Graduate Handbook - Section 5

University of Minnesota

Department of Astronomy

Section 5

In addition to all the formal requirements for graduate degrees in Astrophysics, graduate students are encouraged and expected to become a full part of our professional community. This means participating in a variety of informal activities, like joining discussions about the department's programs and facilities, helping out where it is needed, and receiving help from other students and faculty.

[top]5.1 Colloquia, Seminars, and Journal Club

The Astronomy Department and the School of Physics and Astronomy offer a large number of scientific presentations every week. A weekly calendar of events can be found at:, and is posted on the board outside the Department office.

Graduate students and Faculty are expected to be active participants in these programs. Astrophysics Colloquia, scheduled for Friday afternoons, generally feature outside speakers presenting current research on a wide variety of topics. The schedule for these colloquia can be found at: These form a critical part of the continuing professional development of both faculty and students. Often, a separate time is set aside for graduate students to meet with the speaker; you are encouraged to participate in these sessions. Dinner arrangements for speakers are made with that week's host --- in many cases graduate students are welcome to attend (and their meals are subsidized at the rate of 50%).

The astrophysics and cosmology group have weekly lunchtime seminars (typically around noon on Mondays) and occasionally seminars (typically on Mondays at 2:30 pm). The lunchtime seminars usually feature local speakers and the seminars usually feature outside speakers. The schedule for both seminars can be found at:

School of Physics and Astronomy Colloquia are scheduled each Wednesday afternoon at 4 pm during the academic year. These colloquia are intended for non-specialists and often contain topics of interest to astrophysics. Given the close links between much of astrophysics research and basic physics, and the need to think broadly in terms of future employment, graduate students and faculty are encouraged to attend these colloquia. The schedule is posted at:

Journal Clubs, at Thursday lunchtime, are a key opportunity for faculty and graduate students to hear about interesting research from around the world, either through reviews of published articles, preprints, or meeting reports. They also present an important opportunity for graduate students to practice their communication skills in front of a supportive audience, but one that can provide critical feedback for improvement. All graduate students are expected to make at least one (and preferably two) Journal Club presentation each year, and to attend each weekly session.

In preparing for a Journal Club (JC) presentation, the following guidelines may be useful:

I. Choice of paper: The choice of the paper can be crucial to the success of the JC presentation. Choose a paper which is interesting to you and which you judge will be interesting to the audience. Ask faculty or other graduate students for suggestions if you are stuck on this. "Discovery" papers are more likely to be of general interest than "technical" papers. For example, it is often the case that we hear about astrophysical discoveries through press releases which give very little information. Reviewing the relevant journal article will generally be appreciated. The length of the paper can also be important. If you choose a very short paper (e.g., a Nature paper or an ApJ letter) you may find that most of the background has been left out so that you have to read a number of other articles just to set the stage. On the other hand, it may be difficult to do justice to a very long paper in the time allotted. Choosing a paper outside your direct area of research is often a good idea. It will broaden your horizons and is likely to be of more general interest to those present. Often it is easy to find an article which peripherally relates to your studies, and therefore is of use to you outside the scope of the presentation. There are now suggestions for articles listed on the journal club website at

II. Allot enough time: Usually it is best to pick the article up to a week in advance. This allows you to give the paper a quick read (and reject it if it isn't as interesting as you had hoped), note the background articles that you'll need to read, and identify the parts of the paper on which you will have to work to understand. Often discussing the article with another grad student or faculty member will help you to sort out which bits need further work.

III. Prepare a clear presentation: There are many points to this. Some may seem obvious, but violations are frequent. Prepare visual aids (viewgraphs and powerpoint are both available) that can be read easily from the back of the room (this includes the labeling on the axes of graphs). Speak clearly and loudly so that everyone can hear. Highlight important points. Maintain eye contact. Prepare a presentation which is appropriate to the time allotted (20 minutes) and allow for (and encourage) questions from the audience.

IV. Seek feedback: When your presentation is over, seek out advice on how you could improve your presentation style.

[top]5.2 Getting Involved in Research

Most beginning graduate students have only vague notions of the area of research they wish to pursue seriously. Some have had extensive exposure to active research as undergraduates, but many have not. It is important for each of you to become familiar with serious research in the Department from the very beginning of your career. You are expected to participate in weekly colloquia and "journal clubs"; in addition you should peruse current journals and preprints in the reading room and Walter Library, and discuss research activities with other graduate students and faculty. Most important, you should take initiatives to become directly involved in meaningful research.

Personal involvement may develop in several ways. For example, in the Fall after you arrive the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) can discuss your research leanings with you and help you make arrangements with a faculty member to work on a research project. In addition, be alert for possibilities such as a scientific argument over tea which suggests a short, but critical observation or calculation that you can perform. Sometimes,new students are invited to accompany faculty members on observing trips to Mt. Lemmon or some other observatory.

Other observing projects develop that are suitable for O'Brien Observatory, as well. These observational opportunities are valuable even if you hope to become a theorist, because of the insights they provide into observational methods and limitations. Of course, other activities around the Department include instrument development and computing. Ask around. Don't be afraid to propose projects of your own. Many good research projects are initiated by graduate students. The faculty will assist you in developing projects and preparing proposals.

When your academic and teaching responsibilities are going smoothly, and definitely by the summer after your first year, you should be getting involved with small research projects. These short projects can lead into the Second Year Project, but may well have a different focus from your eventual Ph.D. thesis work. By the second year all except those students doing a Plan B M.S. should begin to be involved in the more extensive Second Year Project.

[top]5.3 Financial Aid

The department tries at best it can to provide financial support for all graduate students who are making satisfactory progress toward a degree, so that they can concentrate on their studies and research. This support currently comes In five forms:

  • Teaching Assistantships (TA's) --- awarded by the Department;
  • Research Assistantships (RA's) --- arranged with individual faculty members using research grant funds
  • Graduate School and Dissertation Fellowships, by Department nomination for college-wide competitions
  • Miscellaneous fellowships --- watch Bulletin boards and see the DGS
  • Tuition and other subsidies, awarded through the Department.

Most graduate students will be supported initially through teaching associateships. Provided you make satisfactory progress toward your degree, and provided your teaching is satisfactory, the Department will make every effort to supply TA support for two academic years. Our ability to provide this support depends, of course, upon the department's ability to obtain sufficient funding for TA's from the Institute of Technology. Beyond the second year you should try to obtain support as an RA, if at all possible.

Some summer TA support has been available to graduate students who were not yet supported full time as RA's. However, its nature and extent are variable, so you should discuss this with the DGS early in the spring. Every effort will be made to find you support for at least part of the summer. (Faculty members must also find salary money during the summer, since they are paid only 9 months by the University.)

As part of the Ph.D. program, you are required to participate in research projects. Some of these can be supported through external research grants, but others may not. By your third year you should ordinarily plan on finding support as an RA. You should expect to establish yourself as a "good risk" through an informal work arrangement with a faculty member before any long-term financial commitments are made.

It is important to realize that all RA support in the Department comes through externally funded research grants (primarily through the NSF and NASA). Faculty members must write proposals every one to three years; this involves a large amount of effort, and must be done 8 months to 1 year in advance. The actual cost of an RA to a grant is approximately twice what the student receives in salary, because it includes University overhead and fringe benefit costs for health care, tuition, etc. Funding is very competitive, and RA support for students must be justified to the funding agencies upon their real scientific value to the proposed research.

[top]5.4 Advising

Initially, the DGS will serve as your advisor. At any time, you are welcome to informally seek advice from other faculty members. You may also have another faculty member officially designated as your advisor at any time --- see the DGS. The supervisor of your Second Year Project may serve as your official academic advisor or not, by mutual agreement. All changes in advisor must be done officially through the DGS.

Before beginning M.S. or Ph.D. thesis work, you must obtain a `thesis advisor' who will supervise your thesis work and serve as your official academic advisor.

Students working toward a Plan A M.S. should also a thesis adviser.Officially you are required to file your degree plan and thesis title by the end of your first year. Early in the year you should identify a faculty member with whom you wish to work and through discussions and/or a "work study project" identify a suitable thesis topic. The M.S. thesis topic should be something of scientific merit which is suitable for publication in a serious scientific journal. On the other hand, it should be something that can be completed and written up in less than a year's time. The M.S. should be defended at the beginning of the third year.

[top]5.5 Travel Support

Each year, the Department applies for "Block Grant" funds from the Graduate School, which can be used for a variety of purposes. Most of our funds go to subsidize student travel to observatories. Beginning students are specifically encouraged to use these funds to enable travel that would otherwise not be possible. Assisting a more experienced graduate student or a faculty member in an observing run is an excellent way to get experience and determine where your talents and interests lie.

Generally, part of the costs will be provided by a research grant, and Block Grant funds can be used for the remainder. Students wishing to apply for these funds should contact the DGS informally at first, and then will be asked to write up a specific request and justification. Guidelines for the use of these funds may change from year to year.

[top]5.6 Access to Computers

There are several major computer systems available to graduate students. Since computing forms the basis of much of modern astrophysics as well as a much broader range of technical careers, students are encouraged to take advantage of these systems to learn as much as possible.

The Departmental computing system consists of a network of Sun and SGI and Xterm workstations, as well as PCs and a Macintosh. All students will automatically be given an account on these systems, and are expected to use them within the guidelines set up by the Department and the System Manager. Each faculty member contributes to the operating cost of this network, but no specific accounting is done, except for color laser copies.

Individual research groups may have their own computing networks, sometimes interfaced with the Department system. The largest of these are the Automated Plate Scanner system and the Graphics System at the Laboratory for Computational Science and Engineering. Access to these systems is restricted; contact the appropriate faculty member if you have a need to use them.

The Minnesota Supercomputer Institute provides access for faculty and students to a range of supercomputers. Time is awarded through a proposal process. Graduate students can only gain access to these systems through participation with a faculty member's research. For other information, contact the DGS.

The University maintains a variety of other computer systems. For access, contact Distributed Computing Services. There is also a Microcomputer Help Center in Shepherd Labs, which provides assistance and advice on PCs and Macintoshes, runs a lab where you can try out various computers, and maintains a large shareware library.

[top]5.7 Public Outreach Programs

Part of the mission of the Astronomy Department is to serve the citizens of Minnesota through various public outreach programs. All professional members of the department --- faculty, post-docs, graduate students --- are expected to participate in these activities. Some of these responsibilities are also folded into the Teaching Assistant positions.

Current activities in outreach include:

  • Minnesota Starwatch - a newsletter about the night sky and other interesting facts.
  • Internet departmental web site.
  • Classroom visits to local schools for slide and other presentations.
  • Public evenings at the telescope.
  • Visits from Girl Scouts and other groups.
  • Talks to other local organizations as requested.
  • Mentoring programs with local school children.
  • Joint projects with the Minnesota Astronomical Society, the Planetarium, Newton's Apple, the Science Museum of Minnesota, etc.
  • Answering questions on the phone.

At present, we are developing a system to better document this broad range of activities. Please keep track of programs in which you participate.

[top]5.8 When Problems Arise

Graduate student life should be both challenging and enjoyable, in varying combinations. If either of these elements is missing for an extended period of time, it's time to talk to your advisor or the DGS.

It is not uncommon for stresses, academic, personal, financial, etc., to reach a level where they affect a student's work. It is very important that you do not let such problems reach a critical stage --- instead, you should address them promptly when they're easiest to deal with. You may feel embarrassed or uncomfortable raising these issues; please be assured that you are not alone --- many other students have dealt with difficult problems, and we can help with discretion and confidentiality. It is in the interests of the Department and University to have its students be successful, so please ask for help when you need it.

Your first contact in case of academic problems should be your advisor. Other faculty members, the DGS, and the Chair may also be useful to you. On personal issues, it may be useful for you to talk with the DGS, who can refer you to other services. Or, you can go directly to such services yourself --- we have had very good experience with the Counseling Center in Eddy Hall. Some of the specialized services offered by the University include:

  • Disability services
  • International student services
  • Writing help
  • Statistics help
  • Grievance resolution
  • Sexual harassment/sexual assault and Counseling services.

You may find out about these from the DGS or the Council of Graduate Students, or simply by looking in the University Phone Directory.


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