Degree Programs

Astronomy

The Department of Astronomy offers a rich and varied program of theoretical, observational, and experimental graduate work leading to the PhD in astronomy. Students are not accepted for a separate master’s degree program. Research is carried out at the Harvard College Observatory, which shares buildings and general facilities with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO). Together, the two observatories constitute the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics: a large and diverse research setting that provides opportunities in nearly every branch of astrophysical work, from atomic physics to cosmology using the full range of techniques from gamma ray detectors through radio antennas.

Over 360 PhD scientists are engaged in work at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA), providing students with an unusually wide choice of dissertation topics and stimulating opportunities for both formal and informal learning through courses and seminars. Graduate students at Harvard benefit from this diverse environment, have access to extensive facilities, and pursue their work in a supportive and stimulating setting.

Facilities

Students also have access to the Whipple Observatory’s 1.5, 1.3, and 1.2 meter telescopes equipped with high-performance spectrographs and imagers. An active instrument development program is aimed at maintaining state-of-the-art observing facilities, and students are welcome to participate in this development program. CfA scientists have also led the development of infrared array cameras for the Spitzer satellite, currently the world’s premier IR space observatory. Students will have the opportunity to work with this experienced team on Spitzer observations. The CfA is involved in the Pan-STARRS and LSST consortiums, and our students continue to be major users of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Through the DASCH project (Digital Access to a Sky Century @ Harvard) Students will soon have digital access to a 100 year archive of photographic plates exposed starting in the late 1880s. The digitization of the Harvard Astronomical Plate Collection will provide the capability for systematic study of the sky on 100 year time scales.

DASCH will enable new Time Domain Astronomy (TDA) science, including:

  • Conduct the first long-term temporal variability survey on days to decades time scales
  • Novae and dwarf novae distributions and populations in the Galaxy
  • Black hole and neutron star X-ray binaries in outburst: constraining the BH, NS binary populations in the Galaxy
  • Black hole masses of bright Quasars from long-term variability measures to constrain their characteristic shortest timescales and thus size
  • Quiescent black holes in galactic nuclei revealed by tidal disruption of a passing field star and resultant optical flare
  • Unexpected classes of variables or temporal behavior of known objects: preview of what PanSTARSS and LSST may see in much more detail but on shorter timescales)
  • More information is available here.

 

Radio astronomy students have direct access to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Sub-Millimeter Array (SMA), an eight element sub-millimeter-wave interferometer operating on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. A 1.2-m telescope is available in Cambridge for survey observations of CO at 3 mm. Students have also been active users of millimeter-wave interferometers in California,France, and Chile, and of single dish millimeter and submillimeter telescopes in Spain, Hawaii and Chile. In addition, students frequently use the cm-wave facilities of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory including the Jansky Very Large Array, the Expanded Very Long Baseline Array in New Mexico, and the 100-m telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia. The Submillimeter Receiver Laboratory offers opportunities for instrumentation work at submillimeter wavelengths including the Terahertz band. There are also opportunities to work on instrumentation to measure the cosmic microwave background radiation with dedicated telescopes at the South Pole, as well as surveys with the 10-m South Pole telescope. Harvard is a member of the US consortium developing the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), and the Murchisan Widefield Array (MWA).

High-energy astrophysics facilities and opportunities are especially strong. They include the Chandra X-ray Center (managed by SAO under contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration), which operates the space-based Chandra X-ray Observatory; ready access to and local expertise with the entire Chandra data archive, as well as the Einstein and Rosat x-ray observatory databases; laboratory development of x-ray detectors and telescopes; development and operation of solar x-ray telescopes, including Trace and Hinode XRT, AIA telescopes on the Solar Dynamics Observatory and instruments on the WIND spacecraft and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter; and the ProtoEXIST balloon-borne coded aperture telescopes and high resolution imaging detectors for wide-field hard x-ray imaging and temporal monitoring surveys of cosmic sources. Faculty and CfA staff members carry out major observational programs with the currently operating x-ray observatories (Chandra, XMM-Newton, Suzaku, and NuSTAR) as well as coordinated programs using ground- and space-based telescopes at other wavelengths; and participate in the design and study of next-generation x-ray facilities.

Solar, Stellar and Planetary Sciences facilities include the SOHO Ultraviolet Coronagraph Spectrometer (UVCS/SOHO) which is currently being used to observe the extended solar corona between 1 and 10 heliocentric radii. It makes spectroscopic measurements leading to the determination of densities, velocities, temperatures, and elemental abundances in the solar wind, coronal holes, equatorial streamers, and coronal mass ejections. The CfA also operates ground-based telescopes searching for extra-solar planets, including the MEarth Project to photometrically monitor 2000 nearby, small stars (called M dwarfs) and the HAT network with telescopes at five sites around the world. Astronomy Professor Dimitar Sasselov is a co-investigator on NASA’s Kepler space telescope which has recently achieved its mission goals and is now in an extended use phase that is currently on hold due to equipment faults. The scientific objective of the Kepler mission is to explore the structure and diversity of planetary systems. This is achieved by surveying a large sample of stars to:

  • Determine the percentage of terrestrial and larger planets that are in or near the habitable zone of a wide variety of stars
  • Determine the distribution of sizes and shapes of the orbits of these planets
  • Estimate how many planets there are in multiple-star systems
  • Determine the variety of orbit sizes and planet reflectivities, sizes, masses and densities of short-period giant planets
  • Identify additional members of each discovered planetary system using other techniques
  • Determine the properties of those stars that harbor planetary systems.

Data from the Kepler mission will continue to be assessed and will generate new theories and substantiate existing ones for years to come.

Facilities for laboratory work are extensive, including the development of instrumentation for astrophysical observations at all wavelengths. The Atomic and Molecular Physics (AMP) group has laboratory astrophysics facilities including state-of-the-art spectrograph calibrators based on laser frequency combs; atomic and laser- based frequency standards used in precision tests of relativity; and a wide range of instruments for laboratory astrophysics, including a spectrograph used to measure gas properties relevant to atmospheres of brown dwarf stars; millimeter wave spectrometers used to produce highly reactive molecules that serve as probes of interstellar conditions; laboratory measurements of the weak equivalence principle; and instrumentation for novel applications of basic physics developments, including medical imaging and geophysical applications. AMP Facilities for Earth observation include access to satellite instruments making measurements of Earth’s atmospheric species to study global pollution and greenhouse gases.

Students in theoretical astrophysics have access to a wide range of expertise at the Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC) to carry out investigations ranging from atomic processes to extrasolar planets to exploding stars and black holes to the origin of the universe. Computational facilities include numerous networked work-stations, computing clusters, and a variety of output devices. ITC members have access to the High Performance Computer Facilities operated by Harvard’s Science Division.

The John G. Wolbach Library and Information Center combines the collections of the Harvard College Observatory Library (1839) and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory Library (1959), forming one of the world’s preeminent astronomical collections. Hundreds of digital resources are available in addition to print journals, books, videos, CD-ROMs, DVDs, sky surveys and slides in astronomy, astrophysics and related fields. The collections are managed by librarians who guide users to the information they need, whether it resides locally or in collections throughout the world. The collection of early observatory publications is considered to be one of the most comprehensive in the world.

The Minor Planet Center and the Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams also make their homes at the CfA.

Graduate Study Programs

The program of graduate study is designed to make Harvard PhD students first-rate researchers with a broad knowledge of astrophysics and competence in teaching. To do this, the Astronomy Department has constructed an advising program, and a set of requirements to help students develop their astrophysical understanding, and to a successful dissertation in a timely way.

The standing Committee on Academic Studies (CAS) in the Department of Astronomy has the primary responsibility for administering the graduate program. This committee is composed of members of the teaching staff, including the department chair, and two graduate students. The chair of the CAS is the departmental Director of Graduate Studies. The purpose of the committee is to insure that students receive adequate guidance at the pre-dissertation level, to see that uniform academic standards are applied, and to define the professional qualifications expected by the department for advanced degrees in astronomy. At regular intervals the committee reviews the progress of each graduate student. It also reviews and approves study programs, arranges oral examinations, and selects dissertation examining committees, dissertation advisory committees, and research exam committees.

A faculty advisor is assigned to each incoming graduate student to help the student make informed decisions about coursework and research opportunities. Each student is free to choose a new advisor at any subsequent time, but should inform the department administrator and the CAS of such a change after obtaining the new advisor’s consent.

Study plans are prepared by students in consultation with their advisor early in each fall term, and are submitted to the Committee on Academic Studies. With the approval of the student’s advisor, revised study plans may be sent to the committee at any time during the year, to reflect changing interests.

Requirements for Advanced Degrees

The department expects candidates for advanced degrees to acquire professional competence in an area of research and to acquire a general knowledge of astronomy for an understanding of important developments in other areas.

1. Course and General Background Requirements. Candidates are admitted to the PhD program only, although the AM degree will be awarded upon satisfactory completion of the residence and course requirements. Candidates for the PhD degree in the Department of Astronomy must satisfy the course and general background requirements, and complete one research project, a thesis, and final oral examination as described below.

General Background Requirements. Previous knowledge of astronomy is not a prerequisite for admission to the department. However, students with little or no basic astronomy background are expected to become familiar with introductory concepts before enrolling at Harvard.

Placement Exam. All students are expected to pass a written placement examination in the second half of the first semester covering the basic concepts/core of astronomy and astrophysics. Remedial programs will be designed for students who do not pass the exam.

Physics and Mathematics. Strong training in these fields is essential for graduate students in astronomy. Candidates for advanced degrees must have a substantial background in physics and mathematics. The following list, based on courses at Harvard, is representative of the minimum background the candidate should have acquired as an undergraduate:

  • Stellar and Planetary Astronomy (AY16)
  • Galactic and Extragalactic Astronomy (AY17)
  • Mechanics and Relativity (Phys15a)
  • Electromagnetism (Phys 15b)
  • Wave Phenomena (Phys 15c)
  • A total of two half courses in Math from the choices below:
  • Calculus or Differential Equations (Math 21a or 21b)
  • Linear Algebra and Real Analysis (Math 23a or 23b)
  • Honors Algebra (Math 25a or 25b)
  • Mathematical Methods (Applied Math 21a or 21b)
  • Research Tutorial (AY 98)
  • Two additional courses in Astronomy or related fields to complete the requirement of 12 half‐courses.

A knowledge of more advanced physics and mathematics is important, so students are encouraged to pursue these subjects at the graduate level by taking Physics 232 and 251a, b (or their equivalents) and Applied Mathematics 201 and 202. As a minimum, students are expected to obtain a satisfactory grade (A or B) or otherwise demonstrate knowledge of the material in Physics 251a or AY 251 or Physics 210, or other graduate-level Physics courses.

 

Astronomy Courses. Candidates for advanced degrees should obtain a broad knowledge of astronomy by obtaining a satisfactory grade or by passing an oral examination in one core course (Astronomy 200 (Radiative Astrophysics)). plus at least five additional courses selected from the following: Astronomy 151, 189, 193, 201a, 201b, 202a, 202b, 215hf, 218, 219, 224, 231, 251, 253, Physics 210, 211, and 251a, and 251b. Courses taken elsewhere or courses of equivalent intellectual substance in mathematics or physics may be used to satisfy this requirement at the discretion of the CAS. In addition, students must participate every semester in the weekly Journal Club (AY 301hf).

Teaching. Department of Astronomy graduate students are required to teach for two semesters. First-year students are not normally allowed to teach so they may devote their time to studies. A student’s teaching will be evaluated by the University’s course evaluation process. Students who are not proficient in the English language are required to demonstrate to the course head their proficiency before they will be allowed to teach. Various routes to improving English communications skills are available through the University; the department will help students achieve the necessary proficiency. The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning offers activities and services to aid those who teach, and is especially useful for new teaching fellows or those who are unfamiliar with teaching in the American classroom setting. The first two units of a student’s teaching are part of her/his compensation package from the department. Many students wish to teach more than the required amount. The Department believes that students should have this opportunity if they are in good academic standing and are making good progress toward their degree. Students who undertake additional teaching will normally receive half of their teaching stipend while the remaining half is applied to their support if sufficient research funds are available. Students who wish to teach additional courses should obtain the consent of their advisors and, by University rules, must be in good academic standing. Students may not teach more than one course per semester unless they have the consent of the Committee on Academic Studies (CAS). It is the responsibility of the student and their advisor to ensure that additional teaching (beyond the two required semesters) will not slow progress toward completion of academic/degree requirements.

Plan of Study. Students are expected to discuss their proposed course and study schedule with their advisor and then to submit it to the committee for approval as part of their annual study plan. Students should attempt to complete their course work and general background studies before the end of the second year. A student is notified when the CAS agrees that these requirements have been met.

The Astronomy Department has no formal requirement in foreign languages. Students should, however, be familiar with the scientific literature in foreign languages if it is necessary to their work.

2. Research Project. Before beginning work on a thesis, a student must complete one research project. The purpose of the project is to introduce students to methods of research and to ensure that they can organize material and present it cogently in written form. The topic may be in the area of intended thesis work, although research in another area is encouraged. No research project or paper carried out before the student has registered for graduate study at Harvard will be accepted for this requirement.

Each research project must have a faculty supervisor who approves the subject material and ensures that the written report meets the appropriate standard. Students are expected to select an area of research in their second term in residence, and should submit a proposal for a research project to the CAS before May 1st of their first year. This is a short statement of the intended research and does not require prior completion of any phase of the work.

Research Exam Committees (REC). The CAS will appoint Research Exam Committees for all students. This committee consists of the research project supervisor and three other members, one of whom will be appointed the chair.The REC will advise the CAS on the suitability and scope of the research proposal.

Normally students devote the summer following their first academic year to research their project and continue to work on it during the second year. On completion of that work, the student writes a Research Project Report. The student may work as a member of a research group, but the Project Report should be written entirely by the student, though it need not be the final version submitted for publication. The report need not describe a completed research project, but can be a description of work accomplished. Its total length should not exceed 50 pages.

Research Exam. The Research Project Report is evaluated by the Research Exam Committee, which also conducts a brief oral examination on the subject of the research as well as related astrophysics. The research examination is normally scheduled two weeks after the submission of the research report. Exams generally last two hours including the presentation, questions and committee deliberation. Students who have not completed their research exams by the end of the first semester of their third year will be required, with their advisor, to meet with the CAS. Salary/stipend support may be withdrawn and the student not allowed to register if the student has not completed their research exam by the end of the third year.

3. Dissertation Proposal. Within three to four months of completion of the research exam, the student should submit to the Committee on Academic Studies a dissertation proposal and a list of possible thesis committee members. It is desirable, but not required, that the dissertation topic be in an area different from that pursued for the research project.

Thesis Advisory Committee. The Thesis Advisory Committee (TAC) monitors the student’s progress towards the completion of the dissertation, giving both advice and supervision. It includes members with interests and knowledge broadly related to the dissertation research. Although the dissertation supervisor will be a member of the committee, another member will be designated chair by the Committee on Academic Studies (CAS). The student and committee will meet together at least once per semester. Each student has the responsibility for arranging TAC meetings each semester,starting no later than six months after completion of the research exam. The role of the TAC is to provide additional advice to the student and to report to the CAS on the student’s progress towards the PhD.

In advance of each meeting the student provides the committee members with a brief summary of current progress and problems. This, together with an evaluation form completed by the committee and given to the student, will be reviewed by the CAS.

4. Public Outreach Project. As part of the department's commitment to help our students attain a proficiency in teaching science at the University level each graduate student will be required to produce an online outreach product (website, multimedia presentation, software, educational game) that explains their PhD thesis work to a general audience. Alyssa Goodman heads a standing committee designed to advise students in choosing venues and/or appropriate media to produce such products.  Lecturer and Educational Specialist, Phil Sadler, can offer suggestions and advice on jumpstarting this project, which a student should design alongside their dissertation in order to complete both on time.

5. PhD Thesis. It is desirable that the student complete the thesis and other degree requirements by the end of the fifth year. Before the final oral examination, the student is required to give a public lecture on the dissertation topic. Information on due dates for degree applications and submission of dissertations may be obtained from the department administrator. The final manuscript should conform to the requirements described in the booklet, The Form of the PhD Dissertation.

6. Final Oral Examination. The Committee on Academic Studies will appoint a committee to conduct a final oral examination at which the candidate will defend their PhD dissertation. The Final Oral Exam Committee must contain at least two faculty members (by university rules) and one examiner from outside the University (by department rules). Typical committees have four or five members. The examination will be confined to the dissertation and topics bearing directly on it.

7. Duration of Graduate Study. Duration of graduate study should not ordinarily exceed five years, and students in their sixth year are encouraged to finish promptly.

8. Satisfactory Progress. Students who are not progressing satisfactorily will be put on a grace period, essentially a half year or one year University probation during which they must begin to make appropriate progress. Students who, at the end of such a probationary period, are still not progressing satisfactorily will lose stipend support and may be asked to withdraw from the graduate program.

University Requirements for Advanced Degrees

University requirements for advanced degrees are found in The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Handbook. University requirements include Common Requirements for Degree Candidates. Academic Residency Requirements: All candidates for advanced degrees must meet the University residence requirements, as defined in The GSAS Handbook. For the AM degree, a minimum of one year of full-time study in residence—normally eight half-courses or equivalent—is required; for the PhD degree, the minimum requirement is for two years of full-time study in residence— normally 16 half-courses or equivalent.

Financial Support

The Department of Astronomy plans to fully support all students who are accepted for graduate study. The department does not require or expect the statement of financial need upon application to the Graduate School. Students are accepted and supported on the basis of merit. The support may be in the form of a national or University fellowship, a teaching fellowship, or a research assistantship. The normal pattern of student support is a combination of fellowship, research assistantship, and teaching fellowship. Students gain teaching experience during their graduate career by teaching part-time (usually ten hours a week) during two terms. Prospective students are urged to apply for outside fellowships that offer tuition and/or stipend support during graduate school. Among the many fellowships available are the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, the Hertz Foundation, the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship, and the NASA GSRP Fellowship. International students should apply for outside funding such as the Fulbright and Knox fellowships. As stated under Teaching, the first two sections of a student’s teaching are part of their compensation package. Those who undertake additional teaching (with the consent of their advisor and the CAS) will normally keep half of their teaching stipend if sufficient research funds are available. Students with active outside awards, which pay their tuition and stipend in full, may keep all of their funds from teaching.

Admissions

Application forms for admission and financial aid may be obtained from the Admissions Office, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center, 3rd floor, 1350 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138. Prospective students should request these forms in the preceding late summer or autumn, and should make every effort to submit them before the due date. Online submission of the application is required. See www.gsas.harvard.edu.

Candidates for admission are required to take the GRE General and the Physics Subject Test at the earliest convenient date. GRE dates after December are too late for consideration. Prospective candidates are always welcome to visit the Center for Astrophysics to meet the faculty and students.

Further information may be obtained from our website or from the Department Administrator, Department of Astronomy, Harvard University, 60 Garden Street, Cambridge, MA 02138; (617) 495-3753; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Selected PhD Dissertation Titles

  • Bence Béky, "Development and Application of Tools to Characterize Transiting Astrophysical Systems"
  • Nathan Sanders, "Core-collapse Supernova Progenitors in the Era of Untargeted Transient Searches"
  • Wen-fai Fong, "Unveiling the Progenitors of Short-duration Gamma-ray Bursts"
  • Paul Torrey, "Modeling the Evolution of Galaxy Properties across Cosmic Time with Numerical Simulations"

Faculty of the Department of Astronomy