So you want to go to graduate school in Astronomy?

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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
 
 
Before you Apply Where to Apply The GREs Applying Hearing Back Your Decision Summer Preparation
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Before you apply

First, consider:  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:

If you've seriously considered these issues and are still committed to getting an Ph.D. in astronomy, next consider this:  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:


Studying for the GREs

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.

Work through REAL past exams so you know what to expect.  Two past exams have been published online by ETS:  GR0177 and GR9677.   Two other exams, GR9277 and GR8677 are also available online, for example through the yahoo group PhysicsGRE, or by following links at physicsgre.com.   [These latter two exams were published by ETS in the now out-of-print book "Practicing to take the GRE Physics Test".]

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!

Just promise yourself that, should you ever sit on an admissions committee, you'll remember how stupid the vaunted GRE really was....

 

Applying

Ah, applications.  Here are some resources: And here's my advice: