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Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences (APS)
Graduate Assessment Report 2001-02


In our most recent program review, both the Internal Review Committee (IRC) and the External Review Committee (ERC) found that the APS graduate program was strong. The ERC lauded the dedication and enthusiasm of our graduate students and complemented APS on its academic programs. I add a few quotes from the Nov 13, 2002 ERC report:

"We found the quality of APS is very high indeed and, if anything, the self-study is overly modest in assessing the department's national standing. Even the independent published rankings may well do the department less than justice".
"It is rare to find a flourishing astronomy department that deftly integrates and balances planetary astronomy with stellar and extragalactic work... This unusual breadth and depth should stand as a distinct attraction when recruiting the best graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty."
"The enthusiasm and esprit de corps of the current crop of graduate students in the department is notable. We were also pleased to note the significant fraction of women students... Mentoring of the students seemed uniformly excellent."


APS has 21 rostered faculty and 45-50 graduate students. In addition, we have 3 research faculty and 20-25 affiliated faculty from CU institutes (JILA, LASP), centers (CASA), and Boulder labs (NCAR/HAO, Southwest Research Institute). Statistics on our graduate program were recently compiled for the APS Self-Study and Program Review (2001-2002). Some of the highlights include:

  • The average time to PhD degree is 5.5 years
  • Production of PhDs is 6.6/year (5-7% of US astrophysics total)
  • Our graduate program is ranked #12 by the National Research Council
  • A list of our students, their theses, and current positions can be found at


As reported in the APS Self-Study Report, the CU astrophysics department was ranked #12 among all US programs in surveys by the National Research Council (NRC) and US News. Planetary Sciences programs were not evaluated, but ours is highly regarded. Our high national standing is noteworthy, since most of the top schools are private institutions such as Caltech, Princeton, Harvard, Chicago, and MIT. Among the 31 Public AAU institutions, Colorado is ranked #4 behind Berkeley, Arizona, and Texas. A recent report evaluating the NRC rankings of Research Universities (Diamond & Graham 2000)ranked Colorado #9 in research citation productivity.

The APS graduate programs (MS/PhD degrees) attract a talented population of domestic and international students. Nationally, U.S. institutions produce approximately 100 PhDs per year in astronomy and astrophysics. Over the past 7 years (1995-2001) we have produced a total of 46 PhDs (average of 6.6/yr) -- 33 in astrophysics/solar physics and 13 in planetary/space physics. The APS faculty also work with graduate students from other CU departments, including Physics, Geology, Applied Mathematics, and Aerospace Engineering. APS graduate students have won a large number of competitive NASA and NSF graduate fellowships.


The graduate curriculum and research in APS fall into three major areas: astrophysics, planetary science, and space physics. The department offers both M.S. and Ph.D. degrees, although we do not normally admit students for just a Masters degree. The graduate program integrates astrophysics, planetary science, and space instrumentation, with strong observational and theoretical components. We encourage students to get involved in independent research as soon as possible, through the Research Comprehensive Exam, in the required graduate seminars, and by obtaining a Research Assistantship (RA). One of the issues under discussion is how to balance the departmental teaching needs (TAs) with the goal of getting students into RA positions early in their career.

Our graduate program is structured to facilitate interaction and collaboration between the disciplines and to enable students to explore a wide variety of research areas. For the Ph.D., we require 36 semester hours of coursework in courses numbered 5000 or above. Most students also obtain a M.S. degree along the way. In their first two years, students take core courses and disciplinary electives, together with four required 1-unit graduate seminars in either astrophysics or planetary science. Other than a few minor additions, the APS graduate curriculum has been stable for the last 7 years.

The Comprehensive Examination for admission to Ph.D. candidacy consists of two parts. Comps 1 is a written exam designed to test basic principles in astrophysics, planetary science, and physics. Questions are drawn from the three semesters of coursework immediately preceding the exam, including core courses and elective courses in planetary sciences and astrophysics. The current exam allows a choice of 5 of 10 questions, including 4 core questions, and 3 discipline questions (each) in astrophysics and planetary science. Comps 2 is a semi-independent research project which the student organizes, completes, and presents. The student selects an advisor and committee after taking Comps 1, and after 4-6 months of work provides a publication-quality written paper and an oral presentation to the committee. The Comprehensive Exam is normally completed after 2 years. The average time to completion of the PhD is 5.5 years in the APS department.


Since 1995, the year of the last APS Program Review, the graduate student population in APS has remained relatively stable at 42-52, with entering classes of 8-12. Starting in 2001, we are consciously expanding our admissions to 12-15/yr, including more foreign scholars.

Most of our graduates take jobs as postdoctoral research associates at universities or government labs. Several of our recent alumni are now faculty members at universities or staff members at national laboratories or research institutions (NCAR, Space Telescope Science Institute, NASA, Southwest Research Institute). A few examples include: Mark Voit and Megan Donahue (STScI), Alan Stern, Robin Canup, and Joel Parker (Southwest Research), Katia Ferriere (Observatoire Midi-Pyrenees), Zhiyun Li (Univ. of Virginia), Mark Lewis (Trinity College), Jim Dove (Metro State Denver), Peggy Hartsel (Clark College), Margaret Hanson (Univ. of Cincinnati), Eric Perlman (Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore), Sarah Gibson (NCAR). A full list of our PhD graduates and their subsequent employment may be found on our website (

APS students continue to distinguish themselves at a national level, with awards (currently 8 students) from the NASA Graduate Student Researchers Program or the NSF (currently 2 students). APS students regularly lead observing proposals for time on national facilities (NOAO) and space instruments (Hubble Space Telescope, Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer, Chandra X-Ray Observatory). Closer to home, APS students are active in the life of APS itself. There is graduate student representation on every major APS committee, and every faculty search since 1997 has convened a group of APS students to interview the short-list candidates and advise the faculty. Every semester, 10-13 of our graduate students typically staff the TA positions in our undergraduate curriculum.


The APS department strongly encourages the development of good teaching skills. Most students are supported on a teaching assistantship (TA) for their first year, and many students choose to supplement their research with teaching later in their graduate career. In a typical entering class of 12 students, 8 +/- 2 students hold TAs and 4 +/- 2 are offered RAs. Because we wish to reward teaching at the same level as research, TA stipends are now supplemented with fellowships to bridge the $1878/AY gap with RA stipends. In the week prior to classes, entering graduate students receive an orientation that includes an oral interview by a faculty/student committee to discuss their background in undergraduate physics and mathematics and design an appropriate curriculum. The advisory committee meets with students at least once each year. The orientation continues by assigning faculty and senior graduate student mentors, and with extensive training in teaching and operation of the telescopes at Sommers-Bausch Observatory.


Because of the strength of our faculty, facilities, and students, APS degrees are more valuable than ever. Yet we still fall just outside the top 10 Ph.D.-granting astronomy programs. Given the strength of our human capital, and with several key investments, we could move into the top group in the next NRC ranking. The greatest task confronting us in building a world-class graduate program is attracting the best students. We are already competitive with some top public programs (Arizona, Texas, UC Santa Cruz, UCLA) in matriculating the best students we admit. With the proper strategies, we can become competitive with Berkeley and many private schools. The recruiting efforts of the last four years have borne fruit. In 1998, we adopted the practice of inviting all admitted students (24 last year) to visit Boulder on the same weekend in early March. Of these 24 visitors, 12 later enrolled.

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Last revision 01/28/03

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