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There are many different facets of participating in our graduate program, and one issue you should think about is time management, i.e., how much time you spend overall on the program and how much time you choose to spend on the different aspects. While the faculty and staff are here to help and advise you, ultimately what you get out of the program and your future propects are determined by your efforts and choices.

Students often want to know how to prioritize the different aspects of the program. This is a challenging question, and the choices may differ for different students and at different times in the program. It is important to recognize that individual students need to decide for themselves, at some level, how they choose to prioritize their time. Again, students are encouraged to discuss with the faculty their thoughts about prioritization, and to get feedback from the faculty.


Most students enroll with the goal of becoming an academic researcher as a career, and we have developed our program primarily with this goal in mind. However, it is becoming increasingly challenging to obtain long-term employment in an academic position, so you should be aware that achieving this goal is likely to require significant time and effort.

While research is often the primary goal of students, it is often the hardest to allocate time towards, especially in the first several years of the program, because of competing demands of classes, teaching, and outreach. If research is a high priority for you, we urge you to set aside time specifically for it.

Note that research involves not only studying a topic to achieve new knowledge, but also to disseminate this knowledge. The primary dissemination tool in academics is via scientific publications, and in most cases, the primary judgement of people (e.g., in job searches) is their publication record. As you proceed with research, we strongly recommend that you work on writing up your results as you are developing them, so that the process of writing becomes integral to the research process.

Some key ways to get up to speed on active research areas are to

Plan to talk with your advisor (or any faculty member) regularly about research and about their opinions on what it will take for you to succeed. Discussions about research should take place frequently; it usually does not work to save up a lot of issues to discuss. A guideline of talking to your advisor once per week is probably reasonable!


Classes are a very significant component of the program during the first two years. While the academic requirements for the program are outline in detail in a subsequent section, a few key points may be of interest:


Teaching is an important component of the program, as many career paths after the program may involve it. Obviously, if your primary goal is an academic position, teaching will be involved. Universities are increasingly interested in the quality and innovations in teaching in addition to research accomplishments, so this is not to be taken lightly. Furthermore, many of our graduates end up in predominantly teaching positions, where it is clear that teaching experience is critical.

Another important role of teaching is that it generally provides financial support for many of our students.

Most of our teaching assistants are for our introductory undergraduate classes, ASTR 105 (The Planets) and ASTR 110 (Introduction to Astronomy). If you are a TA for one of these, your primary duty will be to teach the lab sections of the class and grade the lab reports. It is critical that you are familiar with the labs beforehand for them to go smoothly! There are several resources available to help you with this: generally, the TAs schedule weekly meetings to go over upcoming labs, and previous TAs have put together notes and teaching materials for most of the labs. In addition to labs, you will also likely be called upon to help grade exams, and possibly homeworks, from the main class section.

We also teach several 300 level undergraduate classes, which generally have more writing assignments. TAs in these classes generally spend more of their time grading papers.

There has been a lot of recognition recently that traditional modes of teaching may not always be especially effective, and that we often call upon people to teach without giving them any instruction in how to do so! We urge you to think about your teaching, and discuss how you do it with faculty and other students. Many people have lots of opinions about good ways to do things.

A key component of effective teaching is getting students to be excited and enthusiastic about learning. Much of student behavior can be generated by teacher behavior. If you are excited and interested by what you are talking about, it becomes more likely that the students will be. While we can't guarantee that this will be true for all students, the converse is almost always true: if you aren't excited and interested, the students almost certainly won't be either! We recognize that it's not always easy to project a positive attitude; a little bit of acting is sometimes called for!

Another aspect of a TA position may be that you will be called on to help out at the campus observatory. Generally, we require all students in the ASTR110 classes to go to the campus observatory twice in a semester; this means a total of roughly 500 visits to the observatory in a semester. We usually have the campus observatory open two nights a week, staffed by different TAs on different nights. It is important that you are comfortable with knowing what is in the sky and knowing how to operate the telescopes before you are involved in one of these sessions! Note that campus observatory knowledge is also required when you will be helping out with one of the department's monthly open houses. Our lab/observatory manager usually holds a campus observatory training session at the beginning of each year.

Teaching expectations

Being a teaching assistant does entail some significant responsibility. Obviously, you need to show up for your teaching assignments. On top of this, however, timely grading of labs and other materials is of critical importance to the students who are taking the class; they deserve timely response to their work. It is also in your best interest to keep up with grading: putting it off will not make it go away!

If you find that you are having a hard time keeping up with grading responsibilities, discuss the situation with the professor of the class as soon as possible. It may be that you are taking more time to grade than might be required, and the professor (or other TAs) might be able to provide some tips and guidelines for how much time you should take.

If you cannot meet your responsibilities as a TA, there is the possibility that we will not be able to hire you as a TA in future semesters, which in turn could have significant implications for financial support.

Public Outreach

Most of the money which support the department (and astronomy in general) are derived from state and federal tax dollars, and thus from residents of the state and country. In return for this support, it is our responsibility to ``give back" our knowledge to the public. Fortunately, in astronomy, many people are genuinely interested in what we do, and talking with them about it can be a lot of fun!

The department has a good reputation in the local community for outreach efforts, and we wish to continue this. Our graduate students provide critical role in these outreach activies, which include presentations to schools in Las Cruces and the surrounding southern New Mexico communities, local civic groups, local astronomical interest groups, etc. Some of the outreach events are nighttime events that involve looking at the sky, while others are daytime events.

We strongly encourage students and faculty members to participate in outreach effects and have a expectation that graduate students will do a minimum of two events each year. Usually, local groups approach the department with a request for someone to do an event with them. These requests are channeled to the Astronomy Graduate Student Organization (AGSO) officers, who are responsible for finding volunteers to do the event, and for keeping records of what events are provided, and who volunteers for them. Note that there are some perks for participating in these events: they count as public service events for the NMSU Graduate Student Organization, and, if an individual has sufficient hours of public service, you can apply to the NMSU GSO for funding assistance, e.g. with travel to conferences, etc. In addition, the Department makes some financial outreach awards to students who have done more than their share of outreach events.

An additional outreach activity which each student and faculty member will participate in each year is our monthly Observatory Open House. These events are held on the Friday evening nearest in time to first-quarter moon each month of the academic year. These events, well known and well attended, offer the community the opportunity to view the skies through the telescopes here on campus at the Tombaugh observatory. A schedule of participation will be distributed at the start of the Fall semester. At these events, graduate students are generally expected to run the telescopes, so it is important to be well trained on operating them before the open house.

While you might feel pressed for time preparing for these outreach activities (we do realize that you are very busy with other activities too), it is important to convey your enthusiasm for the astronomical work you are involved in. The public in general finds what we do very exciting and interesting (and fun!), and above all else, your demonstration of such.

Suggested Milestones in the Graduate PhD Program

As you think about the graduate program, you might consider some typical timelines toward completion of a Ph.D. Later sections in this guide describe some of these things in more detail.

Year Category Activities
1 Classes Usually 3 standard (3 x 3-credit) classes + seminar (1-credit) each semester
  Other learning based on material in classes, with other students, and your interests, read supplementary material
  Teaching Learn and teach undergraduate labs recognize different teaching styles and develop yours
  Research identify a topic you're interested in, perhaps with your initial advisor, work on during year as time allows, but significantly in summer
  Exams take cume exams monthly
  Outreach several events
  Other Establish NM residency
2 Classes One semester lower standard class load (2 x 3 credit) plus a research course (ASTR 598, 3 credits )
  Teaching continue to develop teaching style and skills
  Research ramp up time spent on research. Think about advisor, thesis and funding possibilities
  Exams continue monthly cumes; take ``qualifying'' exam (just a committee meeting!) to certify program advancement (slight pay raise!)
  Outreach several events
3 Classes take remaining classes per your interest; research credits (ASTR 598/600, ASTR599 for Masters thesis)
  Research Identify thesis topic, finalize committee, prepare thesis proposal, make external contacts (perhaps including them on committee, consider funding possibilities. Consider attendance at topical conferences.
  Teaching as necessary
  Exams finish remaining cumes if necessary; take oral classwork exam (fall); thesis proposal (spring)
  Outreach several events
  Future prep start thinking more about job interests
4 Research Work on thesis! Remember to be writing as you work!
  Future prep Consider job interests/possibilities; make external contacts; recognize job application timescale and associated timescale for supporting materials (i.e. published papers!); consider presentation at conferences
  Classes Research credits (ASTR 700)
  Teaching As necessary
  Outreach several events
5 Research Finish thesis!
  Future prep Job applications!
  Classes Research credits (ASTR 700)
  Teaching As necessary
  Exams Dissertation defense
  Outreach several events

Please note that the above are only rough guidelines. Each student will take a somewhat unique path - some will finish sooner and some will complete the Ph.D. later.

Job awareness and expectations

Students should be aware of the challenges involved with obtaining long-term employment in the field of astronomy; there are far more graduate students than there are faculty positions. That being said, there are a number of related jobs, and the skills that you obtain in graduate school can be useful even in other fields. You may wish to consider, and discuss with the faculty, how you might best be able to develop and document skills that may be useful when seeking employment, either within astronomy or outside the field.

If you plan to continue in the field, note that it may be important for you to make connections with professionals outside of the Department. The more other people know about you, the greater the possibility of job offers will likely be. External contacts can be an important source of recommendation letters for job positions, but they must know enough about you and your work to be able to write strong letters.

Note that the American Astronomical Society compiles information related to career resources at

Time expectations

If you ask most practicing astronomers about how much time they spent doing astronomy during graduate school, you will probably hear some very large (possibly unrealistic?) numbers. If you ask most astronomers how much time they spend on their job now, most will probably give a number larger than 40 hours per week.

Many people in the field of astronomy (including most of us) in general are trying hard to recognize the importance of a balance between work and other life activities, and we do not think spending more than 40 hours per week should be a requirement. However, you should be aware that most of the people in the field say that they spend more than this. The key to being successful, especially if working in the framework of a 40 hour work week, is almost certainly being extremely careful about making your work hours productive! Certainly, we do feel that being successful in graduate school requires a full-time committment, so you should plan and expect to dedicate a productive 40 hours a week at least.

Time management is an essential skill, and even more essential if you want to succeed without having to put in an excessive amount of time. Think carefully about how much time you want and need to put into your various different activities. Again, your advisor is a good resource for assistance with time management.

In summary, the tasks that students must learn to balance include:

This is clearly a lot of balls to juggle. All of these tasks are important, but not equally so. For example, grants and meetings are usually more important than homework, and grading is usually more important than outreach. A key skill for graduate students to develop involves learning to balance these tasks without neglecting any of them. For example, it is far better (and more difficult) to cut research back to 15-30 minutes a day during exam season than to eliminate it entirely. More than one faculty member actually uses an electronic app such as TimeEdition or Toggl to track how they divide their time; you may find this data useful when discussing progress with your supervisor. Here is a sample weekly time allocations for students who are TA’ing:

Of course, you should expect some, possibly significant, variations in individual weeks. But if you are spending zero hours per week on research or 25 hours per week on teaching, averaged over a month, please ask your supervisor for suggestions soon.

next up previous
Next: PERSONNEL Up: handbook-2019-2020 Previous: INTRODUCTION
Jon Holtzman 2019-08-23