Grad Guide

A Checklist

"You know," said Arthur, "it's at times like this, when I'm trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space that I really wish I'd listened to what my mother told me when I was young."
"Why, what did she tell you?"
"I don't know, I didn't listen."

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

If you're like most of us, your biggest question upon entering Cornell Astronomy is "What do I have to do, and when do I have to do it by? What if I forget something important -- will I lose my fellowship/job/front teeth?" This page attempts to answer these questions for you in the most painless way possible.

What to do and when to do it:

As soon as you decide you're coming to Cornell. Think about finding a place to live. While it's possible to arrive in Ithaca in August and get an apartment within a few days, your choices will be better the earlier you start looking. See our page about Ithaca for more information on housing, or check out the Cornell Housing Office. Another good resource is the Ithaca Craig’s List. Feel free to talk to the graduate students for personalized advice, especially if you come visit over the summer to scope out an apartment.

A week or more before classes start. This is a good time to arrive in Ithaca and get settled (see our page about Ithaca for some useful tips). When you're ready to brave the astronomy department, find your way to Space Sciences and march on in (see our page on the first time you come to the building). Several Cornell maps can be found here.

The week before classes start. Start thinking about classes you want to sit in on (both inside and outside the department). If you're interested in taking undergraduate classes outside the department, be aware that many fill up quickly, so register as soon as possible.
Your first year committee might organize a meeting for you, but if not, don't be shy about talking to them; that's what they're there for! Also see our page about the department for more information on courses and requirements.

Ask Tom Shannon to add you to the grad students' mailing list. This way you'll be sure to find out about department events!

Go to some of the grad school orientation events (a good way to meet people outside of the astronomy department, which believe it or not you might actually want to do). The talk about the Cornell student health insturance program (SHIP) is especially helpful.

About three weeks into your first semester. By now you should know what classes you're taking and so you can fill in the online course enrollment using uPortal. uPortal is a handy online tool for managing your life at Cornell, including add/drop for classes, checking your grades, and making sure Cornell has a correct mailing address on file for you.

Once you know what courses you're taking, it is worthwhile to ask more senior grad students if they already have the textbooks. They may be willing to lend or sell them to you -- you'll save a lot of money over what you'd spend at the campus bookstore. Amazon has some good deals too, especially on used textbooks.

You also should hand in a Special Committee Selection Form and choose a temporary advisor -- the person who the Cornell bureaucracy thinks is in charge of you. (Don't wait until the last minute to get these forms signed and turned in--you'll end up in a long line of fellow procrastinators outside Caldwell Hall on the day the forms are due!) In our department you don't have to pick your real special committee until a year from now, so it doesn't matter who you put on the form at this point (someone from the first year committee is fine). Both forms can be found through the Graduate School's forms page. If you need any help with the paperwork, drop by the Graduate School Office, 143 Caldwell Hall. If you don't know who's on the first year committee, don't be shy, ask the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), Jim Bell.

Throughout your first semester. Try to start thinking about research. You don't have to start doing research until the summer after your first year, but depending on your schedule you might want to do a small project earlier. You'll be very busy throughout your first year, but it's always a good idea to talk to your professors, think about research opportunities, and try to meet people. You can also check out the graduate students' web pages to see what they're up to. Talk to professors about projects they have available. Even if you don't know what area of astronomy you eventually want to work in, your first year is a good time to get experience in a subject you may never have even known existed before. If you want, you can sign up to get academic credit for the research you do (Astro 640).

The first semester is also a good time to think about applying for outside fellowships (e.g. NSF, for American citizens and permanent residents). If you don't have an outside fellowship, the department will continue to support you throughout your time at Cornell, perhaps through an internal fellowship but more likely by making you a Teaching Assistant or Graduate Research Assistant. Over the summer, you should figure out whether you'll be a TA in the fall or supported by an advisor's research grant -- be proactive about finding out whether your professor can support you.

Early in your second semester. This is when you should decide which professor you want to work with over the summer. Unless you're on an outside fellowship, you'll also need to look into funding for the summer. YoYou'll get an email from Danielle asking you who your supervisor is -- when you get this email you ought to at least start thinking about a summer project if you haven't already.

During your first summer. Schedule, study for, and take your written Q exam (see about the department for more information). This is done with the other first year students, usually at the end of August.

Fall of your second year. Choose your advisor and committee, then schedule and take your oral Q exam (see about the department for more information).

After around three years. Decide on plans for your thesis project and take your A exam.

After ??? years. Graduate and conquer the world.