Thank you for your interest in the graduate program at the Department of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University. On this page we will try to summarize important information about the program and graduate student life at Princeton, as well as outline differences from graduate programs at other universities.
This page is written by the graduate students and reflects our views and opinions. For an official information brochure and an application form please visit the Graduate Admissions Office website, or contact Jenny Greene, the Director of Graduate Studies in the Astrophysics Department.
Overview of the program
The Ph.D. program in astronomy at Princeton is unusual in providing an early opportunity to engage in research. It typically takes five years to complete.
In the first two years, a student completes three or four research projects under the supervision of faculty members. Although they are called semester projects, their difficulty and duration vary widely. Many of them result in published papers, one of which is required to advance to Ph.D. candidacy. In addition to research, during the first two years of the program students take courses offered by both astrophysics and physics departments. The Ph.D. thesis project is often in an area different from the previous research projects and normally takes three years to complete.
Semester projects and graduate student research
The Princeton program provides students with intensive exposure to several different areas of research, giving them the background necessary to work in any of these areas after graduation. In a rapidly changing field like astrophysics, experience has shown that a wide background is very useful.
Students get to choose their project advisors. In practice, in the beginning of each semester first- and second-year students talk with several faculty members about available projects and choose the one they prefer. Ties with the Physics Department and the Institute for Advanced Study as well as with the Plasma Physics section of the department are close and friendly, so it is possible to complete a project with a member of these.
After finishing the second year, students often choose to remain active on several different projects in addition to their main thesis work. As a result of this system, Princeton students applying for a post-doctoral position will already have several published papers before finishing their thesis. This combination of intellectual breadth and high scientific output puts Princeton Ph.D.s at an advantage in the job market for post-doctoral or faculty positions.
The Astrophysics Department has traditionally had a reputation for being a theory-oriented place, but in recent years the department has been involved in various exciting observational projects. In the recent past, graduate students have had important roles in projects such as the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the Atacama Cosmology Telescope, and the HatSouth Exoplanet Survey, making many ground-breaking discoveries in the process. The department currently has major involvement in the Atacama Cosmology Telescope, SDSS-III, the Subaru HyperSuPrime Cam, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, and the SEEDS survey for extrasolar planets.
All the while, the Astrophysics Department has retained its strength in theoretical research on a diversity of topics, ranging from cosmology, plasma astrophysics, and high-energy astrophysics to extrasolar planets, star formation, and interstellar dust. Students interested in computational astrophysics will find many research opportunities in Princeton. Students can easily get access to several high performance computing systems on campus, as well as remote access to national supercomputer centers such as NCSA and NERSC.
The five graduate courses offered at the astrophysics department (Stellar Systems, Extragalactic Astronomy, Stellar Structure, High-Energy Astrophysics, Diffuse Matter in Space) aim at preparing students for the general examination (aka qualifier) at the end of the second year. These are excellent classes taught by astro faculty members that cover basic and advanced topics of modern astronomy.
Graduate students are also required to attend the graduate student seminars each semester, except for their last semester at Princeton. Students take turns to present talks which they prepare using recent publications on the seminar subject. The seminar is run in turns by faculty members, who usually choose a topic related to their research area as the general theme for the seminar in a given semester. In fall, the seminar focuses on theory, whereas in spring it is mostly observational. As a result, by the time of graduation students are familiar with the current state of research in many different areas. However, an equally important goal of the seminar is to teach and practice presentation skills, be comfortable with a large audience, and practice answering tough questions from the audience. The seminar is also attended by students from the physics department and astro undergraduates and is regarded as very useful.
Students are also free (and encouraged, but not required) to take classes in the Physics or Plasma Physics department (or, for that matter, courses in languages, history, politics...)
Requirements (academics, teaching, candidacy)
At the end of their second year, students take the oral general examination. The student chooses four topics out of the following five: Galactic/Stellar Dynamics, Extragalactic Astronomy/Cosmology, Stellar Structure, High-Energy Astrophysics, Diffuse Matter in Space. These topics are covered by classes offered at our department. A committee of four faculty members examines the student for about two hours mostly on the four chosen subjects, but also on other topics in astrophysics. However stressful the whole experience is, it is not intended to be a "make or break" hurdle, and most people pass the exam on the first attempt. Students who are making good progress in their research and classes -- and even those who may be a little behind in some part of the schedule but maintain interest -- routinely put in a very good performance after a month or two of studying. The structure and feel of the exam reflect the non-competitive atmosphere of the department, and everybody wants you to pass: you, your fellow students, your advisor, and the faculty at large (not to mention your mother).
In order to be admitted to Ph.D. candidacy (the last three years of the program), the student must have published in a refereed journal at least one paper based on research done at Princeton during the first two years and have passed the general examination.
After passing the candidacy requirements, students also get a Master's degree.
Here is the official word:
- "Students are required to serve as Assistants in Instruction (Teaching Assistants) for one (and only one) semester sometime during their graduate career, although this requirement may be waived in exceptional circumstances. Students may occasionally teach for two semesters."
This requirement is unlike that in many other institutions where teaching assistantships are the primary means of financial support for graduate students throughout their courses of study. In practice, most students in our department serve as teaching assistants for one of the undergraduate astro courses (usually in the third year, i.e., after the generals and still long before the defense, a brief period when students have a false sense of having lots of free time). The limited teaching requirement spares a lot of time for research, which enables students here to graduate in a shorter time than their peers in other institutions.
Graduate students typically have their own offices starting from their second year and up. First-year students will be sharing office space with each other. Offices are located in the basement of Peyton Hall, the Astrophyscs Department building. There is also a graduate student lounge for social gatherings and the everyday half-past-three-o-clock tea.
The department is very small (typically, 15 faculty members, 15 postdocs, 20 grad students and 10 undergraduates) and maintains an informal atmosphere. During the graduate program, students have contact with most faculty members through classes, seminars, semester projects and thesis committee meetings. Everybody knows everybody. Every week, there are many astrophysics talks at Peyton Hall and other places in the Princeton Area. The Weekly Astrophysics Calendar summarizes astro-related events. Wunch serves as an opportunity for students, postdocs and faculty to present their work to other members of the department.
On Friday evenings, we have sherry to kick off the weekend.
While all faculty members are generally available for questions, grad students often resolve many questions by asking other grad students. This is especially true about computer-related issues.
Grad student life in Princeton
Princeton is located in central New Jersey. Contrary to popular stereotypes of the state, Princeton is a pleasant and affluent town in leafy surroundings while the University Campus has some of the most beautiful Neo-Gothic architecture in the country.
Here it is important to emphasize that unlike most other institutions, Princeton University offers nice and affordable housing for all graduate students during the first three years. (After that chances to get University housing decrease but hopefully by then you've figured the system out and can survive on your own.) It is especially important in the Princeton area where the cost of living is very high. All first-years are offered housing if they apply on time. There is dormitory-type housing (The Graduate College), apartment-type housing (Hibben/Magie, Butler, Lawrence) and house-type housing (Annex). More housing info can be found on the Housing Department webpage.
Apart from research and classes, graduate students participate in numerous recreational activities in and around the university, ranging from theater productions and musical performances to rock climbing and club sports.
If that isn't enough, New York City and Philadelphia are both about an hour away by train.
Some students are supported by outside fellowships, while others are funded through a combination of fellowships and grants through the department.
Unlike many other institutions, students do not have to worry about whether or not their advisors can find financial support for them, so students are free to work with any faculty member. In addition to the monthly stipend, there is a travel grant which can be used for traveling to conferences, observing sites, etc. There is also a computer grant to help you buy your own computer.
More about grad student life from ex students.
Graduate students about their experiences at Princeton Astrophysics Department:
"One thing I realized after having been in research for a few years is just how unusual the "semester projects" system is, and how much of a headstart it gives to Princeton graduates. It's very good for one's future research prospects to have been exposed to a variety of ideas in different fields. Since starting, finishing and managing all these projects requires mastering your organizational skills, the system encourages a lot more independence and maturity than your typical graduate program."
Nadia Zakamska '05 (now Asst. Professor Professor at Johns Hopkins University)
"The unique feature of the program that stands out in my mind is the semester project system. It allowed me to carry out several substantial projects (leading to publications before even starting thesis work) with different faculty members, acquiring research skills, organizing my time while working independently, and "trying out" advisors. Through this I was able to find a fantastic thesis advisor and the sort of PhD project that comes along once in a decade. I also completed a "Masters" year at the Physics Department, taking the Physics general exam. As the years go by following graduation, I have appreciated more and more the breadth of the graduate education I got at Princeton, and how unusual it is."
Hiranya Peiris '03 (now Professor of Astrophysics at University College London)
"Freedom in the first two years to dabble in several different areas of astrophysics, and to try out several different advisors, is probably the best part of the Princeton program. It's especially useful for the large
percentage of students whose background was in physics (or otherwise non-astro). Daily morning coffee is a highlight: you get to discuss the most interesting papers of each day with some of the best minds in the field. Changing to a five year program (in 2007) was a great move: current students get one more year of mentorship under their thesis advisor, their publication record can include several papers of their thesis before they graduate, and they have more than a scanty 1.3 years of their thesis done before they have to apply for postdocs."
Dan Fabrycky '07 (now Assistant Professor at University of Chicago)