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The Astronomy Department offers a series of 500 and 600 level Astronomy courses which will provide you with much of the essential background needed for your research. You are also required to take one semesters of ASTR 598 as a formal introduction to research. In addition, you have the option of taking some classes in graduate programs other than Astronomy, such as Physics, Electrical Engineering, Mathematics, Geology, Geophysics, Chemistry, etc. These course selections should be made in consultation with faculty advisors and career/research path plans.

If you take any undergraduate classes to supplement your background or address deficiencies, be aware that they will not count to your graduate degree course requirements. You should plan to review Aany undergraduate course work with your faculty advisor.

With the above outline in mind, we now consider the specific details of the academic requirements.

Course Offerings and Requirements

Astronomy Department Courses

The Department of Astronomy offers courses at the 500 and 600 level. Historically, the 500 level classes covered more basic areas and the 600 level classes more specialized, but this distinction has become quite blurred. All of the classes are 3 credit classes except as noted below. The course numbers and titles are as follows:

ASTR 500 Seminar (1 credit)
ASTR 506 Stellar Dynamics (formerly Astronomy & Astrophysics II)
ASTR 535 Observational Techniques I
ASTR 545 Stellar Spectroscopy
ASTR 555 Galaxies I
ASTR 565 Stellar Interiors (revised 2013-14)
ASTR 575 Computational Astrophysics
ASTR 598 Special Research Programs (flexible number of credits)
ASTR 600 Predissertation Research (flexible number of credits)
ASTR 605 Interstellar Medium
ASTR 610 Radio Astronomy (also see 536)
ASTR 616 Galaxies II
ASTR 620 Planetary Science I
ASTR 621 Planetary Science II
ASTR 625 Cosmology
ASTR 630 Astrostatistics (new TBD)
ASTR 670 Heliophysics (new 2013-14)
ASTR 675 Star Formation & Stellar Evolution (not taught for a long time)
ASTR 698 Special Topics
ASTR 700 Dissertation Research (flexible number of credits)

Note that NMSU defines 9 credits as a full load, and students are required to carry this load every semester in order to qualify for employment as a teaching or research assistant. Students pay tuition according to the number of credits that they are enrolled in. For students in their final semester of dissertation writing, it is possible to petition the Graduate School for permission to enroll in only 3 credits, for that one semester only, to reduce tuition expenses.

As of 2013/14, we shifted to a core set of courses being offered every other year, mostly in the fall: ASTR 535, ASTR 565, ASTR 605 in odd years, and ASTR 506, ASTR 545, and ASTR 555 in even years. Certainly, first year students should plan on taking the fall courses that are offered, and most second year students will take them as well, although some second year students might consider a ASTR 598 during the fall semester.

During spring semesters, more specialized courses will be offered on an every other year basis, with an intention of offering 4 choices each spring semester. However, since NMSU policy requires that graduate classes have a minimum of 5 students per class, there is a possibility that a spring class will not be able to be offered unless students distribute themselves roughly evenly betweent the courses that are being offered.

Thec ourses are offered in roughly the following two-year rotation

Year, semester Course Title
Year A, Fall ASTR 535 Observational Techniques
  ASTR 565 Stellar Interiors
  ASTR 605 Interstellar Medium
Year A, Spring ASTR 621 Planetary Science II
(note, only 3 courses may be able to be offered) ASTR 625 Cosmology
  ASTR 630/575 Astrostatistics or Computational Astrophysics
  ASTR 670 Heliophysics
Year B, Fall ASTR 555 Galaxies
  ASTR 545 Stellar Spectroscopy
  ASTR 620 Planetary Science I
Year B, Spring ASTR 506 Stellar Dynamics
  ASTR 610 Radio Astronomy
  ASTR 616 Galaxies II

However, please note that the courses that will be offered in any given semester are subject to change, as we need to accomodate student interest, faculty leave, and other circumstances.

If you have questions about course offerings, discuss them with the faculty: your advisor, the Department Head, First Year Advisor, or any other faculty member.

Out-of Department Courses

Astronomy graduate students can (but are not required to) take up to two graduate level classes from departments other than Astronomy and have them count towards the degree requirement (of course, more can always be taken!). Traditionally, these have been in the area of physics, selected from the following list:

PHYS 462 Intermediate Electricity & Magnetism II
PHYS 511 Methods of Theoretical Physics I
PHYS 551 Classical Mechanics (4 credits)
PHYS 554 Quantum Mechanics I / PHYS 555 Quantum Mechanics II
PHYS 562 Electromagnetic Theory (4 credits)
PHYS 571 Advanced Experimental Optics (Lab, 2 credits)
PHYS 576 Advanced Comput. Phys.
PHYS 584 Statistical Mechanics
PHYS 590 Nuclear Physics

Other Physics courses, or courses offered by other departments such as Engineering, Geology, or Math, are also viable as out-of-department courses. A listing of recently taken non-Physics out-of-department courses is shown below. Please discuss with your committee and the department head which out-of-department courses would best meet your needs.

Possible courses students have recently select instead of the traditional physics curriculum:

EE528 Radiometry and Infrared Detectors (solid course on detectors and S/N considerations, taught from an engineering standpoint)
EE577 Fourier Methods in Electro-Optics
CS579 Introduction to Computational Science May be an excellent course for students wishing to learn more advanced programming techniques, including algorithm designs, numerical methods, data bases, use of parallel computers.

Additionally, for those students intending to specialize in planetary science, courses taught in the Geology department and Geophysics courses taught in the Physics department should be considered, with input from your faculty advisor.

The NMSU Computer Science Department does offer some 400-level programming language courses (C, C++, etc.). While these courses are generally offered at a level ($<$ 500) below that required of our graduate students, taking these courses as an `extra' course can be worthwhile since many of the Astronomy graduate courses and certainly student research require knowledge of a programming language.

Astronomy PhD Degree Program

Summary of Course and Credit Requirements

The MINIMUM course and credit-hour requirements of the NMSU Department of Astronomy toward completion of the Ph.D. program are summarized in the following table:

ASTR 500 (Seminar) 4 credits (4 semesters)
ASTR ``regular''graduate classes (501-597, 601-699) 27 credits (9 courses)
Out of dept graduate classes OR ASTR graduate classes 6 credits (2 courses)
ASTR 598 (Special Research Programs) 3 credits
ASTR 600 (Pre-dissertation Research) 6 credits
ASTR 700 (Doctoral Dissertation) 18 credits
Minimum Total Credits 64 credits

Students may take two out-of-department classes to fulfill the overall credit requirements if these classes are deemed by the student and her/his committee to be appropriate to the student's program-of-study. A maximum of one 3-credit course numbered between 450 and 499 can be applied to the out-of-department course/credit-hour requirement, but only with the approval of the student's Committee. Otherwise, out of department classes must be at the 500 or greater level.

If more than 6 credits of out-of-department classes are taken, they may potentially count toward the required total courses/credit hours, but only with the approval of the student's Committee.

Research credits

Several different course numbers involve research credits: ASTR 598, ASTR 599, ASTR 600, and ASTR 700.

ASTR 598 is generally taken sometime in the first five semesters (we recommend trying to schedule one during your second year) and is intended to provide a semi-formal introduction to doing a research project. It may or may not involve research that subsequently develops into a thesis project. As the first research credits, it is important to try to carefully consider goals and expectations for ASTR 598, in particular, to make sure that it does not fall secondary to the (perhaps) more immediate demands of formal classwork, teaching etc. You get a grade in ASTR 598 just like in any other class. To assist in making ASTR 598 productive, we have instituted some formal guidelines that you should discuss with your ASTR 598 advisor. These include:

ASTR 600 and ASTR 700 credits are designed towards dissertation research. You may take anywhere from 1-9 credits of these in a semester. Generally, ASTR 600 credits can be taken before the thesis proposal is done, and ASTR 700 credits can be taken afterward. Specific milestones/requirements for ASTR 600 and ASTR 700 should be discussed with your research advisor.

If students end up working towards a Masters thesis, rather than towards a PhD dissertation, then they should enroll in ASTR 599 credits when working on the Masters thesis.

Special Cases and Exceptions

The above course requirements are intended for those students entering the Department with a B.A. or B.S. and a typical background in Astronomy and Physics. Some students may have studied Physics or Astronomy at the graduate level at some other institution and / or will enter the program with an M.S. degree. In these circumstances, some of the specific course requirements might be waived upon concurrence of the student's committee. Students in this category must, before the end of their first semester with the Department, establish a special set of course and credit requirements with their committee.

Some entering students might have deficiencies in their academic background which would require their enrollment in advanced level undergraduate courses to remedy these deficiencies. These background or make-up courses must be taken in addition to the basic course requirements of the Department. That is, credits for these courses may not be used to satisfy any part of the Department's course and credit requirements for the Ph.D. program.

Initial advisor and committee

Each entering student is assigned an advisor, usually matching the research interests of the student, if any have been expressed. There is no committment on the part of either the student or the advisor that this needs to develop into a dissertation advising role. The advisor serves as a formal point of contact for students to have with a faculty member, but students are welcome and encouraged to talk with any faculty members at any time.

For the purpose of the qualifying ``exam" (see below), a second faculty member joins the advisor to make up an initial committee on studies.

Departmental Examinations for Ph.D. Students

In successfully completing the program leading to a Ph.D. in Astronomy, a student will be formally examined and / or evaluated on three occasions:

  1. The first is the Qualifying "examination" which is an evaluation of the student's progress. This generally just involves a meeting with the initial faculty committee to discuss progress in the areas of cumes (see next point), classes, research, teaching, and outreach. Generally, if the student is making, good progress, he/she is advanced to Ph.D. candidacy, which means a slight increase in assistantship salary. The qualifying exam meeting is generally completed at the beginning of the fourth semester, or earlier if good progress on the cumes is being made.

  2. Next is the Comprehensive Examination which involves three portions: written cumulative exams (cumes), an oral classwork exam, and an oral and written thesis proposal. In place of a single written comprehensive exam, the Astronomy Department offers a series of monthly written ``cume'' exams. Students are required to pass six of these exams within five semesters. After passing the cumes and completing classes, students take an oral classwork exam: a good goal would be to complete this by the end of the fifth semester. Finally, students present a written and oral thesis proposal to the whole department, which is followed by a discussion with the thesis committee: a good goal would be to complete a thesis proposal by the end of the sixth semester.

  3. Finally, upon completion of the dissertation work, the student undergoes a Final Examination, which consists of a presentation of the thesis work to the Department, followed by a meeting with the thesis committee.

More details on these three evaluations are provided in the following sections.

Qualifying Examination

The intent of the Qualifying Examination is to determine whether or not it is in the best interest of the student and the department for the student to proceed with graduate studies in Astronomy. The Department of Astronomy does not give an explicit or formalized qualifying exam. In place of such an exam, the Department substitutes an evaluation of the student by members of the faculty. The Qualifying Exam must be successfully passed by all students wishing to pursue a Ph.D. in Astronomy.

As a part of the qualifying procedure, the student's Committee on Studies will assess the student's academic record, interest, ability, enthusiasm, research efforts, teaching efforts, and performance on the cumulative examinations (see below). A minimum of two `passed' Cume exams is expected in order for a `PASS' on the Qualifying exam to be achieved. This Qualifying Exam evaluation will be, in part, based upon the assessments of other members of the faculty. This evaluation of the student by her/his committee will normally be made following the completion of 12 credit hours of graduate-level course work for students entering with a B.S. or B.A. degree. Evaluation of students entering with an M.S. in Astronomy will normally be made at the end of the student's first semester.

The student's committee will make recommendation as to whether or not the student is qualified to proceed with additional PhD studies. If so, the student and the Graduate School will be so notified (i.e., the student will be regarded as having "passed" her/his qualifying exam). If the faculty judge it to be in the best interest of the student and of the department, they may recommend that PhD graduate studies in Astronomy be discontinued. In cases in which the student's performance is judged to have been marginal, the faculty may require further written or oral examination of the student. Such further examination will be administered by the student's committee.

In the event of additional examination of the student, the Graduate Committee will recommend that either:

  1. The Graduate School be notified that the Qualifying Examination has been passed and the student's PhD program of study be filed with the Graduate School; or

  2. The decision as to the student's qualification be delayed or deferred one semester; or

  3. The student be classified as having NOT passed the qualifying examination. In the last two instances, the student may ask that the faculty, as a whole, review the decision of the graduate committee.

Comprehensive Examination

The comprehensive exam consists of both written and oral portions. The written portion is given in the form of cumulative exams (see below). To satisfy the requirements for the written portion of the comprehensive exam, the student must pass six of the cumulative examinations. This must be done prior to the oral portion of the exam.

Written Comprehensive ``CUME" Exams

The Department will typically administer nine (9) written CUME examinations during each academic year. The exams will be two hours in duration and will usually be based upon one or more papers selected from the Astronomical literature. Copies of scientific papers will be provided when appropriate and, usually, no other source material may be consulted. These exams are designed to test the student's knowledge of the literature, the student's academic and research background, and the student's ability to understand and deal with what may be unfamiliar material.

Each CUME exam will be written and graded by a single member of the faculty, and after the exam is administered and graded it will be circulated to other members of the faculty (together with the graded papers of students) for their comments. The degree of difficulty may be variable but is intended to test the student at the comprehensive examination level. The exams will be graded on a pass/fail basis. No penalty is imposed for failure to pass a given exam and students are not required to take any given exam . However, all students are encouraged to take the exams if only to familiarize themselves with the type of questions, etc., and a purposefully skipped exam does count toward the 22 exam opportunities.

It is expected that a student with a B.S. or B.A. will have passed six such CUME exams by the end of her/his fifth semester (during which time 22 CUME exams will have been administered), whereas a student entering with an M.S. in Astronomy should have passed six CUME exams by the end of her/his third semester. If the student does not pass the six CUMES on this time scale, then the student's committee will meet and decide between the following two options:

  1. The student will be given a one semester extension to pass the remaining exam(s).
  2. The student will be considered to have failed the comprehensive exam.

Under very exceptional circumstances (e.g., illness), the student may petition for a second one-semester extension to complete the six CUME exams if approved by the student's committee. The CUME exams constitute the written portion of the comprehensive exam. A student will not be permitted to take the oral part of the comprehensive exam until six CUME exams have been passed.

Oral Comprehensive Examination

Once the student has satisfied the requirements for the written portion of the comprehensive exam (by passing six CUME exams), it becomes the student's responsibility to form a Dissertation Committee. Once a Dissertation Committee is formed, the student's Committee on Studies is dissolved and the Dissertation Committee will thereafter oversee the student's progress toward a degree. In selecting a Dissertation committee, it is expected that the student will first select an advising professor who will act as committee chairperson for the subsequent oral comprehensive and final examinations, as well as being the principal advisor in the dissertation research. The Dissertation Committee chair must be a member of the NMSU Graduate Faculty. The dissertation committee must consist of at least three members of the Astronomy faculty (including the Chair) plus one Graduate Faculty member from another NMSU department. Selection of a faculty member as a member of the dissertation committee requires careful thought on the part of the student, and approval by that faculty member. Also, Ph.D. Astronomers from outside NMSU can be nominated by the candidate for membership on the dissertation committee; the chairperson of the dissertation committee has the responsibility of approving such individuals following the guidelines established by the Graduate School. Such outside (non-NMSU) dissertation committee members do not replace NMSU dissertation committee members.

An NMSU Graduate Faculty member from outside the Department is required to be on the the dissertation committee to serve at the official Dean's representative. The Dean's Representative must be a member of the NMSU Graduate Faculty. Often this is a faculty member outside the Department with whom students might have taken a class; if you don't know anyone outside the Department, your advisor can assist with finding someone.

The comprehensive oral exam will be taken at the convenience of the student and the dissertation committee. It is the student's obligation to set a date and time satisfactory to all concerned. The examination consists of two parts described below. The student and her/his committee will determine the order in which these two parts will be administered; typically, the coursework exam is taken first (shortly after courses have been completed).

Part 1- General Questioning on Astronomy Course Work: The members of the dissertation committee together with a representative of the Graduate Dean's office will quiz the student to ascertain her/his knowledge of and familiarity with factual material, techniques, theory, and methods in Astronomy. The exam is expected to predominantly cover classes that the student has taken in the program, but can include any core Astronomy material. The level of difficulty and the nature of the subject material are up to the individual questioner. Part 2- Dissertation Proposal Colloquium: The student will present a colloquium to the entire Astronomy Department of the topic of her/his dissertation. The colloquium will include a discussion of previous research in this field, planned observations and/or theoretical calculations, scientific goals, and the impact of this research on the field. In addition, the student will prepare a written outline (typically 5-10 single-spaced pages long) of the proposed dissertation research for the committee at least one week prior to the colloquium. The student will describe the proposed research in enough detail so that the committee members will be able to judge the appropriateness of the proposed research. Following the colloquium, the student will be questioned by members of the committee concerning detailed background knowledge of the dissertation subject, and observational/theoretical techniques. If the committee views the dissertation proposal as satisfactory, then the student will continue with part 2 of the exam. If two or more committee members believe the proposal is inadequate, the student will be asked to revise the proposal and present the revised version at another meeting of his/her committee.

The formal completion of the oral comprehensive exam occurs when the second portion of the exam is taken (regardless of which order they are taken in). It is this final completion that is registered with the Graduate School. In order for this to be accomplished, the Graduate School must be notified about the date of the exam at least 10 days before it occurs. Forms must be completed in advance so that the necessary paperwork can be generated; see Ofelia for assistance.

Upon successful completion of all portions of the Comprehensive Exam, a student is eligible to receive a Masters of Science degree in Astronomy. To be awarded the degree, the student must complete an "Application for Degree" document, and an MS "Program of Study" document which WILL NOT include any ASTR 600 credits the student might have previously earned. The completed documents should be delivered to the Department Head who, with the assistance of the Department office staff, will oversee the delivery of the documents to the Graduate Student Services Office.

Final Dissertation Examination

The Ph.D. candidate has up to five (5) years to successfully defend her/his dissertation after successful completion of all portions of the comprehensive exam (although two to three years is more typical). Upon completion of the dissertation, the candidate will schedule a final oral examination by his/her committee. Once again, it is the responsibility of the student to schedule this exam on a day and time that is satisfactory to all members of the committee. The student will provide copies of the dissertation to all members of his/her committee at least three (3) weeks prior to the scheduled final examination. If the content is acceptable to the Committee, the Ph.D. candidate will then submit the appropriate forms to the Graduate School at least two weeks prior to the Final Exam (PhD dissertation defense) date. The dissertation defense will generally consist of an hour long colloquium presented to the entire department followed by a second hour or more of examination by the committee. The committee will then vote to pass, fail or adjourn as described above for the comprehensive oral.

Students should consult Graduate School documentation for official requirements and paperwork related to the dissertation. Three copies of the dissertation will be required (2 for library, 1 for Department); the advisor should be asked if he/she would like their own additional copy, but if so, the advisor will need to provide the funds for this extra copy. The Department would also like to get an electronic copy of the dissertation, which should be sent to the Department Head.

Masters Degree Program

Upon successful completion of the written and oral portions of the PhD comprehensive exam, it is the intention of the department that a student be awarded an M.S. degree in Astronomy. Other students may elect to pursue a Terminal Master's degree rather than a Ph.D. upon the advice of their committee. The rules for a Terminal M.S. are outlined below.

For the Terminal M.S. degree in Astronomy, the student must satisfy the requirements of the Department as well as those established by the Graduate School. The Department requires a minimum of 33 credits of which six are generally for Master's Thesis research.

A thesis is nearly always required for a Terminal M.S. degree. However, under some exceptional circumstances, the thesis requirement may be waived, in which case the credit requirements must be satisfied in formal course work. Such a waiver requires agreement by both the student's committee and the Department Head. In all cases, the student seeking a Terminal M.S. degree must pass a final oral examination covering course and any relevant research work. Any regular Terminal M.S. degree program will require a thesis.

Course Requirements

The MINIMUM course requirements for a Thesis MS will include:

ASTR 500 3 credits (3 semesters)
ASTR ``regular''graduate classes (501-597, 601-699) 15 credits (5 courses)
Out of dept graduate classes OR ASTR graduate classes 6 credits (2 courses)
ASTR 598 3
ASTR 599 6

For a student who has decided and been approved to pursue a Course-work only MS Astronomy degree, the MINIMUM course requirements are:

ASTR 500 3 credits (3 semesters)
ASTR ``regular''graduate classes (501-597, 601-699) 21 credits (7 courses)
Out of dept graduate classes OR ASTR graduate classes 6 credits (2 courses)
ASTR 598 3

If a student enters the Astronomy program with a M.S. degree in Physics, the Physics requirement may be waived and graduate courses in Astronomy, Mathematics, Computer Science, Engineering or chemistry may be substituted. In other cases, with the permission of the student's committee, graduate courses in Mathematics, Computer Sciences, Engineering, or Chemistry may be substituted for part of the Physics requirement. Upon making a decision to pursue only a Terminal M.S. degree, the student will form a Master's committee. In selecting a Master's committee, it is expected that the student will first select an advising professor who will act as Master's committee chairperson for the final oral examination, as well as being the principal advisor in the thesis research. The Master's degree committee must consist of at least two members of the Astronomy Department faculty plus one Graduate Faculty member from another NMSU department. Selection of a faculty member as a member of the Master's committee requires careful thought on the part of the student, and approval by that faculty member. A Graduate Dean's Representative will be appointed to the Master's committee by the Dean of the Graduate School. In almost all cases the out-of-department NMSU faculty member on the Master's committee will serve in this Dean's Representative role. The Dean's Representative must be a member of the NMSU Graduate Faculty. The student is encouraged to consider a committee greater in number than the minimum requirement described above.

Upon completion of the thesis, the student will schedule a final oral examination by his/her committee. The exam will consist in part of a public presentation of the research conducted for the Thesis. It is the responsibility of the student to schedule this exam on a day and time that is satisfactory to all members of the committee. The student will provide copies of the thesis to all members of his/her committee at least three (3) weeks prior to the scheduled final examination. If the thesis content is acceptable to the Master's committee, the student will then submit the appropriate exam scheduling forms to the Graduate School for the Final Oral Examination at least two weeks prior to the scheduled exam date. The final oral examination for the M.S. will include questions related to the thesis research, and can also address basic principles addressed in the student's coursework . The Master's committee will then vote to pass, fail, or adjourn. If the committee votes to adjourn, the exam must reconvene within three (3) weeks of final decision.

NOTE: For students who decide to pursue a Terminal M.S. degree, but are thinking about possibly continuing for a Ph.D. degree once they complete the Terminal M.S. degree, it is important to:

  1. continue to taking CUME exams if recommended by the student's Committee
  2. continue taking courses so that they will not suffer unnecessary delays in meeting the Ph.D. course and exam requirements.

Academic probation

The NMSU Graduate School has policies about academic probation. Any student with a cumulative GPA below 3.0 will be on some level of academic probation. Once on probation, students MUST achieve a semester GPA of 3.0 to avoid going on academic suspension. In addition, there are restrictions on being able to take a full course load or being employed as a TA when on academic probation.

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Jon Holtzman 2017-06-24