Student studying in the Rathskellar on campus.

Current Students

Current students, please use the tabs below to explore the Astronomy Department’s policies and procedures.

As an entering graduate student you will be assigned a major professor and a senior graduate student as advisor and mentor. You can change your major professor at will, after consulting with the faculty. You are encouraged to work with a variety of the faculty and research staff during your first two years. By the time you take the preliminary examination, normally after two years of graduate study, you should have discussed a thesis topic with a professor who will serve as your thesis advisor.

Complete classwork

At the end of the second academic year a student must have:

  • Completed at least 32 credits of course work (including all core courses)
  • Received grades of C (or below) in no more than 3 credits’ work
  • Received a GPA of at least 3.0 in the core courses taken
  • Satisfactorily completed at least 3 credits of Astronomy 990 (Research)
  • Completed an approved minor

Prelims

Students must have taken the Preliminary Examination by one academic month (i.e., excluding the summer sessions) after completing the second academic year (unless extended as described below).

Thesis Proposal

Within 9 calendar months after passing the Preliminary Examination, the student must pick a major professor, submit a written thesis proposal, and have it accepted by the faculty following an oral presentation

Doctoral Thesis

Students are expected to complete their thesis as quickly as possible, typically after a total residence or about five years. The median time to graduate is 5.5 years.

Financial support beyond that stated in the initial offer letter requires special approval from the Department. The Graduate School requires that the degree be completed within 5 years after taking the Preliminary Examination. Students are advised to check Graduate School requirements. A candidate for a Ph.D. degree who fails to take the final oral examination and deposit the dissertation within five years after taking the Preliminary Examination is required to take another preliminary examination and to be admitted to candidacy a second time.

After the preliminary examination is passed, students must register for a minimum of 3 credits of Astronomy 990, each semester.

In collaboration with your proposed major professor, you should begin considering a thesis topic before you take the preliminary examination.

Formal approval of the thesis proposal is obtained after you make an oral presentation to the faculty giving the thesis title; the aim of the research (together with a statement of how it is related to current results, research, and trends in astronomy), an outline of the specific steps to be carried out; and a preliminary estimate of the facilities required (e.g. time at observatories or supercomputer centers).

This approval should be obtained within nine months of passing the preliminary examination. After the finished thesis has been presented, the final oral examination will include questions on the thesis research and also its relation to the wider field of which it is a part.

For final submission to the graduate school, the thesis must adhere to the graduate school formatting guidelines.

Financial support for graduate students is provided through University fellowships or Departmental assistantships. Contingent on satisfactory progress, the length of guaranteed student support is four continuous years for those with no prior graduate work. Three continuous years are guaranteed for those with one year or more of prior graduate work. In either case, it is almost always the case that students remain fully funded through their thesis defense.

Students are paid at a maximum 50% appointment level throughout their graduate school career. The full-time rate will increase after taking prelims, as well as after presenting the thesis proposal. The funding percentage is also dependent upon the funds that are available to the faculty member funding the student. Once the guaranteed four years of funding have been met, however, the department will reevaluate the funding percentage.

In addition to financial support, we also offer our graduate students a generous medical and family leave benefit (unique across the University).

This policy shall provide all Astronomy Department Research Assistants (RAs) with

  • up to twelve weeks of leave in case of serious illness or disability affecting the RA or his/her dependent and
  • up to twelve weeks of parental leave.

While on leave, RAs shall retain health insurance benefits. On return from leave, RAs shall be entitled to be restored to the position held by the RA when the leave commenced or to an equivalent position with equivalent benefits, pay, and other conditions of employment.

Teaching Assistants and Project Assistants are subject to the Teaching Assistants’ Association contract and are not covered by this policy.

As an entering graduate student you will be assigned a major professor and a senior graduate student as advisor and mentor. You can change your major professor at will, after consulting with the faculty. You are encouraged to work with a variety of the faculty and research staff during your first two years.

By the time you take the preliminary examination, normally after two years of graduate study, you should have discussed a thesis topic with a professor who will serve as your thesis advisor.

Graduate students from other departments who wish to minor in Astronomy should ask the department for assignment of a minor professor. The minimum requirement for a minor is 10 credits from courses at or above the 500-level, including Astronomy 700 (cross listed courses with other departments are not eligible), and a GPA of 3.0 in the minor courses.

The Astronomy Department does not have a foreign language requirement.

Astronomy graduate students are expected to take the examination at the end of the second academic year. The prelim exam must be passed in order to continue as a graduate student in Astronomy at UW-Madison. If there is a need to boost the knowledge in a topic, there is a chance to delay taking the preliminary exam for an extra year.

Rationale:

These exams are a chance for the students to express the knowledge that they have gained since becoming a graduate student at the University. This is also a chance for the professors to make sure each student has made satisfactory progress in their research and overall understanding of astronomy in general.

Candidates for the Ph.D. are required to pass a preliminary examination before beginning their formal thesis work. This examination covers all fields of astrophysics and consists of both written (one full day) and oral (two hours) testing. The examination is not a test on a particular series of courses, but rather on the whole subject of astrophysics and related fields in physics. Candidates are expected to be familiar not only with the contents of textbooks, but also with research results as reported in scientific journals and departmental colloquia and seminars.

Our prelim exams are composed of two parts:

  1. The first is a written exam composed of short questions are drawn from all areas of astronomy (not necessarily covered in one of the core classes). The exam will consist of a morning and an afternoon part with six questions each.
  2. The second is an oral exam in which the student is expected to display in-depth knowledge of topics related to their research. The first part of the oral exam consists of a presentation on the student’s research. The second part is in a question and answer format in which the faculty committee members pose questions related to the talk and astronomical topics related to the student’s area of research to the student.

Location and date:

Since there are generally less than 10 students in each class, the exams are held in one of the conference rooms in our building.

The Chair sets the date of the Preliminary Examination after consultation with the faculty and with the students who will take it. The examination will normally be given only once for all of the students who complete their second academic year at the same time. The student will be informed at least a month before the date of the Preliminary Exam if the exam will be of a substantially different form (in the distribution and nature of the written and oral parts) from the previous exam.

The exams are normally held a few weeks after finals. The written exam is held on one day for all students. The oral exam is to be scheduled individually by each student and their committee, to be held within two weeks after the written exam. After each student has completed the exam, the professors meet to discuss the results.

To enter as a graduate student you must have undergraduate preparation that includes at least three years of college physics and mathematics through differential equations. While undergraduate training in Astronomy is not required, you should be familiar with the basic facts of modern Astronomy.

It is recommended that you review these facts with a text such as Astronomy (Zeilek, 2002) or Modern Astrophysics (Carroll and Ostlie, 1996). It is the student’s responsibility to meet the Graduate School and Astronomy Department (both minor and major) requirements at the proper times; therefore you should be familiar with the general requirements found in the introductory section of the Graduate School Bulletin as well as the special requirements and course listings given in this Bulletin.

All candidates are expected to have direct experience in research by the time they take the preliminary examination. Students therefore normally carry out small research projects. Students also will learn how to carry out observations by using telescopes and will participate in the reduction and interpretation of ground-based or satellite observations.

Teacher training is an integral part of our graduate program, and an essential aspect of preparation for the Ph.D. The department is committed to helping students develop their teaching skills, through training programs and mentoring. Ph.D. candidates are normally required to hold a teaching assistantship for between one and three semesters.

The best way to learn about the different research opportunities available in the department is to browse through the Research section on this web site, which presents the different research areas actively pursued, as well as an overview of our observatories and research facilities. If you want to learn more about a specific area, we encourage you to contact a faculty member or research scientist directly.

This policy shall provide all Astronomy Department Research Assistants (RAs) with:

  • up to twelve weeks of leave in case of serious illness or disability affecting the RA or his/her dependent and
  • up to twelve weeks of parental leave.

While on leave, RAs shall retain health insurance benefits. On return from leave, RAs shall be entitled to be restored to the position held by the RA when the leave commenced or to an equivalent position with equivalent benefits, pay, and other conditions of employment.

Teaching Assistants and Project Assistants are subject to the Teaching Assistants’ Association contract and are not covered by this policy.

1. Entitlement to Leave

Paid medical and family leave, with benefits, shall be granted to any Astronomy Research Assistant in the following situations:

  1. For a serious health condition that prohibits the RA from performing the functions of his/her RA position.”Serious health condition” means an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves (1) inpatient care in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility, including any period of incapacity or subsequent treatment; (2) a period of incapacity of more than three consecutive calendar days that also involves treatment two or more times by a health care provider or treatment which results in a regimen of continuing treatment under the supervision of the health care provider; (3) any period of incapacity due to pregnancy or for prenatal care; (4) a chronic condition which requires periodic treatments, continues over an extended period of time, and may cause episodic rather than a continuing period of incapacity (e.g., asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, etc.); (5) a period of incapacity which is permanent or long-term due to a condition for which treatment may not be effective, requiring continuing supervision of a health care provider (e.g., Alzheimers, severe stroke, terminal stages of a disease); or (6) multiple treatments either for restorative surgery after an accident or other injury, or for a condition that would likely result in a period of incapacity of more than three calendar days in the absence of medical intervention or treatments, such as cancer (chemotherapy, radiation), severe arthritis (physical therapy), kidney disease (dialysis).
  2. For the care of spouse, domestic partner, child, parent, or other dependent in case of a serious health condition.  Serious health condition is defined in (A) above.”Child” includes biological, adopted, foster, stepchild, legal ward, or child of a person standing in loco parentis who is under 18 years of age, or over age 18 but incapable of self-care due to a mental or physical disability.  “Parent” is as defined by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as a biological parent, stepparent, or an individual who stood in loco parentis to an RA. A leave of absence to care for a parent-in-law may be granted to RAs under the University’s sick leave and other leave policies.Note: RAs are not employees of the University and thus are not covered by the FMLA, however, the FMLA definitions are used for this clause.
  3. For the birth of a child of the RA or placement of a child with the RA for adoption or foster care.

2. Notice of Leave

In any case in which the necessity for leave is foreseeable (expected birth or adoption, planned medical treatment), the RA shall, on a confidential basis, disclose his/her plan to take leave to his/her research advisor, the Department chair, and the Graduate Student Coordinator.  This disclosure should occur no less than 5 months in advance for an expected birth or adoption, and no less than 30 calendar days in advance for planned medical treatment.  If not foreseeable 30 days in advance, the RA shall, in good faith, provide notice as soon as possible.

2.1 Written Leave Plan

Once an RA has disclosed his/her desire for leave, the RA will work together with his/her research advisor, the Department Chair, and the Graduate Student Coordinator to develop a plan to progress towards the PhD and implement any necessary work accommodations.  The Department recognizes that each case will be unique and creative problem solving may be required. The Graduate Student Coordinator will provide the agreed-upon plan in writing to the RA, the research advisor, and the Department Chair.

3. Academic Progress

All satisfactory progress deadlines and classroom deadlines will be extended by the amount of leave taken.

3.1 Classes

If leave requires an RA to miss a required class that is not offered again prior to the RA’s preliminary examination, the Department shall arrange for the RA to cover the missed material in an 800-level reading course which will be sufficient to meet the requirements of the Master of Science degree in Astronomy. The Department Chair shall identify a faculty member to supervise the reading course.  Other solutions to missed coursework may be discussed between the RA, the Department Chair, and the Graduate Student Coordinator and be included in the written plan for leave.

3.2 Preliminary examination

If the RA has not yet taken the preliminary examination, the examination for the RA will be delayed to a date agreed upon by the RA, the Department Chair, and the prelim committee chair. The prelim delay shall be no longer than the of amount of leave taken or three months (whichever is longer), or the prelim will occur no more than one month after the RA has completed missed coursework.

3.3 Enrollment

If the RA has dissertator status, he/she shall remain enrolled in Astronomy 990 (Research and Thesis) as required by the Graduate School to maintain satisfactory progress towards the PhD. If the RA is in compliance with the written leave plan while enrolled in Astronomy 990, the research advisor shall consider Astronomy 990 requirements as being met1. If necessary, the Graduate Student Coordinator will arrange with the Graduate School for extension of the five year time limit for depositing of the PhD thesis after successful completion of the preliminary exam.

The Graduate School has allowed dissertators to break continuous enrollment with medical documentation. In cases requiring a leave longer than 12 weeks in which remaining enrolled in Astronomy 990 is not possible, the written leave plan shall require a request to the graduate school for a break in continuous enrollment.

4. Paid Leave

For any academic term in which the RA goes on partial or full leave under this policy, the Department will provide funds such that the RA retains a minimum average appointment level of 34% over the course of the term. At this level, student status, tuition remission, and health insurance benefits will be retained. The Department shall provide funds such that the RA’s pay per month shall at no point be reduced to less than equivalent to a 34% appointment.  If possible, the Department will provide necessary funds to maintain the RA at the same pay equivalent to their full appointment when the leave began.

If the RA is an international student, the minimum average appointment level under this policy will be adjusted to meet the minimum income standards set by federal law to maintain visa requirements.

4.1 Funding

Salary and benefits during leave shall be paid using Department discretionary funds, unless otherwise agreed upon by the RA, the research advisor, the Department Chair, and the principal investigator(s) of the grant(s) funding the RA.

5. Length of Leave Entitlement

The leave entitlement for each condition shall be as follows:

  1. Twelve weeks for a serious health condition affecting the RA.
  2. Twelve weeks for a serious health condition affecting the spouse, domestic partner, child, parent, or other dependent of the RA.
  3. Twelve weeks for a birth, adoption, or foster care placement of a child of the RA. Entitlement expires at the end of the 12-month period beginning on the date of birth for a biological child or date of placement for a foster or adopted child.  If leave for a foster or adopted child began before actual placement because absence from work was required in order for the placement to proceed, entitlement expires at the end of the 12-month period beginning on the last day worked.

Each RA is entitled to the leave stated above once per occurrence of a condition.

5.1 Extended Leave

If a situation arises where an RA’s leave will extend beyond twelve weeks due to a condition covered by this policy, the written leave plan will address what additional actions will be necessary for the RA to continue progress toward the PhD.  If an official leave of absence from the University is required for the amount of leave taken, this plan may include reapplication to the Department.

5.2 Part Time Leave

The leave may be taken on a full time or part time basis and need not be continuous. If the leave is taken on a part time basis, the total leave entitlement shall remain equal in working hours to a full time leave of the same amount of working hours. The structure and work schedule of part time leave shall be established in the written leave plan.


1Typically, students are expected to work approximately three hours of work per week per credit hour. For 3 credits of Astronomy 990, this corresponds to 9 hours of work per week. Over the course of a 15 week semester, this adds up to 135 hours of work. Dissertators work substantially more than 9 hours per week; the remaining hours are covered by a paid research assistantship, accounting for 30 hours per week on a maximal 75% appointment. For 12 weeks of leave occurring entirely within one semester, the RA must work approximately 45 hours per week during the remaining 3 weeks (for a total of 135 hours) to satisfy the expected Astronomy 990 workload.

From the second semester through the successful presentation of their thesis proposal, graduate students are advised by their “Committee of Three”.

Motivation:

  • Provide students with a broader advising perspective
  • Plan for financial support
  • Provide students with regular feedback on their progress
  • Encourage early publication
  • Insure that no student falls behind
  • Foster more departmental collaborations

Operational Details:

  • The committee consists of the research mentor + 2 faculty members, senior scientists, or emeritus faculty.
  • Members are chosen by the grad advising committee in consultation with the student regarding their interests.
  • Committee members transition as appropriate prior to the thesis proposal. After the thesis proposal, the Committee of Three morphs into the Thesis Committee.
  • First and second year students meet with their committees in Nov/Dec and Apr/May. All other students meet with their committees in Apr/May.
  • The meeting should be scheduled for 1 hour. The research mentor should attend only the second half of the meeting, since he/she does not need as much updating as the other committee members.
  • Students are responsible for scheduling the meetings. A best faith effort must be made to have all members present – a minimum of 2 committee members is required. Remote participation via skype or telecon is fine when necessary.
  • Prior to the meeting, the student sends a completed form to the committee outlining his/her progress over the past year. This acts as a starting point for discussion.
  • After the meeting, the student adds the advice from the committee to the form and sends it to the chair of the graduate advising committee.
  • The grad advising chair will send reminders about the meetings and has oversight responsibility. (Students are not required to have a Committee of Three meeting, but they are strongly encouraged to do so.)