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Graduate Students

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions about our graduate program

Admission to the Penn State Astronomy & Astrophysics graduate program is very selective; we typically offer admission to around 10-15% of applicants.
 
Typical successful applicants have:
- a high junior-senior GPA (3.5 or greater on a standard U.S. 4-point-scale), especially in physics, mathematics, and related courses in the most recent semesters of study
- a strong math and physics background (most admitted applicants are physics or astronomy majors)
- research experience, typically in astronomy, astrophysics, physics or instrumentation
- strong letters of recommendation from those who can attest to their academic and research abilities  
 
Successful applicants without one or more of these criteria typically demonstrate exceptional strength in others areas and/or identify extenuating circumstances in their personal statements or letters of recommendation.

Non-traditional applicants, such as those with geoscience, engineering, mathematics, statistics, or computer science backgrounds, are encouraged to apply, provided that they can demonstrate they have a sufficiently strong background in math and physics for success in our program. This might come from physics coursework outside their major (including mechanics, electricity & magnetism, quantum mechanics, and statistical physics/thermodynamics), demonstrated aptitude for research in astronomy, astrophysics or physics (such as a peer-reviewed paper), or strong letters of reference that credibly attest to their strength in these areas. Students without such background may wish to apply to a program at Penn State better aligned with their preparation, and then seek to work with astronomy faculty after matriculation in that program.

The admissions committee, as a general matter, encourages Penn State undergraduates interested in an astronomy Ph.D. to look elsewhere for graduate school, as a way to broaden their horizons. That said, the committee recognizes that some students have good personal reasons to stay in the State College area after graduation, and for them and others Penn State may be the best choice for graduate school. The committee will therefore give full consideration to all applicants from Penn State, without bias, regardless of their reasons for applying.

No, all applicants should apply directly to the Ph.D. program, whether they have an (anticipated) bachelor’s degree or higher degree.  We welcome applicants who have participated in a master's bridge program, are completing a master's degree so as to strengthen their physics background, or who come from a country where pursuing a master's degree is more common.  Students entering with master’s degrees or other advanced coursework may apply for limited course credit after arrival but will still need to take all required examinations.

All applicants to the graduate program must be on track to have the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor's degree (four years of post-secondary instruction) with a focus in physics, astronomy, astrophysics, or a closely related area upon their arrival at Penn State the following fall.

No. We only accept students into our Ph.D. program. Students may obtain a master's degree en route to the Ph.D., but we only admit students who demonstrate an interest and readiness to complete a doctoral degree.

Students seeking a Ph.D. in Astrobiology should apply to a graduate program in one of the affiliated fields, which includes Astronomy & Astrophysics. Once matriculated, students can opt to enroll in the Astrobiology dual-title program to earn their Ph.D. in both Astrobiology and their chosen field of study.  Such students have some additional coursework requirements, and their examinations will include topics in astrobiology.

It is not necessary to contact a faculty member to secure an endorsement or check for research openings prior to applying.  Graduate admissions are not based upon openings or support in specific research groups but overall accomplishments and potential. Neither a student's admission nor the department's commitment to financial support after matriculation is tied to any particular adviser's endorsement or financial resources. Students are not assigned advisers by the department, and many students change advisers or work with multiple advisers.

That said, applicants should clearly describe in their personal statement their reasons for wishing to attend Penn State, and they should explain why their research interests and career goals are a good fit for the department. Prospective applicants should therefore carefully consider the listed research programs on the department's web pages.  Applicants may ask faculty about the prospects for specific research areas prior to applying to ensure their applications are consistent with research being actively conducted by its faculty.  However, applicants should realize that some faculty will wait until admissions offers are extended before engaging with prospective students.

Most of our courses have Astro 501 (Fundamental Astronomy) and Astro 502 (Fundamental Astrophysics) as pre-requisites. Those courses are only taught in the fall. Thus, it is usually not possible to admit students for the spring semester.

No, the Astronomy and Astrophysics department no longer accepts either General or Physics GRE scores.

International applicants are exempt from the TOEFL/IELTS requirement who have received a baccalaureate or a graduate degree from a college/university/institution in any of the following: Australia, Belize, British Caribbean and British West Indies, Canada (except Quebec), England, Guyana, Republic of Ireland, Liberia, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the United States, and Wales.

International applicants whose baccalaureate or graduate degrees were granted by institutions located outside of the countries listed above must provide TOEFL scores with their application materials to be considered for admission.

Our institutional code is 2660, the Penn State University Park campus. The major field code for Astronomy is 61. You can find the institutional codes at https://www.ets.org/s/praxis/pdf/attending_inst_recipient_codes.pdf and the major field codes at https://www.ets.org/s/toefl/pdf/dept_code_list.pdf, both on the TOEFL website.

Penn State University requires a minimum TOEFL score of 550 on the paper test, 213 on the computer-based test, or 80 on the internet-based (iBT) test. In addition, the University requires a minimum of 19 points on the new speaking portion of the iBT test. (Note, however, that scores between 15 and 18 may still be considered for provisional admission.).

The Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics views scores of at least 620 on the paper test, 260 on the computer test, and 105 on the iBT most favorably, but lower scores do not exclude an application from consideration.

In order for an application to be given fullest consideration, all materials must arrive by December 1, 2022. Late applications may be considered, but first consideration for admission and financial aid will be given to those which arrive by the deadline.

The same deadline applies for receipt of letters of reference. The Graduate School system will not send out a request for those letters until the application is complete. Applicants should thus coordinate with their letter writers and submit their applications far enough in advance for their letter writers to meet the deadline.

In general, the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics will support students that are in good academic standing with tuition waivers and a stipend, typically provided by a fellowship, a teaching assistantship, or a research assistantship. All entering students are guaranteed support.

The application fee is $65. If it presents a financial hardship, you are welcome to apply for a fee waiver by contacting the chair of graduate admissions, astro-grad-admissions@lists.psu.edu. Please include your CV.  If you are not a physics, astronomy or astrophysics, major, then please include a list of completed/current courses.