Skip to main content


Last Updated

Questions about these requirements? See the contact info at the bottom of the page. 

Committee on Academic Studies (CAS)

The CAS in the Department of Astronomy has the primary responsibility for administering the graduate program. The purpose of the committee is to ensure that students receive adequate guidance, 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 names dissertation examination committees and dissertation advisory committees.


An initial academic advisor is assigned to each incoming graduate student to help a student make informed decisions about coursework and research opportunities when registering in my.harvard for the first time. By mid-January of the first year, each first-year student should choose a research advisor who will assist in selecting a project and the submission of a research proposal and then supervise the actual research leading to a student’s research exam.

Once each student has registered their research advisor with the office, the CAS will assign each new student an advising committee, which will provide the principle guidance and mentoring throughout a student’s graduate program. The membership of this committee, comprised of faculty and SAO scientists at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA) or other Harvard University departments, will shift as a student’s projects and thesis topics shift. Members of this committee could also form part of a student’s thesis defense committee. Students must meet once per semester with their advisory committees.

Each student is free to choose a new advisor at any subsequent time but should inform the department administrator and the CAS of such changes immediately after obtaining the new advisor’s consent.

Course Requirements

The course requirements in astronomy are designed such that a student receives a broad knowledge of astronomy while also having access to courses focused on specific fields of astrophysics research. There are three general course requirements:

1. Each student must receive a satisfactory grade (A or B) or pass an oral examination in one core course: Astronomy 200 (Radiative Astrophysics)

2. Each student must receive a satisfactory grade in at least five electives chosen from the list below: 

  • Astronomy 201: Stellar Astrophysics
  • Astronomy 202a: Extragalactic Astronomy & Cosmology I
  • Astronomy 202b: Extragalactic Astronomy & Cosmology II
  • Astronomy 203: Interstellar Medium & Star Formation
  • Astronomy 205: Astrophysical Fluids & Plasmas
  • Astronomy 209: Exoplanet Systems
  • Astronomy 214: Observational Astronomy (under development)
  • Physics 210: General Relativity
  • Data Analysis (Physics 200 or Applied Math 207 but not both)
  • Earth & Planetary Science (EPS 220 or EPS 237 but not both) 

3. Each student is expected to complete for credit one 200-level course outside the department. Known as the practical elective, this course should pertain to a student’s research field of interest or assist the student in furthering research skills in such areas as data analysis, engineering, geology, chemistry, or biology.  Any one of the non-astronomy courses listed as electives in category 2 above can be used as the practical elective, but taking one course cannot be used to meet two requirements.  Your advisor must approve your choice of the practical elective. 

4. The Graduate School requires 32 units of "residency" for the PhD degree.  Students are allowed four units of Astronomy 300 to make up this total.  

Astrophysics Inventory

In October of the fall term, the Shu Exam oral assessment will be conducted with each first-year student individually. This focuses on the basic concepts and core knowledge of astronomy and astrophysics as covered by the undergraduate text An Introduction to Astrophysics by Bradley W. Carroll and Dale A. Ostlie. Early in the fall term, an online inventory will be sent out in which students can rank their knowledge on just over 100 questions. This then serves as a guide for your personal or group study. After the exam, the examiners will make specific remedial recommendations for each student to address particular areas of concern.

Research Project

Before beginning work on a dissertation, 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 their 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 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 by May 15 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.

The student’s advisory committee reads and approves the research proposal and members of it can be asked to serve on the exam committee.  Normally students devote the summer following their first academic year to research their project and continue this work throughout the second year. On completion of this research, 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 version submitted for (optional) publication. The report need not describe a completed research project, but can be descriptive of work accomplished. Its total length should not exceed 30 pages.

In September of their third year, each student will schedule a meeting with their exam committee. At this time, the progress the student has made will be reviewed and if they feel it is sufficient, the research exam can be held at the same time. If necessary, a subsequent date is set for the exam at a later time. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, all research exams should be completed successfully by the end of the spring semester of their third year. Students who do not pass an exam must meet with the CAS in order to address any ongoing issues and causes for delay. It is possible that students may be restricted from continuing in the program following processes laid out by the Graduate School.

Public Outreach Project

Our graduate students, past and present, have been distinguished nationally by their commitment and contributions to the greater astronomy community, including the lay public. ComSciCon and Astrobites are just two examples of efforts that were initiated by and continue to thrive thanks to students at Harvard. In that tradition, the faculty feels it important that every student be asked to contribute in some meaningful way to interact with our numerous stakeholders: outside scientists, students, the lay public, politicians, entrepreneurs, and funders, to name a few.

This contribution can take the form of creating outreach products (websites, software, games relating to your PhD thesis) or services (teaching or mentoring in other programs, volunteering in professional societies, organizing events for the public, political activism, etc.).  Responsibility for approving and validating such projects rests with the CAS presently. Please consult the department’s website for the appropriate forms and deadlines.

Foreign Language Requirement

The Department of Astronomy has no formal requirement in foreign languages. Students should, however, be familiar with the scientific literature in foreign languages that relates to their own work.

Master of Arts (AM)

Graduate students in astronomy are admitted to the PhD program only. The AM degree will be awarded upon satisfactory completion of the University residence requirement: a minimum one year of full-time study in residence or equivalent. Candidates for the master’s degree must successfully complete the above departmental requirement of one core astronomy course (Astro 200) and five additional electives. Neither the research exam nor the practical elective need be completed before the AM degree can be conferred.

Teaching Requirements

Department of Astronomy graduate students are required to satisfactorily teach for two terms. A student’s teaching will be evaluated by the course head. 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 terms of a student’s teaching are part of their compensation package from the department (unless the student has an external fellowship, see below). Many students wish to teach more than the required number. 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 keep half of their teaching stipend if sufficient research funds are available. Students that wish to teach additional courses should obtain the consent of their advisors and, by University rules, must be in good academic standing. If a student has received an outside fellowship that permits additional support, they may keep the stipend from teaching in addition to the fellowship. Students also may not teach more than one course per term without the consent of the CAS. It is the responsibility of the student and their advisor to ensure that additional teaching (beyond the two required terms) will not slow progress toward completion of academic/degree requirements.


Thesis Advisory Committee

Soon after passing the Research exam with the assistance of their current advisory committee, the student should submit to the CAS a thesis proposal with any requests for adjustments to the membership of their advisory committee. This committee will continue to monitor the student’s progress toward the completion of the dissertation, giving both advice and supervision. It includes members with interests and knowledge broadly related to the dissertation research. The student and committee will continue to meet together at least once per term. In advance of each meeting, the student provides the committee members with a brief summary of current progress and problems.

PhD Dissertation

On average students complete their PhD dissertation three years following the research exam. 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 registrar. The final manuscript should conform to the requirements described in Dissertations.

Defense Committee External Reader

The core of an examining committee at a defense is made up of a student’s advisory committee plus at least one member from outside the Department of Astronomy, preferably at a different institution. Once a student’s advisory committee has approved the external member and have agreed to the date, the student should contact the office so they can arrange travel and accommodations.

Contact Info

Astronomy Website

Department of Astronomy
Harvard University
60 Garden Street
Cambridge, MA 02138

Let us know your thoughts

Was This Helpful?

I found what I was looking for.
I couldn't find what I needed.
Events Calendar