Advice on Applying to Astronomy Graduate School

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Dear readers. Thank you for making this post so popular. I hope that it is proving as useful as I intended. To ensure continued access to this post as hosts are updated, I will be changing the location of this post to my personal website. Take note for future access.
http://www.robertmarchwinski.com/astronomy_grad_school/
***Apologies. I just had to update the link again.***

First a couple of important points. The following advice and information is based primarily on my own experience applying to graduate school in 2011-2012. I do not speak for any graduate school, or have inside information about the admissions process. I simply wanted to make a website that has the information undergraduates need to apply to graduate school in astronomy. Previously, there had been other personal websites (one in particular that used to be hosted on UC Berkley’s website) but I have found that many have disappeared. In order to aid the reader in judging the reliability of the following, I will say that I am a current graduate student at Penn State, I was accepted to 5 schools outright, rejected from 5 more, wait-listed at 4 schools, and eventually was offered admission to 3 of the 4 wait-list schools. I was also offered fellowships at 2 of the schools. One final short aside, I have asked a few friends about their experiences. They have taken different paths but all were in my physics program at Boston University. I hope their input maybe of use to you as well although only one of them has thus far written up a statement (See Below).

From a friend, if you may be considering Engineering.

With that out of the way, Welcome! If you are reading this, you have an interest in applying to graduate schools in the field of Astronomy and Astrophysics! The application process can be both one of the best and most annoying experiences you will ever have. To help guide you through the application process, I will lay out a timeline that I felt was very useful and helped me stay on track. First Year of Undergrad You are now a starry eyed new college student and should not have any real idea of what your future is going to be like. If you’re reading this and are a freshmen, kudos to you for being way ahead of the game. For many future astronomers at this point, they have already decided to pursue that path before even reaching college. I will admit, that WAS NOT me. I came in intending to study physics and premed, however I had always had an interest in astronomy. I simply never considered it as a viable career. Yet, in one of the best moves I’ve ever made, I did my best Peyton Manning impersonation and called an audible, adding astronomy onto my curriculum during my orientation. Ok, enough anecdotes here is what you need to know:

  • Most individuals applying to astronomy are physics majors, so at this point you should be intending to be a physics major and should be taking physics classes.
  • You should also be considering adding astronomy and mathematics (I chose a major and minor respectively and was happy with the choice), or at the very least taking a number of electives in each.
  • You may want to consider a computer science minor or major. I think that a minor would have helped me a little bit more.
  • Your second semester of college you should begin researching with a professor. This does not have to be your eventual mentor but you should begin experimenting with different areas and at least getting some experience. Do not worry about the first semester. You are still adjusting and most professors prefer you have a semester and the grades before they hire you.
  • BEGIN LEARNING HOW TO CODE. The life of an astronomer is that of a programmer, without the nice pay. I would recommend IDL or Python, whichever is available.
  • Consider researching with your boss during your first summer break (I didn’t but should have).

Second Year of Undergrad The second year will probably be your first real year of college. You’ve finished a lot of your electives/requirements and potentially are taking multiple physics classes per semester (this is very college specific). The important points for your sophomore year are the following:

  • Continue taking higher level physics courses and as many as you feel comfortable with.
  • Continue taking higher level math courses at least up through differential equations/linear algebra.
  • Hopefully by now you have found a mentor/research advisor who you feel comfortable with, is providing you with decent research, and is someone who is willing to help you with your career. Making friends with a graduate student also helps if possible.
  • At some point during this year you should begin working on your own research project and should push to make this happen.
  • Work with your advisor or find a summer REU to get more experience.
  • Participate in outreach opportunities. This comes in handy for the NSF Fellowship.
  • KEEP LEARNING CODING!
  • HAVE FUN, ITS COLLEGE!

Third Year of Undergrad If you are still interested in the field then this is the real year. First, I want to stress that astronomy is a tough field. Astronomers do take care of each other but unless you truly enjoy it, you may want to consider some other career path. Anyway here are the things you should be focusing on since you are now approaching the application time:

  • Continue taking higher level physics courses. I really cannot stress how important physics is to astronomy.
  • Take a good look at your research and see if it is approaching a publishable point. Graduate schools love those who show initiative and show they can produce results. You should try to get your research to a publishable state by the end of Junior year and see if you can submit it for publication the following summer.
  • Continue performing some form of outreach.
  • Sign up for and take the Physics GRE in April. I personally did not study for this test and used it as a marker to see where I was and where I needed to go. Many people do not take this early test and end up only getting one chance later on in the year. Taking it early is a great way to gauge where you are! You also do not have to worry about your first score being the important one like it is for law students. Grad schools will take your highest score like undergrad did with the SATs.
  • Take the regular GRE once or twice. You really just want to show you are decently strong in english and are good at math.
  • The summer between junior and senior year you should also be doing research OR taking part in an REU. The research experience is invaluable.
  • Go to physics and astronomy colloquia.
  • By the summer you should have your physics GRE results back. Talk with your advisor, see where you are, and begin studying for the second attempt. You should try to do an hour or so every night (not that I did but do as I say, not as I do).
  • One helpful tool for this is flash cards which will be sent to you for free from Case Western if you contact them at the following link: http://www.phys.cwru.edu/flashCards/
  • Sign up for the October or November physics GRE!!!!

A note on the Physics GRE

I previously chose not to disclose my GRE percentage because I did not feel it added value. I think that was wrong. So for the reader’s information, my first attempt yielded a 46 percentile and my second a 64 percentile. The latter is about where I would have placed myself when comparing with my fellow Boston University physics majors, probably closer to 70th percentile. The word of mouth information (I do not vouch for its credibility) is that you need to be above 35-40 percentile to be considered. There are some rumors that in fact if you are below 35, your application is less likely to be considered (and almost certainly won’t be at the top schools). The reason is that if you increase your score, your success rate in grad school increases linearly until you hit 35. After that it is independent so not as important as your grades, research, and letters. AGAIN I CANNOT VOUCH FOR THE AUTHENTICITY OF THIS INFORMATION. I AM SIMPLY RECOUNTING RUMORS I HAVE HEARD THAT I FEEL YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT.

Senior Year of Undergrad

You have now reached the busiest part of your career. I will try to lay out the following in a time based manner. I do want to add first that you should be making an attempt to go to any colloquium offered that has speakers from astronomy. The first reason is to familiarize yourself with the potential research topics that are out there. The second, is that you can ask questions and possibly begin having a dialogue with individuals at schools where you may be applying. You never know what connections may come of it. You should also consider taking some grad level astronomy/physics classes. They will certainly help introduce you to the rigors of grad school.

September

    • If possible, begin work on a senior thesis project AND/OR begin completion of a publication (I did both but it is a major time sink).
    • Study for the GRE.
    • Begin making a list of graduate programs
      • I used the following list:
      • My particular strategy was to eliminate all of the masters programs. I then separated the rest into stand alone astronomy departments and those which have a combined physics/astronomy department.
        • I did not wish to take too many physics courses in graduate school so I removed all combined departments leaving me with around 30 programs.
        • You need to decide what is important to you.
      • Rank the programs with the help of the following website:
      • Determine if you want to be a theorist, observationalist, instrumentalist, or have no idea. The following are some general categorizations of the stand alone Astronomy departments:
        • Theory: Princeton
        • Observation: Virginia (NIR and Radio), Hawaii, Santa Cruz, Arizona, Cornell (Radio)
        • Well Rounded: Harvard, Caltech, Penn State, Maryland, Michigan, University of Washington, Berkeley, Texas, Ohio State, Boston University, Wisconsin
        • This list is by no means comprehensive. Use the Umass link to get all of the schools and look at their websites. Again these are my impressions of the schools’ focus from when I was applying. Do not take this too literally.
      • Look at the professors at each school and makes sure there are a number of people you are willing to work with. Scan through NASA ADS to check their most recent research and make sure that they are still involved in active research (If their last paper was ten years ago, they are probably not a good choice for a research advisor).

October

    • Take the physics GRE the second time.
    • Ask 3 professors to be your references and inform them that you will need letters of recommendations.
    • Apply for the NSF Fellowship for graduate students. You will have to come up with some original idea to try and win it since you will not yet know where you are going. THIS FELLOWSHIP HELPS GREATLY AND PROVIDES 3 YEARS OF INDEPENDENT FUNDING!!!! The pay is also generally better then the base salary at grad schools.

November

  • Receive final physics GRE scores (celebrate/cry/drink as needed)
  • Make plans to attend the winter American Astronomical Society meeting if possible.
  • Determine a final list of schools to apply for.
    • A general rule is to apply to between 5 and 15 schools. Too few and you risk not getting in and too many will both make you go crazy and bankrupt you.
    • My rule was to apply to 4 reach schools, 4 safe schools, and the final 6 my adviser felt I had a decent shot at.
    • It is recommended by most professors and academic advisers that you contact professors that you are interested in working with at each school. I did not until I got in but that was a personal choice.
  • Begin writing essays and filling out applications. Applications typically require:
    • 3 Letters of Recommendation
    • 1-3 Essays
      • Personal Statement
      • Previous Research
      • Sometimes some weird diversity essay which as a white male didn’t include much for me. If you can claim outreach to underrepresented groups that will be a good thing to mention.
    • Official Transcript
    • GRE Score Report
    • Resume/CV
    • Application Fee
  • I wrote my essays to be applicable to all schools. I simply replaced 2 paragraphs to be school specific where I mentioned research I would be interested in doing and people I would be interested in working with.
  • The following is a spending breakdown:
    • Between $100-200 for each GRE test.
    • Between $50-100 for each Application Fee.
    • Less then $10 to send each transcript.
    • $23 to send your GRE transcript to each school.
    • It would be safe to say I spent close to $1500 on the entire process.

December

    • Write, write, and write some more.
    • Submit applications: Deadlines typically range from Dec 1 to Jan 15.

January

    • Attend AAS meeting and talk with grad school representatives  Many schools will ask if you are attending and if you are presenting. They will try to stop by.
    • Finish applying and relax.
    • Await the first acceptance (typically come first either by email or phone call) and then celebrate and/or go out for a beer.

February

    • Plan visits to the grad schools. Almost all grad schools will pay for the entire visit. Be forewarned that your March may disappear.
    • If some schools are definitely out, do not waste their time and money by visiting. It may seem like a good idea to visit them all but a lot of time some schools can be ruled out immediately. You should free up these spots for those who might be interested.

March

    • Visit graduate schools.
    • The following was what I looked for at a graduate school. This may differ based on your personal style but the following was what I looked for.
      • A place I felt I could live for 5-6 years.
      • Graduate students who were happy and who could live comfortably on the stipend provided.
      • A department that was supportive and that you felt at home with.
      • Professors and research focuses that you would like to work with.
      • A program that is academically strong and will prepare you.
    • It may seem unimportant to many but you want to make sure you enjoy your time at a graduate school.

April

    • April 15th is THE deadline for basically all graduate decisions. If you rule a school out earlier, let them know so someone can come off a wait list.

Some final tips about choosing your graduate school. I personally noticed that I did not feel I would be happy living at one of my 5 grad schools (the students did not feel their stipend was adequate and I didn’t want to be worrying about money). Another school was really far away from my family and friends and a decent number of the professors did not show up on the day we were supposed to meet with them. This was my number one school going into the visits so it shows that the visit can be really important because I did not want to go to a school where I felt the professors would disrespect the students. My real decision was between 3 final schools. I’m ignoring the wait-lists because they all came back 2-3 days before the deadline and I did not feel comfortable choosing them. Note: In rare occasions you can request an extension on a decision if a wait list comes back that you may be interested in. I know one grad student who did that although it took a fair amount of effort. Out of this list, one gave me a 5 year fellowship and was actively courting me, one gave me a one year fellowship but was clearly the best academic program, and one had the best graduate students in terms of me fitting in but I did feel a bond with the professors. I took the obvious middle one. I will never doubt that choice as I have had numerous personal issues crop up and Penn State has been fantastic in supporting me through some rough times.

One final observation, while many students who attend an undergrad institution with a grad program may feel like they want to stay, you should not. I was one of these. I loved my undergrad and I loved the city. I was explicitly told not to apply to BU and did not and it was the smart choice, although I wish I was still in a city. You should experience how different departments are run and operated. I can tell you, moving from a private to a public institution was certainly an eye opener; not in a bad way, it was just a much different culture.

So this is just my observations from my go through. I hope this can help some future students who are looking at going into astronomy as a career. It is a fantastic field of study.

If you have any questions, remember you can always email specific departments or even the graduate students at those schools. Most probably won’t reply, but there’s always a few who are willing to talk. If you have any questions feel free to email me and I’ll try to answer if time permits. If I can’t, I’ll ask around either to some other grads or to professors to try and get you the best answer.

Just one more disclaimer/reminder, remember I do not speak for any institution or committee. All advice is from personal experience and is simply meant as an additional guide/hints to what other sites and your mentors/professors say. Professors always know more about this then we little grad students.

Best of luck!

Feel free to email me at rcm236 [at] psu.edu if you have any specific questions. I will try to reply in a timely manner but I cannot make any promises. I have disabled comments because the spam bots have attacked. I would also greatly appreciate any feedback on what you think is good/bad and any results you have based off my advice. It will help me better tailor this site!

One final request, if you found this site useful please share it with others who might!

“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” -George S. Patton

Last Updated:   8/4/14