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Astronomy: Graduate Programs

Overview: 

The Astronomy graduate program admits students for a Ph.D., although under extraordinary circumstances a student can be admitted for an M.Sc. Our goal is to involve the students, as rapidly as possible, in research activities so that by the time they graduate they have become fully independent research scientists. By setting high admission standards, by offering them a sound education in the fundamentals of physical science, and by giving them a virtually unique range of opportunities to carry out research, we seek to make a significant contribution to the future of the field. To ensure that our graduates have the mental agility and training to pursue a successful research career, we try to involve our students in many different aspects of astronomy and related technical fields, thus preparing them for a wide range of career opportunities. Since many of them will obtain academic appointments, a parallel goal is to provide our graduate students with some meaningful teaching experience.

Expected Learning Outcomes: 

Following are the expected learning outcomes (LOs) for UA Astronomy PhD students.

Astronomy PhD students will:

LO1: Exhibit an expert-level facility to engage with the principle findings, common applications, current problems, fundamental techniques, and underlying theory of the astronomy discipline;

LO2: Demonstrate advanced discipline skills necessary to utilize the observational techniques, instrumentation, computational methods, and software applications used to investigate modern astrophysical phenomena and problems;

LO3: Develop expertise with communicating, translating and interpreting fundamental astronomical concepts and research results in oral and/or written formats;

LO4: Conduct independent research and gain mastery-level knowledge of a specific area of the discipline of astronomy; and

LO5: Engage in the scholarly, ethical, and discipline specific practices of the field at a professional level.

Assessment Activities: 

A variety of formative and summative assessments are used to determine the extent to which learners have developed competencies related to the above five Learning Objectives:

·       Graduate students are required to complete successfully the 5 "core" courses in astronomy: ISM & Star Formation (ASTR 515), Stars & Accretion (ASTR 545), Cosmology (ASTR 541), Galaxies (ASTR 540), and Instrumentation & Statistics (ASTR 518). In addition, students are required to take another eight graded credits of non-core courses. Core courses are taken during the first two fall semesters. The student can fulfill the non-core requirement by choosing from a wide range of 3 credit elective and 1-2 credit seminars that are typically offered in the spring semesters and coordinated with the core courses offered the previous semester. Students can also satisfy the non-core requirement by taking courses offered by other departments, including Physics, Lunar and Planetary, Biology, Chemistry, Electrical Engineering, and Optical Sciences. Courses below the 500 level are not acceptable for graduate credit.

By the end of the third semester, the student should have completed the core Ph.D. qualification requirement, which consists of five graduate astronomy core courses, with a grade of C or better in each course. The student's overall GPA must remain 3.0 or above to hold either a research or teaching assistantship. A GPA of 3.0 is also a graduation requirement for either a Masters or Ph.D. in Astronomy.

Core courses will always be taken for letter grades by Astronomy graduate students. Electives and seminars may be taken for Pass/Fail credit, subject to the limitation of no more than two Pass/Fail courses per semester and the overall constraint of having taken a sufficient number of credits in letter-graded courses.

By the end of the fifth semester, students should have taken 16 units of graded core courses, 8-9 units of graded elective/seminars, and 20-21 units of Independent Research (ASTR 900) and/or other elective/seminars for a total of 45 units. By the end of their graduate career, students should have taken an additional 18 units of dissertation credits (ASTR 920) for a total of 63 units.

Responses to select questions from homework, course exams, and cumulative finals are evaluated to assess the degree to which learners have developed discipline fluency. In general, the distributions to the scores of the questions/exams demonstrate that these assessments are appropriately challenging and serving to differentiate the level of fluency being achieved by the learners.

·       A required preliminary exam is given in the fifth semester and consists of two parts: 1) a written, comprehensive examination in late January/early February of the fourth semester after the five core courses have been completed, and 2) an oral examination on the student's research to be taken at the beginning of the fifth semester after the research paper has been completed.
 
The written exam is authored, administered, and graded by a committee of several faculty members and is given simultaneously to all students in the second-year class. This exam is approximately eight hours long, lasting two days. Four hours are devoted to "closed book" questions, four hours to "open book" questions. During the "open book" exam, students can use all resources in the building except for other people and, if prohibited, the internet. A folder containing exams from past years is available in the department academic office.
 
If a student fails the written exam, one more attempt is allowed. The re-take exam, which is administered by members of the prelim exam committee, is typically at the end of the fourth semester. The student chooses the re-take exam format, which is either another "closed book" plus "open book" written exam or an oral exam in the spirit of the written exam. The oral re-take exam is chaired by a member of the Academic Program Committee. If the student fails the re-take exam, they will not be allowed to pursue a Ph.D., but may still obtain a Masters degree by completing a short, written thesis, usually a version of her/his research paper, and passing the research oral exam described below.
 
Students take an oral exam on their research at the beginning of the fifth semester. (This research exam can be taken before the written exam if the student's research paper is completed earlier.) While the goal is for students to finish a paper that would qualify for submission to a publication like the Astrophysical Journal, the bar for passing the oral exam is lower. Students should get as close as possible to a submission-worthy paper before the oral exam (and many do in fact defend submitted or published papers). The outcome of the exam is determined by the quality of this research paper (and the student's understanding of what it still requires to be publication-grade), the student's presentation of the material, and the student's answers to questions on the paper's content and related areas of astronomy. The exam begins with the student's 25-30 minute talk on the research paper, followed by a round of questions. The student then leaves the room while the committee decides whether additional rounds of questions are necessary. The exam must be no longer than three hours. If the student fails the research exam, a second try will generally be allowed up to six months later. If the student fails the research exam again, they are dropped from qualification for a Ph.D., although a Masters degree may be awarded at the discretion of the committee.
 

The programmatic assessments listed above ensure the graduate program provides students with a wide range of academic experiences that build an expert level of discipline content fluency.  Many courses in the program have been explicitly designed to provide a diverse set of “professional” experiences, which guarantee our graduates are prepared to successfully pursue their career aspirations whether they be in academia, industry, policy work, teaching, etc.  As detailed below these courses provide a curriculum that assess whether students leave the program well-rounded in current research methods, discipline findings, pedagogical training, and the ability to engage with and communicate about modern astronomy phenomenon:

·       ASTR 520 Advanced Extragalactic Astronomy is designed to both increase students’ knowledge of the core topics but also provide a challenging project that models the real-world issues that face professional astronomers.  Students work in teams to develop grant proposals for actual funding agency programs.  This will be the first time many of these students will ever have worked on a team proposal.  The students then conduct a simulated grant review process where formal feedback is given to the proposing team.  This challenging experience has proven so valuable that actual proposals have been written, based on their in-course proposal work, which have been submitted to real funding agencies and which have received real funding for the proposed work.

·       ASTR 555 Teaching College Level Astronomy and Planetary Sciences provides training in modern astronomy education research techniques and findings with the goal of significantly increasing students’ pedagogical content knowledge.  Students engage in reading, discussing, and presenting results from articles that focus on key results from STEM education research.  Students are also engaged in working through actual active learning strategies that have been shown to facilitate increased learning gains beyond traditional lecture.  Further, the students practice instructing in micro-teaching events using these instructional strategies, with their fellow students working as their educational coaches.  Lastly, the students develop (and in some cases test the efficacy of) an instructional unit of their own creation on a specific topic that they expect to teach about in the future.  Through this variety of educational experiences, the students significantly increase their understanding of the research, development, and testing of active learning strategies, as well as increase their ability to successfully implement these interactive teaching methods in the classroom. 

·       ASTR 596B Methods in Computational Astrophysics provides a unique range of experiences deigned to increase students’ professional preparedness for working in the astronomy community.  Students work on group-based projects that focus on computational methods and numerical modeling (an incredibly important set of skill that are evermore critical for modern astrophysical work).  Students are required to read contemporary articles from specific peer-reviewed journals (which students are unlikely to know have been published prior), and are asked to write a referee’s report for these already published articles.  Students then engage in panel discussions about these referees’ reports.  Students are asked to provide an oral presentation on their work, which models the format and time requirements of the contributed oral sessions at an American Astronomical Society Meeting. In addition, students are asked to develop a literature search and review on a core topic in the discipline.  Lastly, the class regularly provides problem sets that model the problems students will encounter in the department’s second-year written comprehensive examination.  

The above examples are provided to illustrate the breadth of curriculum and assessment activities the department’s courses offer.  These course activities include both formative and summative assessments of the different learning outcomes.  The different curriculum and assessments described above are the result of a major reform to the department’s graduate program of study.  This reform was prompted by critical feedback regarding the content, number/sequence, and teaching of courses provided by several graduate students during departmental discussions of the program prior to 2009, and from the previous APR.  The findings and changes to the graduate program will be described briefly below.

 

Assessment Findings: 

Historically the Astronomy Dept. has not maintained extensive records of student learning outcomes from specific graduate courses.  As described above the department formally engaged in an assessment of the graduate program, which occurred during the 2008 and 2009 academic years (following the previous APR), and included the involvement of faculty and several current graduate students.  The graduate students provided critical initial feedback on the program, and helped in designing and administering the evaluation plan and accompanying departmental programmatic changes.  

The following narrative lists the initial findings of this program assessment.  It was identified that the number of courses and their scheduling did not appropriately match up with the other research, prelims, and teaching requirements/recommendations of the department.  Also there were clear issues with the sequencing, availability, and content coherency of core required courses and elective courses.  Additionally, there was a need to establish higher quality teaching that provided a more equitable model for the teaching of these courses.  Lastly, a better set of guidelines needed to be established for the department’s administering of the written prelims. 

A series of changes were made in response to these assessment findings in an effort to help our graduate students achieve the learning outcomes established for the department’s graduate program.  We report on responses to these findings in the following section.

Change in Response to Findings: 

In response to the above findings, the department made major revisions to the graduate program that started in the fall of 2010.  The changes are listed below:

·      Transition to a 5 "core" course graduate sequence focused on the critical concept of ISM & Star Formation (ASTR 515), Stars & Accretion (ASTR 545), Cosmology (ASTR 541), Galaxies (ASTR 540), and Instrumentation & Statistics (ASTR 518).  Students are required to take eight graded credits of non-core courses. Additionally, finally all core courses can be taken during the first two fall semesters.

·      By the end of the fifth semester, students should have taken 16 units of graded core courses, 8-9 units of graded elective/seminars, and 20-21 units of Independent Research (ASTR 900) and/or other elective/seminars for a total of 45 units. By the end of their graduate career, students should have taken an additional 18 units of dissertation credits (ASTR 920) for a total of 63 units. The department assigns highly-rated (from student/peer reviews), rotating instructors who agree to teach critical concepts and coordinate coursework, using an equitable policy for assigning teaching credit.

·      A required preliminary exam is given in the fifth semester and consists of two parts: 1) a written, comprehensive examination in late January/early February of the fourth semester after the five core courses have been completed, and 2) an oral examination on students’ research to be taken at the beginning of the fifth semester after the research paper has been completed

It is important to note that these changes made in response to the findings of the department’s assessment of the graduate program have led to significant changes in the department’s schedule, content coverage, teaching, and assessment of courses.  Our formal assessment of the effectiveness of these changes is ongoing.

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Updated date: Wed, 06/01/2016 - 08:08