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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.


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 Gravitational Physics and Geometry, and the Center for Gravitational Wave Physics.

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

Scores from the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), including the Physics test, are required for admission. In addition, students coming from non-English speaking undergraduate institutions must submit scores from the TOEFL (Test of english as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (International English Language Testing System) examination. Requirements listed here are in addition to general Graduate School requirements stated in the GENERAL INFORMATION section of the Graduate Bulletin.

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. International applicants must take and submit scores for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or the IELTS (International English Language Testing System). The minimum acceptable score for the TOEFL is 590 for the paper-based test, 243 for the computer-based test, or a total score of 96 with a 23 on the speaking section for the internet-based test. The minimum composite score for the IELTS is 6.5.

Degree Requirements

Course requirements for the Ph.D. consists of 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. 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. A GPA of 3.2 in these courses is required.

The Candidacy Examination is an oral examination with broad coverage of 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. The Comprehensive Exam can be passed, failed with option retake, or failed followed by dismissal from the Ph.D. program. Graduation requires the completion of a dissertation of original research and a thesis defense before the Doctoral Committee.

While all students are admitted into the Ph.D. program, occasionally students terminate with a M.S. degree. This requires completion of the Ph.D. course requirements (except the three topical seminars) with 3.00 grade point average, passage of the Candidacy Exam, and submission of a suitable thesis.

Student Aid

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. University sources of funding are described in the STUDENT AID section of the Graduate Bulletin.


Graduate courses carry numbers from 500 to 599 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: Spring Semester 2008

Blue Sheet Item #: 36-04-064

Review Date: 1/15/08

Faculty linked: 5/27/14



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