The beginning of grad school involves a flood of information, some of which you remember and some of which you don’t. Here are some useful things to know… and knowing is half the battle.

The First Year: Things No One Told You

Welcome to the department! We think you made a good choice! Throughout your years at NMSU you’ll need to visit various buildings (Educational Services, Corbett, Physical Sciences, etc.), so we suggest using maps.nmsu.edu to navigate. For finding contact information use NMSU’s online phonebook.

We, your fellow grad students, ask first year students to please:

  1. Serve as an AGSO officer in your second year: In your second year you will be elected to one of the officer positions via the vindictive democratic process of an AGSO meeting. Consider it community service for having these things taken care of for you during your hectic first year.
  2. Attend colloquium & pizza lunch: Why attend these talks? After all at the start/end of a busy week of classes, labs, and homework, no one wants to spend an hour at a talk on a topic you know nothing about, right? Wrong! It’s important to learn something completely different, and this is material you won’t get in class. Even if you don’t understand the whole talk, you’ll have gotten more than if you didn’t go. Since colloquium speakers took the time to travel here and give a talk, they deserve an hour and your respect (especially since at some point that will be you). Also, the faculty notice who attends (or doesn’t attend); by skipping out you make the rest of us look bad.

Help with Cumes and Classwork Orals

To help with studying for cumes and orals, we’ve gathered all previous exams and questions into a few binders:

Cume Book: If you borrow this binder, make your photocopies/lists/notes and return it as soon as possible. Thanks to our tireless Cume Czar, we now have an online copy of the Cume book. The website will only be accessible through computers connected to the internet within the astronomy department. The exams may be viewed from home if you ssh into the astro cluster and navigate to /home/httpd/html/cume_book however not all exams are there. Check the file missing.txt for the list of partial, missing, or unidentified cumes.

Orals Book: Same deal as the Cume Book but not in fancy digital format. Please return it as soon as you are finished, for people who are studying for their classwork orals do not enjoy hunting down the orals book and are less than polite when they find it’s been under your desk for a month. After you take your classwork orals, remember to add your questions.

Thesis Proposal Book: Same as the Orals Book, but contains everyone’s thesis proposal. When it comes time to write your own, it’s a good idea to flip through this to get an idea of what they look like. Keep in mind that unlike your thesis/dissertation, there is no template to use. The length and level of detail in your proposal is basically whatever your advisor thinks is good enough. To get an idea of what the structure and contents of your proposal should be like, you should start by reading through past proposals written by other students who have worked with your advisor. More recent proposals can be found in an online version here.

Snake Book: Same as the previous books but containing the questions asked by the committee behind closed doors after your defense talk. It’s named for the traditional snake fight that occurs during this meeting. After your victory, add your questions to the binder.

Department Resources: Meals, Wheels, and More

Being part of the department means that you have a lot of computer-related resources available! Check the computing page for more information on servers, programs, copiers, printers, email, and webpages. As an NMSU student you have access to the many talks and learning series from the Teaching Academy, which are useful for improving your writing, speaking, teaching, and research skills.

When using the department credit card (Pcard), you must provide a receipt for Lorenza to upload. NMSU is a tax-exempt institution so you don’t have to pay tax on goods, only on services. To honor the tax exemption on purchases please feel free to direct vendors to our tax exempt notice and tax exempt certificate. If you have any questions or run into issues, please feel free to contact Lorenza for assistance. There are some limits on credit card use: $2,500 limit per transaction and $10,000 per billing cycle. Also, there’s a limit of $999.99 per item; if you want something that costs more individually, you’ll have to get a purchase order. The Pcard can only be used for registration, not for airfare, hotel, or any other travel expense. Be aware, grants and contracts sometimes have other restrictions, be sure you check with Lorenza before you make a purchase.

When taking prospective students and colloquium speakers out to a meal, keep these rates in mind. The university will not reimburse for amounts exceeding the maximum established rates. Reimbursement for meals with Colloquium speakers will be limited to four department personnel (faculty, students, others) plus the speaker.

Breakfast $10.50
Lunch $16.00
Dinner $26.00

If you take the NMSU defensive driving course, whose $40 fee will be reimbursed by the department, you can drive the two department cars or rent a vehicle from the university motor pool. The vehicle can be used for more distant public events, going to APO, or even driving to Austin for AAS in a 15-person van. Keys for the department vehicles are inside the server room (Ay 116A) just next to the door. If you want to use either car, first check the calendar to ensure no one else reserved it for the time you want it; if you’re in the clear, write on the calendar when you’ll have the car. Replace the keys with your name tag (if you don’t have a name tag, ask the office staff for one). Before you go see the office staff so they can instruct you on how to use the gas card. To keep track of useage and billing, there is a clipboard in the driver’s side door. Before your trip write down your name, the date, the starting mileage, and the account which will pay for your use of the car (usually ‘dept’ for astro stuff, but sometimes the Teaching Academy or something else); after your trip indicate the ending mileage.

You already know about the cume system, but you should also know that Ofelia keeps all of your old cumes. It’s a good idea to see them to check your score (beyond pass/fail) and correct your mistakes. Ofelia also keeps all of your TA evaluations, except for online evals, which the department head keeps.

Each office has a recycling bin. The university picks up recycling from the building every Friday. They collect white paper, clear plastic (1 & 2), aluminum cans, non-food-related cardboard (shipping boxes, not pizza boxes), and also batteries. If you have any batteries you’d like to dispose of, tape over the positive end and give it to Lorenza or Ofelia.

Parking on Campus

Parking Department

Many of the undergrad students drive in from El Paso, which means competition for a close parking spot can be fierce. The good news: there are free parking lots near the Pan Am center. Also, the parking lots are free after 4:30pm and all Saturday and Sunday (but not over holidays like Thanksgiving Break).

The parking lots are color-coded by permit, so check the map (2015 Map linked here) to see which permits cover each parking lot.

How do you get a permit?

  • Online
  • Physical Location:
    1400 E. University Ave. (corner of Jordan St.) on the southwest corner of the NMSU Auxiliary Services building between Barnes & Noble and Panda Express.
    Office Hours: 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday
    Phone: 575-646-1839

The Hiring Process

Each year the university “re-hires” you as a grad student. Some years, this has led to a delay in getting a paycheck. Ofelia and Lorenza laid out how the process works and what we can do to avoid delays. The main problem is that every department is trying to hire their students, and this slows down the admin staff. Here are some suggestions for how we can help our amazing office staff with this process:

We can help by registering for classes as soon as possible. We must be registered before we can be hired, so any delay might lead to a delay in your first few paychecks. Also, we should give Ofelia information about any kind of tuition awards we’ve earned, such as HED, NM Space Grant, or anything else which would affect our pay. There are separate processes and additional irritations for the office staff to go through for these things. A HED student is hired for 10 hours versus 20 like everyone else. The sources of funding vary from student to student and without this information, Ofelia and Lorenza cannot start the hiring process. Additionally, if awards are late in coming from the sponsors (i.e., giving the money to the university), the students won’t get their stipend or tuition award.

Lorenza recommends that all students sign up for direct deposit.

You may run into hiring issues if you have your own funding. Most of these should be sorted out (NSF, NESSF) but let Lorenza know right away when you receive a fellowship award so that she can begin the correct award acceptance and hiring process for you. If you are not hired you will be paid monthly and need to estimate your taxes and pay annually because taxes will not be withdrawn from your paychecks. You should receive at 1098-T from Accounts Receivable (6-4911). If you were paid a stipend during the Summer, Accounts Payable (6-1189) should be sending you a 1099. If there are any problems with these forms, when you call either office be sure to tell them that you are paid via stipend so they don’t get confused. Since you’re not a Graduate Assistant (more like a self-paid free agent of research), you won’t qualify for certain NMSU awards (such as the Mike Watts Outstanding Leadership Fellowship).

Student Health Insurance

Purchase your student health insurance on or off the health exchange.

Direct Deposit

This allows any credit balances on your student account to be transferred to the account you have provided. It avoids the hassle of going to Accounts Receivable when you have a credit balance. Getting direct deposit involves two parts: fill out the Direct Deposit Authorization form and then sign up on myNMSU by clicking the “Student Accounts” tab, clicking “Direct Deposit Enrollment”, and filling out your bank information. Each time you get paid, you will get an email with PDF attachment of your “check”. This PDF file is password protected: use (up to) the first four letters of your last name and the last four digits of your Social Security Number.


Even though you’re a grad student, you still pay tuition. You can set up a payment plan to pay off your tuition. Check the Tuition and Fees webpage for more information. You will receive many emails reminding you to pay your tuition on time.

To qualify for in-state tuition after your first year, you need to file for New Mexico residency, and we recommend you do this during the Summer to avoid long lines at the Registrar’s Office. While a few students have not established residency and have still gotten in-state tuition rates, this is due to luck and is more an exception than the rule.

If you want to pay off your balance online, use NMSU’s web payment system instead of paying through my.nmsu. The former is a secure website (https) and the latter passes the info through an unsecured website (http).

End of the Year Meeting with Faculty (TPV)

You have probably heard about the meeting with the faculty at the end of the year (referred to sometimes by students as TPVs). The goal is to ensure open communication, to discuss ideas and possibilities for improving the program, and to discuss expectations for students and faculty. They are meant to be a low-key forum for communication between faculty and students.

Instead of having individual meetings with students, there will be separate group meetings with each of the first year, second year, and third year students and as many of the faculty present as possible. These meetings will last about 30 minutes. Each class should meet in advance to come up with general comments, suggestions, and questions. The TPV will begin with the students’ points and then proceed to a discussion including expectations for the following year.

Obviously, if there are inter-student issues, this group format may not be a good place to bring them up. As a result, any individual student is welcome to request (via Jon) a meeting with the faculty, or an individual meeting with Jon.

For 4th year and later students, students will meet with their committees. The primary advisor will draft a brief summary of how things are going. Students should take the initiative to set these meetings up and encourage the advisor to draft up and submit the notes to Jon immediately following the meeting.

End of the Year Meeting with Your Committee

This is a requirement for fourth years and above. Third years are encouraged to follow this, but don’t have to. Essentially, the goal is to make sure students are talking with their advisor and stay on track to graduate. There are currently two required events and one highly recommended event:

  • Required: One meeting per year with just you and your advisor
  • Required: One meeting per year with you, your advisor, and your committee members
  • Highly Recommended: A research talk to update everyone on your research, probably in the form of a Pizza Lunch

The focus of the meetings should be on your current progress and future directions. They should not focus on minute details of your research. That should be discussed during your research talk. Ideally, the committee meeting should occur soon after the talk so everyone knows what you are doing and the meeting can focus on the broader issues. At each of these meetings, the Meeting Checklist should be completed. It should be completed by you first and then reviewed during the meeting. If you want feedback on your presentation abilities (and you do), you can have your committee fill out the Presentation Form.

Keep in mind all this if for your benefit. If you find a certain part of the Meeting Checklist is worthless for you, you should stop doing it. At a minimum, you need to meet with your advisor and your committee annually.

Changes During the Summer

To be eligible for the student FICA and Medicare tax exemption, we must have full-time status (9 credit hours for grad students). This is still true during the Summer. Since many of us don’t register for Summer classes, we end up paying the Social Security and Medicare taxes to the tune of 4.2% and 1.45%, respectively, from June 30th to August 31st

Full-time students pay a Health Fee. If you go to the Campus Health Center during the Summer for an office visit, you’ll have to dish out a co-pay. If you pick something up at the pharmacy, you must pay for it before leaving instead of putting it on your student account.

The Activity Fee is also bundled with tuition for full-time students. To use the athletic facilities (gym, swimming pools, classes and fitness programs) during the Summer, you’ll have to purchase an AggieFit membership ($40).

International Travel

NMSU requires all students to fill out a form 30 days prior to their departure. No travel is allowed to countries subject to Travel Warnings issued by the US State Department. Give your form to Lorenza or Ofelia and they will submit it to the Dean of International and Border Programs. Puerto Rico is considered a foreign destination (go figure).

This form mentions international health insurance. Even if you already have health insurance you must purchase the full blanket student accident and sickness insurance to travel to another country. It costs $45/month for students under 50 and $18/month for students over 50. Our department head has graciously allowed department funds to pay for this extra health insurance. When you give your form to the office staff, they’ll make sure the correct billing number is on it.

If you’re traveling to a conference, you can get funding via the AAS International Travel Grant. Application deadlines are in June and January of each year.

Before you leave (actually, as soon as you know your travel dates), call your credit card (or debit card) company to let them know when and where you’ll be traveling. This way your card won’t be declined when they see a non-US charge. Even if you don’t intend to use your card abroad, this is a good backup just in case you end up needing it.

Make sure your electronics will work wherever you go. In terms of electrons coming from the wall, most items that have a big blocky transformer (computers, cell phone chargers, etc.) will be able to convert from 120V/60Hz to 240V/50Hz, however the outlet shape will vary by country. Make sure you have the correct plug adaptor to make your North American 2- or 3-prong plug fit into wherever you go.

Want to talk to home but won’t have a strong enough internet connection for Skype? If you have an iPhone or similar device, there is a free app called talkatone. As long as you have access to a wifi network, this app allows people in the US to call you for free. The connection is clearer than a normal phone call and you don’t even use up minutes on your phone plan. Want to watch/listen Netflix or Pandora? For one week you can use UnblockUs for free; after that you’ll need to find another way to get your fix.

Getting Your Degree

After earning your degree, you have to make sure NMSU actually gives it to you. This section expands on that. Check the NMSU Graduate School page for more info.

Setting up your committee

Your committee must include a “Dean’s representative”, a non-astronomy NMSU professor. This person ensures the process is fair and is usually someone from whom you’ve taken an out of department class. Non-NMSU committee members must be made honorary department members in the eyes of the university. This is something your adviser handles but be warned that the process takes time. Advise your adviser to start early.

Comprehensive exam

After you pass your cumes you will take your orals/comprehensive exam. The comprehensive exam is broken into two parts: an oral examination based on all your classwork, and a 10~15 page paper and oral presentation (and grilling behind closed doors) describing your proposed thesis research. Which one you do first is up to you. There are two forms you need to worry about, and we suggest you keep a copy of the forms after they’ve been signed, just in case the university loses them.

  • Doctorate of Philosophy Examination form: this is due no less than 10 days before your exam, so take care of it as soon as you pick a date for your classwork orals. Gather your signatures and turn it over to Graduate Student Services (PSL building).
  • Doctoral Program of Study form: this lists all the classes you’ve taken and all future courses you’ll take to complete your degree, including Pre-Dissertation Research (ASTR 600) and Doctoral Dissertation (ASTR 700) credit.

Masters degree

You earn your Masters when you pass your thesis proposal, regardless of when the university gets around to sending you the piece of paper. To get the university to give you your degree, you need two forms. Again, keep copies of the final forms in case of a bureaucratic mishap.

  • Masters Program of Study form: the classes listed should include Masters Thesis Credit (ASTR 599) and all other coursework but not Pre-Dissertation Research (ASTR 600) or Doctoral Dissertation (ASTR 700) credit. Have the Arts and Science Dean (Breland Hall) sign this and bring this and the next form to the Grad Student Services (EDS building).
  • Examination Fee form: have Graduate Student Services (EDS buliding) sign this and the previous form, then bring this form to the Cashier (EDS building).

Applying for your masters degree will confuse the university, especially when you register for doctoral research credit the following semester. They can place a hold on your account. To clear it, go to Grad Student Services (Educational Services Building) and tell them you’re continuing on to your PhD. Invariably, the grad schol will have problems recognizing your status as a dissertation student, especially after earning your Master’s degree. Let Ofelia deal with the grad school, she knows how to bend them to her will.

Doctorate degree

For the thesis document itself, Jeff provided an amazing LaTeX template (tar ball) which is compliant with NMSU’s guidelines. After you successfully defend your thesis you should leave 3 weeks for revisions from your committee. NMSU offers a series of checklists and guides to process submitting your thesis for printing and getting your degree. The URLs mentioned in the text might not be correct, but a bit of searching should get you what you need.

You should give a copy to Ofelia of any forms you turn in (from defense to submitting your revised dissertation. This way, when Grad Student Services called saying they don’t have a form (meaning they lost it), Ofelia can fax it over and save you a hike across campus. Before your actual defense, you should call Grad Student Services to double check that they have all of the forms (in case of a last-minute loss of form, which is entirely possible).

You officially turn in your thesis to the graduate school (Physical Sciences Laboratory building) so they can check it for formatting issues: margins, proper figure/table captions, etc. If your margins aren’t correct, they’ll give it back to you and tell you to fix it, after which you’ll have to resubmit it. Save yourself time and double-check your margins (break out that ruler!) after you print and before you turn it in to them. Watch Milen Bartnic’s video. Submit your dissertation to him a day early, and he’ll have it reviewed within an hour. Submit your dissertation to Milen at the Grad School office (Corbett Rm. 230), not the Graduate Student Services. If you’re curious as to which office deals with what in the grad school, check out their website.

Note: For a given set of margins, the actual location of the text on your printed page will change whenever the printer gets retonered. Luckily, the margins don’t seem to change when you refill the paper tray.

If you need to make a few minor changes when you resubmit (aside from changes they request), they probably won’t notice. However, you shouldn’t have any significant changes to make. Remember, when you submit your thesis to the graduate school, you also give them a checklist. Some of the items on the checklist refer to having made all the changes requested by your committee. It seems that there isn’t much else aside from margin size that the Grad School looks for, so some rules in the PDF you might be able to ignore. For example, the PDF demanded that the short descriptions used in the Table of Figures be identical to the first “sentences” in the figure captions; however you can get away with not doing this all the time.

Also, according to the checklist you need to have paid your binding fees before turning in your manuscript. This is ridiculous and you can safely ignore it. You are required to print four copies for binding. Their destinations:

  1. Two copies for NMSU libraries (Branson and Zuhl)
  2. Two copies for Astronomy Department (advisor and library)

Thesis Tips and Tricks

Watch how many figures you use from other papers. Per copyright law you may only have 1 figure from each source. If you want multiple figures from a single source, you must obtain written permission as in the NMSU thesis guidelines.

Watch your writing style. For a professional appearance keep an eye out for these common mistakes in writing style:

  • Avoid passive voice: “The model calculated…”, “It calculated…” should be “We modeled as…”
  • Watch your verb tense: write in past tense because the work is already done (except for future work section)
  • Avoid writing with “how”: The sentence “We show an example of how we varied x in Figure 5” is not as good as “We vary x by a prescribed amount, as shown in Figure 5”.

Format when you start writing, not after you are done. It’s easier to read through the formatting guidelines at the start of your writing and do things right the first time, rather than going through and re-formatting to appease the Graduate School. On that note… LaTeX is not your enemy. You will be using the powerful, straightforward/backwards, frustrating typesetting language to write your thesis. You should also learn to use BibTeX. Check out the LaTeX tips and workarounds we’ve collected from grads throughout the years.