Frequently Asked Questions » Departmental Procedures and the Graduate Program
Q: How easy is it to get to work with the advisor you want?
A: When you first come to NMSU, you are set up with an advisor assigned by the department. You generally do research with this person for the first year, and then decide whether to continue working with them or to change advisors. If you have asked to work with someone specific, they do try to set you up with this professor from day one. Sometimes this is not possible, though, if the professor already has too many students to support. In these cases, students can usually switch to this advisor after the first year.
Q: What type of research projects are faculty involved in? If I am
interested in doing research in a field which is not currently done in the
department, is this a problem?
A: The faculty here do research in five broad categories: solar physics ; planetary and solar system studies, with an emphasis on planetary atmospheres; stellar dynamics, binary systems, variable stars, and compact objects; Milky Way physics, such as the interstellar medium (ISM), stellar populations, and cosmic rays; and a wide range of extragalactic topics, including large scale structure, the intergalactic medium and quasar absorption lines systems, local and distant galaxy formation and evolution, and galactic structure and the evolution of stellar populations.
You can read about individual faculty research programs in the department research webpages. In a nutshell, Rene Walterbos studies the ISM and nearby galaxies; Jon Holtzman studies stellar populations and galaxies; Anatoly Klypin works on theoretical cosmology (numerical simulations) and is interested in observational cosmology; Nicole Vogt studies spiral galaxies and local and distant galaxy evolution; Chris Churchill studies quasar absorption line systems; Kurt Anderson studies active galactic nuclei (AGN); Bernie McNamara studies gamma-ray bursts and stellar binaries, and works with Tom Harrison on cataclysmic binaries and black-hole X-ray binaries; Jim Murphy studies the atmosphere of Mars; Nancy Chanover studies Jovian atmospheres; Jason Jackiewicz studies solar seismology; James McAteer studies coronal mass ejections and space weather.
If you end up wanting to begin a project in a field that no one on the NMSU faculty currently follows, it is possible to hook up with staff at APO, the VLA or Los Alamos, or somewhere else nearby. A number of students have done this in the past through pre-doctoral positions or other special circumstances (the VLA even has special fellowships for this).
Q: What specifically are the coursework requirements?
A: Graduate students generally take four semesters of classes (ten credits a semester, broken into three three-credit courses and a one-credit astronomy seminar), as detailed in the Graduate Handbook. We are required to take six credits outside of the department, usually through the physics and engineering departments. Many of us have been concentrating on computer skills, so there's lots of us taking C, C++, Fortran, Java and other programming classes.
Q: How does NMSU handle the qualifiers process?
A: The qualifier process for PhD work at NMSU is quite different from that in most other astronomy departments, and was adopted from the one in place at Indiana University. We take a series of short monthly exams, and need to pass six exams in five semesters (22 chances). The exams are a bit more detailed than most qualifying exams because they are usually based on the analysis and understanding of a published journal article. Each exam is written by a different faculty member, so the exams tend to be focused on the different research areas studied here.
Students take one exam every month, so we do get a lot of practice getting comfortable with the exam style. The philosophy behind this format is that it spreads out the pressure, so that people do not get kicked out if they just happen to have one bad day on one exam date. It also gives the department a way of following a student's progress through the program.
Graduate students end up learning a lot of astronomy, because the professor who writes the exam always discusses the exam and the answers with the students afterward. You can also request copies of previous exams and solutions, to use as study guides when reviewing material. Most students think of the CUMEs (short for cumulative exams) as another learning tool, and it exposes us to other fields in astronomy which we might not get the chance to learn about through classes or research.
The faculty only admit students who they think will succeed in the qualifier process. They do not accept more students than they need and then "winnow them out", as some places do, so very few people fail to pass the six exams required to enter the PhD program.
After the CUMEs are done, students generally take an orals exam which consists of two parts: a classwork oral exam with four or five committee members who have taught your classes, and a PhD thesis proposal colloquium followed by further "grilling" by your committee. Some students decide not to pursue the PhD and after they finish their CUMEs, and so they write a Master's thesis. However, it is not a requirement that you finish passing your CUMEs to get Master's degree. Some students in the past have opted to not finish the CUMEs qualifying exams and to get a Master's by writing a thesis paper.
Q: I feel very unprepared for graduate school. My college only offers an
introductory astronomy class. Is that enough to start with or does the
department expect a more solid astronomy background?
A: It is a good idea to attend some astronomy classes before you go to graduate school, so that you are more comfortable when attempting to master the material in your graduate courses. It is also helpful to read through some basic astronomy books, like Shu's The Physical Universe or Carroll & Ostlie's Modern Astrophysics (you'll need a copy of this one for ASTR505 anyway).
The faculty realize that some incoming students have little or no experience with research, so they teach you that, but they do expect you to know the basic material that is taught in introductory astronomy classes. You should try to get comfortable with fundamental ideas and terminology, like the difference between a globular cluster, an open cluster, and a cluster of galaxies. It is also helpful to be able to program in Fortran because you will need it in several classes (such as ASTR506).
A: I suggest that incoming graduate students start by reading articles in the major astronomy journals like ApJ and AJ (or the free access astrophysical preprint database), writing down what they don't understand, and then going and looking it up. You should begin with articles written by NMSU astronomers to get a feel for what sort of research happens here, and also to start learning things that could show up on a CUME exam. (This a really good way to prepare for the CUME exams.)
Q: Are there lots of grants which can support students among the research
A: Most students begin at NMSU with a state-funded Graduate Assistantship, which includes 10 hours of teaching and 10 hours of research per week. If a student wants to and is qualified, they can start research immediately. The department usually does not expect much research to be done the first semester, since most students are barely getting used to graduate school. By the third year students usually shift to a Research Assistantship (RA) funded by their advisors' grants, but this does not always happen, depending on individual student progress and the number of students needed to teach classes that particular semester.
There are also grants for students, such as the NASA funded Space Grant (which just about everyone from the astronomy department who has ever applied for has received) and the Consortium for Higher Education (CHE) grant for women in the sciences. It is surprisingly easy to get research funding here, which cannot really be said about other departments. There are also some new grants for students interested in pursuing educational careers instead of research. At present, we also have several senior students supported on their own NASA Graduate Student Research Program (GSRP) fellowships, which fund both salaries and individual research efforts (like travel to meetings and to telescopes) quite generously, and four more supported on NMSU Graduate Research Fellowships from the Space and Aerospace Cluster and the Office of the Vice President for Research.
Q: What is it like teaching a lab? Is that all you have to teach?
A: Many graduate students love teaching, though some of them hate it. The undergraduates usually like us, because we are close to their age, while they see the professor rather unapproachable. The labs that we teach meet once a week. You have either two sections, or one section and campus observatory duty (which means you spend an hour a couple of nights a week at the campus telescopes helping students to make naked-eye and telescope observations). Teaching is good practice for giving talks, as you quickly get comfortable with public speaking and learn how to communicate your ideas. You usually teach for the first two or three years, and then you only do research.
Q: How easy is it to get telescope/observatory time?
A: Students often develop observing time proposals (and go observing) with their advisors for national and private telescopes, which is a good way to learn how to write a successful proposal! Faculty in the department observe often with the Hubble Space Telescope, at the nearby Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, and with a range of optical and infrared telescopes in Chile and in Hawaii. They also do some radio astronomy with the Very Large Array (VLA), in the northern end of New Mexico.
Students can also lead their own telescope proposals. Many students use the NMSU 1.0m telescope and the ARC 3.5m telescope, both at Apache Point Observatory. These telescopes can be controlled remotely by computer from the department. This is pretty nice, even though APO is just a two hour drive east from Las Cruces. We have our own telescope allocations committee (TAC) which allocates the time on the 1.0m (solely for NMSU members) and on the 3.5m telescope (about 15% for NMSU members, with the rest of the time being shared with other ARC institutions like Princeton University and the University of Washington).