to "defer the offer of admission"
for a year or so.
If you feel burned-out, want to travel, want to feed the poor, or need to
save up money working a normal job, you should seriously consider
taking time off. You may come back more disciplined and prepared.
If you have subsidized student loans, find out when you'll have to start
paying interest. Interest may be deferred as long as you're in school,
and grad school counts as school. The details obviously inform the duration of break you can take.
Where to Apply
Once you've made the decision to pursue grad school in astronomy, the next step
is to figure out where to apply. This depends on your
abilities, where you want to live, what kind of research you're
interested in, and many other factors. Ask your astronomy or physics profs what schools they
recommend, and follow up on the internet. If there's no one to ask, the web is a great
resource. Here are some places to start:
You should study for the Physics
GREs. I'm not kidding. It's a hurdle that could
keep you out of grad school. Set aside time every day
for 1--3 months to study.
Find out from ETS the makeup of the test, subject by subject.
Study those portions of your textbooks.
REA publishes a purple Physics GRE book that will have you
studying the wrong subjects, memorizing the wrong equations,
and taking "practice tests" that are NOTHING like the real test.
The reviews on Amazon are scathing for a reason -- avoid the purple book of evil!
yourself that, should you ever sit on an admissions committee, you'll
remember how stupid the vaunted GRE really was....
Write your personal statement early, then show it to people you trust
(especially professors you know well) and ask for feedback.
Ideally, give copies (and your CV) to your letter-writers before they
write your letters, and ask for feedback; they may have valuable
suggestions. Also, reading
your statement may help letter-writers recommend you better,
by answering questions they may hesitate to ask you (like, Why
does she want to go to grad school, anyway?) and telling
them important details they may not know (scholarships, awards,
Give your letter-writers several weeks to write their letters. Don't
rush them. Make sure they know where to send each letter.
Nicely remind them of deadlines.
Check the instructions -- is your application complete? (transcripts,
GRE scores, personal statement?) If you're sure it's complete, you may want to send a polite
email to the department, asking if they received everything.
Rejection, and the Wait-list
The Admissions Committee:
In late January or early February, graduate admissions committees meet
to decide whom they will accept. They usually make decisions in several
"waves". The thinking for the first wave is often, "Wow, these
candidates are the most exceptional, we'd better admit them fast!";
the thinking for the next wave is then "these folks are great, too, let's admit
them." Don't worry which wave you're in -- it doesn't matter -- but know that
you may be accepted a few days or weeks
apart from a friend. Notification of acceptance
usually comes as a phone call from a faculty member (sometimes an email.)
Admission committees target a specific class-size. Accordingly, the number of
students they'll admit depends on their targeted class size, their
usual acceptance rate, and vibes about whether students who've
visited will accept admission. In general, the top schools
have ~>100 applicants, which include more qualified applicants than they can
The Wait-list: A consequence is the dreaded
wait-list. If several accepted students decline the offer in a
timely fashion (in March or early April), the school can admit qualified
students off the wait-list. Remember that no one will remember whether you
were accepted February 1, February 10, or April 14. So don't think that if
you're wait-listed, you "must not be good enough", or the school
doesn't really want you.
In Limbo: Grad schools often fail to notify
students that they've been denied admission. Ideally, a
department should call admitted students, then contact wait-listed students
and tell them where they stand, then send rejection letters to the
rest. But schools are often slow about the rejection letters, and
sometimes even slow about notifying wait-listed students.
If it's late February or early March and you haven't heard back from
a school, it's okay
to email the chair of the admissions committee, politely, once.
Explain who you are, that you're still very interested,
and that you're wondering about the status of your
application. If you're on the wait-list, it's
acceptable to ask where you're ranked. But if they say,
sorry, we haven't made offers yet, you'll have to be patient.
If you're accepted to an astronomy graduate program, they'll probably invite you to visit, expenses
(Students from overseas often can't get a visa on such short notice -- the department may schedule phone
During the visit, you'll meet potential advisors and
current grad students. Remember, YOU'RE
interviewing them! The department already wants you,
whereas you're sizing THEM up to learn whether it's
a place you could be happy and successful.
Before you visit, read the department's website. Find
faculty who interest you. (Remember that some of the best profs
may be too busy to have useful websites. Look up Profs' recent papers.
A week before your visit, send the department a list of the profs you'd especially like
Buy a "Grad School Visits" notebook and take good notes
on each school, or they'll all blend into
Record your impressions of potential advisors --
do you want to work with and learn from them? What do their
grad students say about them?
Advisors can switch schools or drop dead -- are there multiple
faculty that would be good thesis advisors for you?
Listen. Do the grad students seem happy? Do you think you would
be? Try to gauge the zeitgeist.
Ask good questions during each visit. Here are some sample questions:
Remember that you're not picking "the best school", but "the best
for you". Go where you think you'll be happy and productive.
If you're interested, ask each department whether they'll let you defer admission for one year.
They'll probably say yes.
As soon as you've crossed a school of your list, email the admissions chair to
respectfully decline their offer. DON'T WAIT until the deadline.
Once they know you're not coming, the department may admit a wait-listed student -- your "Sorry, no"
email may somebody else's ticket to grad school.
Before you start grad school
Once you've accepted a school, concentrate on graduating or finishing your current job.
Take a few months off to recover and think. Despite your eagerness to "get started",
I reccomend avoiding the temptation (and pressure from your advisor) to move out early and start research over the summer.
You're planning to do research for the rest of your life!
Your department may pressure you to choose your first advisor over the summer, before you move.
If so, check your notes from your visits -- which profs sounded promising?
Next, email grad students you met during your visit --
they'll know which profs have cool-sounding projects that never work,
which are terrible bosses, and which are great advisors.
Assign yourself some summer reading.
Grad school is hard, and the transition is especially hard.
What mattered in undergrad (classes, grades) suddenly
doesn't matter; time management seems impossible;
and there are many unwritten expectations. Prepare yourself -- read some
of the excellent books on strategies for success in graduate school.
You can find these books via inter-library loan from your local public
or community college library, or from Bookfinder.
Here's my recommended reading list:
"A Ph.D. is Not Enough: A Guide to Survivial in Science" by Peter
Feibelman. A well-recommended classic by a physicist.
"Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning a
Masters or Ph.D." by Robert Peters.
A highly--regarded, detailed guide to grad school. How to get admitted,
choosing your research advisor, doing research, and writing the thesis.
Includes humanities as well as science.
"Advice to Rocket Scientists: A Career Survival Guide for Scientists and
Engineers." By Jim Longuski.
Aimed at engineers, but useful for physical scientists.
Sage, pragmatic advice on academia, including priceless advice on how to give
scientific talks, including job talks.
"Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and
Engineering" by Richard Reis.
Soberly surveys the scientific and academic job markets, discusses specific strategies
at the grad student, post-doc, and junior faculty levels, and discusses
how to target job searches. The focus is mostly beyond grad school, but there are
several excellent chapters on grad school.
This page was written by Dr. Jane Rigby and last
updated August 2008.
It represents only her personal opinion, not any official viewpoint. If you find this page useful, or have suggestions for improvement, please send comments.