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University Bulletin
Graduate Degree Programs

Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO)

Program Home Page

DONALD P. SCHNEIDER, Head of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics
525 Davey Laboratory


Degrees Conferred:

Ph.D., M.S., Dual-title Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics and Astrobiology


The Graduate Faculty


The Program

The graduate program in Astronomy and Astrophysics prepares students for careers in astronomy, space science and education. Graduate instruction and research opportunities are available in theoretical, observational, and instrumental astronomy and astrophysics. Currently active areas of theoretical research include high-energy astrophysics (including theory of neutron stars, black holes, and gamma ray bursts), relativity and cosmology, stellar dynamics and planet formation, and computational methodology. Observational areas include spectroscopic and photometric observations of high-redshift quasars, galaxies and the intergalactic medium; gamma-ray bursts; X-ray and visible light studies of quasars, starburst and other active galaxies; visible light studies of nearby galaxies and their stellar populations; infrared study of brown dwarfs and protoplanetary disks; spectroscopy and modeling of binary, magnetically active, pre- and post-main sequence stars; spectroscopic searches for planetary systems. Instrumental areas include: development of X-ray telescopes and detectors; and high-precision visible and near-infrared light spectrographs. Department faculty members participate in several university cross-disciplinary organizations: Astrobiology Research Center, Center for Astrostatistics, Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds, and the Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos.

The department played a seminal role in and leads many science investigations using two NASA-launched satellites, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Swift panchromatic gamma-ray burst mission, and the innovative 9-meter Hobby-Eberly Telescope located at the McDonald Observatory in Texas. Faculty and students also observe with other space-based observatories (GALEX, Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer Space Telescope, XMM-Newton) and ground-based telescopes (Gemini and other national facilities, Magellan, Keck, South Africa Large Telescope, Very Large Telescopes). Physics faculty members closely associated with the Department are involved in particle and gravitational wave observations using the Auger, AMANDA, Ice Cube, and LIGO instruments. The Department has extensive computing facilities, and research is also conducted with university and national supercomputing resources.

Graduate students also have ample opportunity to acquire experience in undergraduate teaching and public outreach.

Admission Requirements

Requirements listed here are in addition to requirements stated in the GENERAL INFORMATION section of the Graduate Bulletin. Applicants apply for admission to the program via the Graduate School application for admission.

Scores from the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), including the Physics test, are required for admission.

Normally, students admitted to the program are required to have a bachelor's degree in physics and/or astronomy with a grade-point average of at least 3.0 in their junior/senior courses in physics, astronomy, math, and related subjects. Typical GRE scores for entering students are 720 or more on the general test, and 680 or more on the Physics test. The language of instruction at Penn State is English. English proficiency test scores (TOEFL/IELTS) may be required for international applicants. Consult the English Proficiency section of the Graduate Bulletin Application and Admission Procedures page for more information. Applicants to the Astronomy and Astrophysics program must have a minimum TOEFL score of 590 on the paper-based test, or a total score of 96 with a 23 on the speaking section for the Internet-based test (iBT).

Degree Requirements

In the Bulletin listing, under Degree Requirements, add the following as the first paragraph: “Requirements listed here are in addition to requirements stated in the DEGREE REQUIREMENTS section of the Graduate Bulletin.

A minimum of 37 credits are required for the Ph.D., including 30 credits of 3-credit courses, 3 credits of ASTRO 596 for directed research in the second year, 3 credits of ASTRO 589 Seminars in current research, 1 credit of ASTRO 590 Colloquium, and 1 credit of ASTRO 602 for supervised teaching; however the 1 credit for ASTRO 602 cannot be counted towards the minimum credits required for the degree. The ten 3-credit courses must include ASTRO 501, ASTRO 502, at least four additional ASTRO 500-level courses, and at least two PHYS 500-level courses. One 400-level class may be substituted for a course that is not one of the ASTRO 500-level courses. A GPA of 3.2 in the ten 3-credit courses is required.

The Candidacy Examination is an oral examination covering any area of astronomy. Students who fail the Examination may make a second attempt. At the Comprehensive Examination, the student presents a significant body of original research conducted at Penn State. This Examination tests the student's mastery of the chosen field of research. The student prepares an extended written report and oral presentation, and answers questions on the research and closely related areas. Graduation requires the completion of a dissertation of original research and a final oral examination (the dissertation defense). To earn the Ph.D. degree, doctoral candidates must write a dissertation that is accepted by the doctoral committee, the head of the graduate program, and the Graduate School.

The Master of Science degree requires completion of the Ph.D. course requirements (except the 3 credits of ASTRO 589) with 3.00 grade point average, passage of the Candidacy Exam, and submission of an acceptable scholarly paper, completed while enrolled in ASTRO 596.

Dual-Title Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics and Astrobiology

Admissions Requirements

Students must apply and be admitted to the graduate program in Astronomy and Astrophysics and The Graduate School before they can apply for admission to the dual-title degree program. After admission to their primary program, students must apply for admission to and meet the admissions requirements of the Astrobiology dual-title program. Refer to the Admission Requirements section of the Astrobiology Bulletin page. Doctoral students must be admitted into the dual-title degree program in Astrobiology prior to taking the candidacy examination in their primary graduate program.

Degree Requirements

To qualify for the dual-title degree, students must satisfy the degree requirements for the Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics, listed above. In addition, students must complete the degree requirements for the dual-title in Astrobiology, listed on the Astrobiology Bulletin page. The candidacy examination committee for the dual-title Ph.D. degree will be composed of Graduate Faculty from Astronomy and Astrophysics and must include at least one Graduate Faculty member from the Astrobiology program. Faculty members who hold appointments in both programs’ Graduate Faculty may serve in a combined role. There will be a single candidacy examination, containing elements of both Astronomy and Astrophysics and Astrobiology. Dual-title graduate degree students may require an additional semester to fulfill requirements for both areas of study and, therefore, the candidacy examination may be delayed one semester beyond the normal period allowable.

In addition to the general Graduate Council requirements for doctoral committees, the doctoral committee of an Astronomy and Astrophysics and Astrobiology dual-title Ph.D. student must include at least one member of the Astrobiology Graduate Faculty. Faculty members who hold appointments in both programs’ Graduate Faculty may serve in a combined role. If the chair of the doctoral committee is not also a member of the Graduate Faculty in Astrobiology, the member of the committee representing Astrobiology must be appointed as co-chair. The Astrobiology representative on the student’s doctoral committee will develop questions for and participate in the evaluation of the comprehensive examination.

Students in the dual-title program are required to write and orally defend a dissertation on a topic that is approved in advance by their doctoral committee and reflects their original research and education in Astronomy and Astrophysics and Astrobiology. Upon completion of the doctoral dissertation, the candidate must pass a final oral examination (the dissertation defense) to earn the Ph.D. degree. The dissertation must be accepted by the doctoral committee, the head of the graduate program, and the Graduate School.

Student Aid

Graduate assistantships available to students in this program and other forms of student aid are described in the Student Aid section of the Graduate Bulletin. Students on graduate assistantships must adhere to the course load limits set forth in the Graduate Bulletin.

Graduate Teaching Assistantships, externally funded graduate Research Assistantships, and/or University fellowships are typically provided to student admitted and continuing in good standing. Many students also apply for externally funded fellowships.


Graduate courses carry numbers from 500 to 699 and 800 to 899. Advanced undergraduate courses numbered between 400 and 499 may be used to meet some graduate degree requirements when taken by graduate students. Courses below the 400 level may not. A graduate student may register for or audit these courses in order to make up deficiencies or to fill in gaps in previous education but not to meet requirements for an advanced degree.




Last Revised by the Department: Summer 2018

Blue Sheet Item #: 46-07-000

Review Date: 6/26/2018

Faculty linked: 5/27/14



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