A Closeup View of Astronomy PhD Programs

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A Closeup View of Astronomy PhD Programs


Tom Rice, Education and Mentoring Specialist, American Astronomical Society, and
Assistant Research Professor of Physics, George Washington University

Note from the author: In this article astronomy and astrophysics are used as synonyms, following their everyday use in the professional community. Additionally, this guidance pertains to US-based programs; international programs will have important differences.

So you think you’d like to earn a PhD in astronomy?

Astronomy is one of the most exciting branches of natural science—we deal with the search for life in the universe (and life’s origins), the nature of black holes and other extreme objects, the formation and dynamics of galaxies, the beginning of time, and the ultimate fate of the cosmos. In my research I use infrared and radio observatories to study young, still-forming planetary systems.

I applied to astronomy PhD programs in 2011 and earned my PhD from the University of Michigan in 2019. Some things have changed since then: astronomy programs have gotten ever more competitive, and there has been a movement to change graduate admissions requirements to improve equity (e.g., by removing the physics GRE requirement). But many things have stayed the same—hopefully my insight can help guide your way!

Qualifications: What background do I need for an astronomy graduate program?

Typically, graduate programs in astronomy are accessible to anyone with a physics major, a physics- and math-rich astronomy major, or a major in a related field (e.g., chemistry, mathematics, computer science) who has completed substantive training in physics or astrophysics (at least a minor or a relevant research experience). Just like a PhD program in physics, strong quantitative preparation is required, and undergraduate research experience is highly desirable.

If you’re coming from a pure physics undergraduate background, don’t worry—many students make the leap into astronomy only when they begin their PhDs, and the first two years of astronomy graduate coursework are often designed to be accessible to someone with solid physics foundations, perhaps with some extra self-study.

Programs: What does a strong astronomy PhD program look like?

Astronomers often specialize as observers, theorists, numericists, or some combination of the three. This somewhat parallels the situation between experimentalists and theorists in physics, with the key difference that the astronomy theorist community is typically much more integrated into the observer community.

A strong astronomy PhD program will help you acquire the resources you need to succeed as an astronomer: data (for observers) or computer resources (for numericists), as well as professional connections.

Astronomical data comes from many sources. While some of the most prominent astronomy departments have dedicated access to world-class telescopes, in the modern era, you don’t need institutional access if you can work with a large collaboration, use open-access data from telescope archives, or successfully write small, focused telescope proposals as a principal investigator (PI).

Having a supportive PhD advisor and other mentors is key to gaining access to data and the professional community with whom you will share your scientific work.

Departments: What kind of departments should I consider applying to?

You can get a PhD in astronomy from a standalone department of astronomy. You can also get one through a joint department of physics and astronomy, some of which have separate astronomy and physics PhD programs. The astronomical community also has many people with PhDs in physics from departments of physics, whose dissertation research focused on astronomy questions. Because astronomy shares so much technique and history with “mainstream” physics, these distinctions are often permeable.

Advice: What else should I know?

Applying to graduate programs can be expensive; I come from a working-class family and needed to take out loans to cover the cost of my PhD applications. Some institutions now offer fee waivers for students with financial needs or from historically underrepresented groups; ask ahead of time—some fee waiver deadlines are several weeks before the formal application deadlines.

Successful astronomers come from many different backgrounds and life paths; this is something our community is working toward celebrating. I always encourage students to let their strengths shine in their application and apply broadly. Give yourself the best odds of finding a champion on an admissions committee who can see the incredible value you’ll bring to the astronomy community.

About AAS

The American Astronomical Society (AAS, aas.org) is an international organization of professional astronomers, astronomy educators, and amateur astronomers. AAS hosts the largest regularly held conference in the astronomical sciences worldwide, publishes astronomy journals, and provides resources on astronomy education, careers, and more. Members of SPS are eligible for free membership in AAS; for details see spsnational.org/about/membership/free-ms-membership. 

Additional Resources

"Much of my thinking on PhD programs has been shaped by these resources. You might want to check them out too!"   —Tom Rice


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