Graduate Handbook - Section 1

University of Minnesota

Department of Astronomy

Section 1


The purpose of this section is to provide graduate students with an idea of what is expected of them and also what they might reasonable expect from the faculty. In general terms, the faculty expect all graduate students to be working hard and making no less than "satisfactory progress", as described further below, toward their intended degree. Graduate students can reasonably expect that the faculty provide them with instruction, advice, and access to resources which allow them to make reasonable progress.

Due to the highly competitive nature of the job market in astronomy, there are multiple, sometimes competing department goals for the graduate program. While not all of our graduates proceed on to employment in astronomy, all of the goals of our program are designed to best prepare a graduate student for such a career. This is based, in part, on the expectation that all entering graduate students have the long range goal of a career in astronomy. However, it is also the aim of the faculty to help the graduate students develop skills which are "transferable" (e.g., communication skills, computing expertise, etc) with the goal to enhance their prospects for future employment, regardless of field.


[top]1.1 What is "Satisfactory Progress"?

At one level, this is a simple question. The guidelines and requirements spelled out in Sections 3 and 6 describe the timelines for various goals to be accomplished. Graduate students should be familiar with these. The Graduate Faculty conduct an Annual Review each Spring to review the progress of each
graduate student. Before this review, all graduate students submit a self-evaluation to the DGS (see next section). The DGS is then responsible for providing to each graduate student a short written summary
of the faculty's discussion. This should not replace continuing discussions between faculty and advisees concerning the student's progress. Any questions should be directed to your adviser and/or the DGS.
However, at a broader level, what constitutes "satisfactory progress" depends
on the goals of the individual graduate student, and can be far more complex than the single characterization of an M.S.or Ph.D. degree. If eventual employment as a research astronomer is the desired goal (as is often assumed), the job market can be much more demanding than the formal university requirements for a Ph.D. (successful post-doctoral candidates generally have research
accomplishments in addition to their required thesis work). Thus, it is reasonable for the graduate students to discuss their goals with faculty members and ask them for informal evaluations not only on the progress of their research, but also on their employment prospects.

[top]1.2 The Faculty Roles

Faculty members have many different responsibilities for the graduate program; these fall within three main categories. For the most part, it is the faculty's responsibility to provide access to first-rate physical resources for learning and research. Whether this is in the form of observing time on the world's best telescopes, state-of-the-art computing facilities, library facilities, or adequate office space, this is where the faculty spend a great deal of effort. Clearly, it is in the best interest of the graduate students to help in this effort, when possible.
It is also the faculty's responsibility to provide a curriculum which includes a large range of exposure to fundamental concepts, areas of important current research, and experiences with methods of research and problem solving.
Finally, it is the faculty's responsibility to provide feedback to the student. Formally, this is achieved through the Spring Annual Review of all graduate students by the faculty. Here the student's progress is reviewed and goals are identified for the next year (i.e., "satisfactory progress" is defined). Graduate students participate directly in this evaluation by submitting a self-evaluation to the DGS prior to the review. The self-evaluation consists of answering 9 questions which serve as an overview of the last year's progress (see Appendix 2). It is not expected that all graduate students will have accomplishments in every category, (especially true for students in their first year), but the evaluation should be seen as a list of what types of accomplishments the faculty are looking for. This self-evaluation also allows the graduate student an opportunity to define what they believe are reasonable goals for the next year. Since satisfactory progress is a pre-requisite for departmental employment, the graduate student's qualification for departmental support is part of this review process.
For first and second year graduate students, some feedback is also available in the form of grades in graduate course work. However, graduate students should be aware that grades of A and B are common in graduate courses; a grade of C should be considered unsatisfactory. To be competitive for fellowships later on, students usually need a g.p.a. of no less than 3.5.
To get the most out of graduate school, graduate students need to go beyond these formal feedback mechanisms, and to work with their faculty advisor(s) to establish well-defined goals and evaluate progress on a regular basis. Getting feedback on academic, technical, communications, and research skills are all of value for the student. Since, by definition, the results of research are unpredictable, a frequent review of progress and the re-evaluation of goals in this area is critical. Informal feedback from other faculty members, and even from fellow students, can help a student identify strengths and areas that need improvement.
The graduate students can also look to the faculty for evaluation of their work and professional development. When possible, the faculty attempt to provide the financial support necessary for this progress.

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