Graduate Handbook - Section 3

University of Minnesota

Department of Astronomy

Section 3

You have been specifically admitted to the Ph.D. program.

Both the Astrophysics Program and the Graduate School have formal requirements for completion of the Ph.D. Graduate students are responsible for being familiar with and completing both of these sets of requirements. In the summary below, GS refers to forms that must be submitted to the Graduate School. In case of a conflict between the requirements, see the DGS.

We encourage all graduate students to consider obtaining a Master's Degree, on their way to a Ph.D. Although this involves some additional work, it officially recognizes your accomplishments to that stage, and may allow alternative career and educational options in the future.

[top]3.1 Summary of Ph.D. Requirements

Below is a summary of the Ph.D. requirements. You should also see section 7 for a timeline and appendix 5 for the Graduate School requirements.

Course Requirements - Major:

You must complete a minimum of 40 course credits, including a year of Classical Physics (Phys 5011-5012).

Course Requirements - Minor:

You may declare a specific minor or specify a "supporting program" which can include courses from several fields. The minor or supporting program must contain at least 12 credits (out of the 40 course credits mentioned above) . Several examples of possible minors to enhance your background for Ph.D. work and to broaden career options are physics, mathematics, scientific communication, education, and various engineering disciplines such as electrical engineering or computer science. You should see the DGS of the specific minor program to get a complete description of the minor requirements.

Course Requirements - Thesis Credits:

you must register for 24 Ph.D. thesis credits.

A minimum GPA of 3.0 is expected.

The Written Examination:

A comprehensive examination to be taken during the Spring of the second year of study.

The Second Year Project:

A research project to be completed by the end of Fall of the third year of study. The DGS should be given a project title and advisor by the end of Spring semester of the first year of study.

The Degree Plan - GS:

Immediately after passing the Written Examination, you must obtain the Degree Program Transmittal forms from the Graduate School and complete them. These will document which courses form the basis of your Ph.D. program, and also set up your examining committee for the Preliminary Oral Exam. Any transfer credits from graduate work at other institutions will be included on this form.

The Preliminary Oral Exam:

To be taken in the Fall of the third year of study. A written version of the Second Year Project is to be submitted to your committee two weeks prior to the exam. GS authorization forms must be obtained.

Ph.D.Thesis Title & Abstracts:

By the Spring of the third year (prior to the spring Annual Review), you must submit two forms. One is the Thesis Proposal Transmittal form for the Graduate School, which includes a 250 word abstract; the other is the Astrophysics Thesis Proposal, a 1000 word description of your proposed thesis work, written for an expert audience, and submitted to the DGS.

The Ph.D. Thesis:

A substantial work of original research done under the supervision of an advisor from the Graduate Faculty, and submitted in writing according to GS standards. The Final Oral Exam: A public presentation of your thesis work, followed by a private examination. GS authorization forms based on review of the thesis by three "readers" must be obtained at least two weeks in advance of the exam.

There is no foreign language requirement.

[top]3.2 Classes

There are several things to consider in choosing classes. One is the formal requirements of the major and minor programs; it is our aim to retain considerable flexibility in defining courses which can be included in major and minor programs --- see the DGS with questions.

A more important consideration for beginning students is what will be included on the Written Examination. Courses marked with a * below are considered the Astrophysics "core", and material from them will be included on the exam. Most courses are offered only every other year, so careful planning of your schedule is required.

For new students, the DGS will look over your current transcript, and talk with you about any deficiencies in your undergraduate physics / astrophysics background. During your first year, it may be necessary to reinforce some of this undergraduate work, so that you can be successful in your graduate studies. Such classes may or may not count in your Ph.D. program, depending on their level.

Each year, the faculty run special topics courses (AST 8110-8120). These are an opportunity to investigate cutting-edge research and techniques in a specific area, and you are encouraged to take them, after all or most of your required coursework is complete.

Different courses are taught in different styles, and they are all valuable for a graduate student to experience. Some will be taught in a traditional lecture format, although the class will be small and there will be more time for questions and discussions. Others may be more project or problem-solving oriented, with students participating and presenting their work. Others may be seminar style, where a general focus is provided, but students provide much of the course content through their individual literature research. Each of these formats can be useful; however, both the instructor and student should make clear at the beginning of each course exactly what the expectations are.

Listed below are some courses that have been commonly used as part of the "Major";pay special attention to the "core" (*) courses, whose subject matter is included on the Written Examination. Brief descriptions of these courses are found in the Graduate School Bulletin and the Recruiting Brochure; past syllabi for the Astrophysics courses are available from the DGS.


Graduate Courses of Interest to Astrophysics Students


  • AST 4001   (Stellar Interiors to Galactic Structure)
  • AST 4002   (Galaxies - From Active Galactic Nuclei to Cosmology)
  • AST 4101   (Computational Astrophysics)
  • AST 5012   (The Interstellar Medium)  *
  • AST 5022   (Relativity, Cosmology, and the Universe)  *
  • AST 5201   (Methods of Experimental Astrophysics)
  • AST 8001   (Astrophysical Radiative Processes)  *
  • AST 8011   (High Energy Astrophysics)  *
  • AST 8021   (Stellar Astrophysics)  *
  • AST 8031   (Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics)  *
  • AST 8110   (Topics in Astrophysics)
  • AST 8120   (Topics in Astrophysics)
  • AST 8200   (Seminar)
  • AST 8333   (FTE: Master's)
  • AST 8444   (FTE: Doctoral)
  • AST 8666   (Doctoral Pre-Thesis Credits)
  • AST 8777   (Master's Thesis Credits)
  • AST 8888   (Doctoral Thesis Credits)
  • AST 8990   (Research in Astronomy and Astrophysics)

(may be taken in any order and more than once as topics vary)

  • PHY 5001-5002   (Intro Quantum Mechanics I, II)
  • PHY 5011-5012   (Classical Physics I, II)  *
  • PHY 8011-8012   (Quantum Mechanics I, II)
  • PHY 8502             (General Relativity & Cosmology)
  • PHY 8601-8602   (Plasma Physics I, II)
  • PHY 8611             (Cosmic Rays and Space Physics)

Virtually any 4000-8000 level physics course could in principle be included in minor programs. Some not listed above which have obvious value in astrophysics are courses in statistical mechanics, nuclear physics, atomic and molecular structure, and elementary particles. Various courses from the mathematics and other departments are also frequently included in minors.

[top]3.3 The Second Year Project

Each candidate for the Ph.D. in Astrophysics must complete a research project under the supervision of a member of the Astrophysics Graduate Faculty prior to taking their Preliminary Oral Examination. The purpose of this project is to give the student experience in research and to demonstrate their potential for Ph.D. thesis work. This project, known as the Second Year Project (SYP) is to be completed, and the Preliminary Oral taken, no later than Fall of the student's 3rd year of enrollment.

The nature and extent of the project is agreed upon by the student and their project supervisor. Preferably, the student will submit to their advisor a written abstract of the SYP which clearly defines the project (goals, methods, and timeline). Supervisors and students should consult with the DGS with any questions regarding the suitability of work to be submitted as the SYP. The general goal, as is the goal of all research, is that the work should be of publishable quality. However, the deadline of defending the SYP within the Fall semester of the third year is strict and an integral part of the overall program design (it is important that the faculty meet, assess the student's progress, and provide feedback to the student on the timeline of the SYP). Thus, recognizing that research cannot always be forced to meet deadlines (e.g., bad weather can prohibit observations, disk crashes can cause set-backs, discoveries can alter the direction of the research, collaborators may be slow in responding) actual publication is not a requirement. Even if the research project is not complete, the student should be able to write up what they have accomplished so far, defend their research within the context of the oral examination, and be prepared to discuss their future plans. Thus, results of the SYP should be written up in the form of a paper to be submitted to a journal, although actual submission is not required. This write-up will then be presented to the Orals Committee.

The results of the SYP are presented at the Preliminary Oral Examination for the Ph.D. (see section 3.5).The Examining Committee will determine whether the student is qualified to continue on to the Ph.D., based on the SYP, their responses to questions at the examination and record of performance in the Astrophysics Program, including course work, the Written Examination, and other research experience. The SYP supervisor is responsible for presenting supporting documentation for this discussion.

For a student to be considered as making "satisfactory progress in the Astrophysics program", the following timelines must be followed:

a) Notification of the DGS of the title and supervisor of the Second Year Project by the end of the first year Spring Semester;

b) Submission of the written version of the SYP to the Examining Committee two weeks prior to the examination.

c) Passing the Ph.D. Preliminary Oral Examination by Fall Semester of the third year.

It is expected that students will begin working on their SYP no later than the summer of the first year. The Second Year Project may or may not lead directly into Ph.D. thesis work; there is no presumption either way. Students may sometimes be able to obtain financial support as a Research Assistant, either during the academic year or summer, for work on their Second Year Project. Such arrangements are made directly between the student and their supervisor, and are completely separate from the academic requirement itself.

The Second Year Project may also be used as a plan A Master's Thesis, upon agreement of the student and supervisor. A formal written Master's Thesis must then be submitted, and a Final Oral Examination conducted. Students wishing to pursue this option should consult as early as possible with the DGS to ensure that proper registration and other Graduate School procedures are followed (see appendix 3).

[top]3.4 The Written Examination

All Ph.D. students must pass the Written Examination in Astrophysics, which takes place in the Spring of your second year. It covers graduate astrophysics, as defined by the material in our core courses, as well as a general familiarity with all of modern astronomy, as taught in our introductory undergraduate courses. It also includes physics at the advanced undergraduate level, especially those portions with direct astrophysical application.

Preparing for this examination should be done in a careful and systematic way over an extended period of time. Last minute cramming is unlikely to be useful. Copies of recent exams are available, and are your best guide as to the content and style of the exam.

All students are encouraged to take the Written Examination in the Spring of their first year, on a trial basis. Some students do pass in their first year, and if you don't, it does not count against you in any way. If you do not pass the exam at your first required sitting (Spring of your second year), you may take the exam only once more. If you do not pass at that time, you may not continue on to the Ph.D.

The Written Examinations are first graded blindly, and then the Graduate Faculty meet as a whole to discuss the results. Students with scores above 65% of the maximum have generally passed the exam, depending on its difficulty. For all students, but especially those with marginal scores, other information concerning your professional development can be used to support a recommendation for passing the examination. Such factors include your classwork, research work and other information faculty may have about your likely success in Ph.D.research.

[top]3.5 The Preliminary Oral Examination

Admission to Ph.D. candidacy requires that you pass a preliminary oral examination. In order to be making "satisfactory progress", this exam must be taken in the Fall of your third year. Two weeks prior to the examination, you must submit a written version of your Second Year Project to your examining committee. During your Orals you will present the results of your Second Year Project, and answer questions loosely based on this work. You will be expected to demonstrate your understanding of that area, as well as any related background astrophysics and physics. The Committee will also be looking at the research techniques and thinking skills that you have developed. Since the Graduate School requires that you file your Degree Program one semester in advance of taking your "Orals", the Degree Program should be filed no later than the spring of your second year.

The examining committee consists of four faculty members, one of whom must be from outside the Astrophysics graduate faculty. Normally the committee is selected by the Director of Graduate Studies with your help, subject to approval by the Graduate School. It is your responsibility to obtain the necessary forms and arrange with the committee a suitable time and place to take the exam. The Graduate School must be notified (625-5833) at least a week in advance of the time and place for the exam. All members of the committee must attend the examination, and at least three of the four must agree in order for you to pass the exam.

[top]3.6 The Ph.D Thesis

Each graduate student must identify a thesis advisor and topic and secure the agreement of the advisor. This is a serious commitment for both parties, and is usually done as part of a long-term discussion that may include small research projects, reading, etc. It is common for students to explore a few potential advisors / topics before making a final decision. Students and advisors should discuss the content and scope of the intended project, working styles and financial support expectations. The clearer the understandings are on these issues at the beginning (including what is uncertain), the smoother the working relationship will be.

After deciding on an advisor and topic, the student must fill out the Graduate School Thesis Title form. The DGS, with your help, will then select a final examination committee (subject to Graduate School approval), and chaired by someone other than your advisor. Three members of the committee will be designated reviewers and will read your thesis before the final examination.

[top]3.7 Thesis Work: In Absentia

Sometimes a student during his/her graduate career develops an interest in an area of research not directly performed by a faculty member in the department, or finds an opportunity at a national observatory or other research institution. In these cases, it may be in the student's best interest to finish his/her thesis in absentia so he/she can directly work with an astronomer at another institution or use the equipment and expertise located at a research institute. This is encouraged by the department.

The in absentia student must have completed all of his/her course work, passed the Preliminary Oral Exam and have a thesis topic before leaving Minnesota. He/she is also advised to visit the host institution for some time before deciding on the change of venue.

The faculty expects that he/she will continue to register for thesis credits and keep his faculty advisor and/or the DGS informed of his/her progress periodically through E-mail or telephone correspondences. The faculty also expects that he/she will participate in the corresponding informal expectations at the host institute as are required here. For example: attending colloquia, participating in public outreach and volunteering to give talks at the local equivalent of the journal club.

[top]3.8 The Final Oral Examination

When your advisor agrees that the thesis is ready for defense you must fill out the appropriate forms at the Graduate School and distribute copies of the thesis to the reviewers. When the thesis readers all certify that the thesis is ready for defense you may schedule the exam with your committee. Each member of the committee must have two weeks to review the thesis prior to the examination. This time can be modified only by unanimous consent of the committee.

The Graduate School must be notified a week in advance of the time and place for the exam. The final exam report form will be sent to your advisor. The first part of the examination is a publicly advertised and attended presentation of your work. This is followed by a private examination by your committee. No more than one of the five examining faculty may dissent in approving your thesis defense.

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