Requirements for a PhD in Astrophysics

Jun 18, 2019

This article offers an overview of what is required to obtain a PhD in astrophysics. It includes information on entrance requirements, typical coursework, and examination and dissertation requirements.

Astrophysics, which focuses on the physical nature of stars, galaxies and other bodies in space, is one of several specializations within the general field of physics. It is distinguished from other, related specializations in physics such as astronomy, theoretical physics, and nuclear physics. Below is an overview of the common requirements to obtain a PhD in astrophysics.

Astrophysics PhD Program Entrance Requirements

To obtain admission to a PhD program in astrophysics, a bachelor's degree is required, though the GPA and specific field of study of the degree that are required vary from school to school. One school may specifically require a bachelor's degree in physics or astronomy, while another may require only a strong background in physics, or the successful completion of specific core undergraduate physics and astronomy courses. Many schools require an undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or higher.

An entrance examination may also be required to gain admission to an astrophysics program. Some schools require the GRE general examination, while others require the general plus the GRE physics exam.

Schools may also require the demonstration of English proficiency through the TOEFL or IELTS examination, letters of recommendation, or additional application materials.

Completion Requirements for Doctoral Degree Programs in Astrophysics

Depending on the school, doctoral degree programs in astrophysics can lead to a PhD in Astrophysics, a PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics, a PhD in Physics with a concentration in Astrophysics, or a PhD in Astronomy with a concentration in Astrophysics. Some astrophysics programs reside in the university's physics department, while others are in separate astronomy or astrophysical sciences departments.

Programs generally require the following elements: classroom coursework lasting approximately two years; service as a teaching assistant; comprehensive examinations, either oral or written or both; a research project, either observational or theoretical; and a dissertation. Completion of an astrophysics PhD program can take from five to eight years, with most programs expecting completion in six years.

Common Courses in a Doctoral Astrophysics Program

Core courses in astrophysics PhD programs usually address the following topics:

  • Mechanics and fluid dynamics
  • Stellar structures, formation and atmospheres
  • Galactic and extragalactic astronomy and cosmology
  • High energy astrophysics, such as radiation or nuclear astrophysics

Elective coursework may include classes on data analysis and statistics, high performance computing, and instrumentation.

Comprehensive Examinations

Most programs require PhD candidates to successfully pass comprehensive oral and written examinations. These are usually administered at the end of the second year of the candidate's program, following the completion of core and elective classroom coursework. Examinations typically address the material from the courses but may also address the research project and thesis.

Research and Dissertation or Thesis

Research projects in astrophysics leading to a dissertation or thesis may be theoretical or observational, and astrophysics programs can be characterized by which of the two they emphasize. Many programs offer research opportunities through partnerships with a variety of scientific institutions or governmental programs, such as NASA or the National Science Foundation, high altitude observatories and telescopes, specialized research laboratories or facilities such as cyclotrons, and ongoing major experimental projects.

Financial Support

Most astrophysics PhD programs offer some form of financial support. This typically requires that students either teach undergraduate courses or assist in laboratory and experimental work.

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