Grad Guide

About the department

"Science has achieved some wonderful things of course, but I'd far rather be happy than right any day."
"And are you?"
"No. That's where it all falls down of course."
"Pity," said Arthur with sympathy. "It sounded like quite a good lifestyle otherwise."

-- Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Department Size

There are about 25 faculty members who work in, or are associated with, the Space Sciences building, about 40 graduate students (including those from Physics who work and have offices in the building), about 35 scientific staff and numerous support staff. You will only ever see all these people during fire drills!

Course Work

Though the grad school and the Astronomy Department doesn't formally require a set of specified courses, you'll probably be encouraged to take a typical set of courses. These may include some graduate level Physics courses, i.e., E&M, Quantum Mechanics, and Statistical Mechanics, as well as core Astronomy and more specialized courses, depending on your research interests. Your first year committee may or may not give you a list of suggested courses -- a general list of suggestions are here. If you are not sure what to take, then talk to faculty members, such as the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS or DoGS) Rachel Bean, or professors in your area of interest to get suggestions; you can also ask other graduate students. Also, if you have taken some of the "required" courses already and do not feel you need to take it again -- consult the DGS.

If you are Teaching Assistant, you will usually take 2 or 3 courses per semester. If you are on fellowship, you will usually take 3 or 4 courses (one of which may be a seminar class, for example) per semester. Again, consult your committee. So your Fall semester course load might be E&M, Quantum I, and one or two astronomy (or geology, engineering, etc.) classes, while your Spring semester course load might be Stat Mech and several more classes.

Because Cornell doesn't place restrictions on courses taken by grad students, some grad students take courses outside their area of specialty (the Wine-tasting course offered by the Hotel School is famous for this.) As always, consult your advisor to make sure you have time to take extra courses.

For the current Astronomy course list, see here; a description of all courses offered at Cornell are here.


Q (Qualifying) Exam: This exam is usually taken before the beginning of classes of your 2nd year (i.e., in late August). The exam consists of two parts: a 3 hour written exam on basic astronomy and an oral exam. Past exams (and some solutions) can be found by asking older grad students. The written exam is made by the first year committee (a committee of four or five faculty members assigned each year to that year's incoming graduate students). Once that is passed, you will pick a new committee (see below under "Choosing an Advisor and Committee"), and they will conduct the oral part. Usually for the oral, people talk about the summer project they did and are also expected to answer "random" questions in astronomy and physics. You and your committee will need to set the date for your oral exam -- make sure to schedule it well in advance.

A Exam: This is the admission to candidacy exam that is required by the Graduate School. In this exam, you will present your plans for your thesis and usually also a progress report. It is usually taken at the end of your 3rd year.

B Exam: This is the exam where you defend your thesis and recently has been taken in the 5th to 7th year.

Choosing an Advisor and Committee

Sometime during your 1st year, you should decide who you would like to work for during your first summer. Working for them in the summer does not mean that you have to work for them during your entire time at Cornell; however, many people do do that. If you know a professor you might like to work with, you can speak to him or her about projects to work on during your first year, but this is not required.

At the start of the 2nd year, you will be expected to pick your committee. This has to include your main advisor, someone from your minor field (physics or geology are typical, but any subject within Arts & Sciences or Engineering could work), and a "department-picked" person. Not all the members on your committee will necessarily be related to your field of interest. Most people have 4 members, and your committee must be approved by the Director of Graduate Studies, currently Rachel Bean.

Research Groups

The department is officially divided into four main subgroups, listed as Theoretical Astrophysics, Radio and Radar Astronomy, Infrared and Optical Astronomy, and Planetary Sciences on the main department page (see here), but there are probably people in every group who have at some time worked in the other areas. For a list of some research projects that people in the department are involved in see here.


Cornell has links to several science related facilities, including the Hale 200" (5m) Telescope on Mount Palomar, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and various Mars Missions.

On a smaller scale there is also the Hartung-Boothroyd Observatory a 25" reflector which is located approximately 15 minutes from campus and is often used for upper level Astronomy classes. On campus there is the Fuertes Observatory, a circa 1921 12" refractor, used for public observing and in introductory astronomy classes.

Most journals are available online via the Department's computer network, but print versions of journals Cornell subscribes to can be found in the Physical Sciences Library. Laptops may also be checked out there. The library catalog is online, and all online resources (including journals, the Oxford English Dictionary, LexisNexis Academic Universe, and all kinds of other fun stuff) can be accessed by logging in with your Cornell NetID. There is a physical sciences library nearby in Clark Hall, and it's also handy to know your way to Mann Library, which has a plotter for printing posters.

For the more mundane facilities, there are copy machines in the 1st floor mail room (see Monica or Danielle in the 1st floor main office for the code) and on the 3rd floor, and showers in the basement restroom.

Colloquia and Talks

This is a list of some of the talks many of the astronomy faculty, scientific staff, and graduate students attend each week. All are welcome at each one.

Education and Public Outreach

Many members of the department are involved in education and public outreach activities. Some things you can do include Ask an Astronomer (a web page which answers astronomy questions sent in from around the world and primarily run by graduate students), public observing nights at the Fuertes Observatory, and Focus For Teens (three days of activities designed to introduce high school students to astronomy and held every summer). A university wide program which astronomers have been involved in is Expand Your Horizons, an outreach workshop aimed at 10-14 year old girls which brings some 200 students to Cornell every spring to participate in hands-on science workshops. The Ithaca ScienceCenter, a hands-on science museum, and the Museum of the Earth are great places to volunteer, too.

Patricia Fernandez de Castro Martinez (pf46 at is the department coodinator for Education and Public Outreach, and maintains the EPO mailing list. If you want to get involved, or have any questions, contact her. Any of the other grad students involved in outreach would also be happy to speak with you!

Grad Student Organizations

The Astronomy Grads Network (AGN) is our student club! The organization represents the grad students in the department, and we also organize social and informational events for the graduate students in space sciences. AGN can serve as an important resource. The Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA) represents all the graduate students in the University. They address non-academic student issues and improve the quality of life for graduate students (by supporting the numerous student clubs, including AGN and GWP). The astronomy students send one representative to GPSA. Astronomy grad students are also involved in the Graduate Women in Physics, a peer support base for female graduate students in physics, astronomy, and AEP.

Final Words of Wisdom

If you have any questions, please feel free to Just Ask any of the other, more senior graduate students. We are here to help.