Qualifying Examination in the Astronomy and Astrophysics Concentration

Qualifying examination in the Astronomy and Astrophysics Concentration
  • The comprehensive examination for the Concentration in Astronomy and Astrophysics will be as follows:
    • Students are given a topic in astronomy and astrophysics with the expectation the students would research it for one quarter and summer between first and second year.
    • The topic – one for each student and not repeated between students or from year to year - will be assigned to the students by the Program Director (PD; faculty member who is responsible for overseeing the new concentration) by the end of the Winter quarter of the first year of study. The PD will form a committee of three faculty members for each student. The PD will be the oversight committee member and will be on all the examination committees to ensure uniformity of standards. 
    • For each student the PD will choose a project in consultation with the Department Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics Exams. This new committee will be appointed by the Department chair and will have four faculty members and the PD. 
    • For each student the oral examination committee will be a total of 3 faculty members, including PD. PD will sit in all students’ committees to provide overall oversight and consistency between all students. The research topic will be in astronomy and astrophysics, but is not required to align with the intended research directions of the student for the PhD.
    • PD will recuse and the Department Chair will appoint a new member as the Chair to the committee for students that the PD is conflicted, mainly for advisees or potential advisees under PD’s direction.
    • The students will work on this project during the spring and summer subsequent to first year of study and finish the document during the fall quarter of the second year. 
    • The students are expected to write a document based on their research, in their own words. This document should have the structure of a research paper. The written document is required to be submitted to the PD at the end of the fall quarter of the second year. The submission is a required element to schedule the comprehensive examination. 
    • Before submission, the student is expected to get feedback from the PD and other members of the student’s examination committee on the written document. 
    • The PD will schedule the examination in consultation with the student before the end of the Winter quarter of the second year. The examination will consist of roughly 20 minute presentation, followed by roughly 40 minutes of questions. The questions will focus on the (a) research topic and (b) the breadth of knowledge in related areas and core courses. The time will be spent evenly between (a) and (b). 
    • The PD in consultation with each student’s committee will create a list of at least 10 questions based on the written document before the examination and share with the student one week in advance of the oral examination. This prevents unnecessary questions from being asked from the student on the spot. During the oral examination the committee will ask a number of key questions drawn from this list of 10 questions. Relevant follow-up questions are allowed and encouraged. 
    • The passing of this part of the comprehensive examination will be determined by the committee through a combination of the written document, student’s presentation, student’s performance during the oral examination, and students grades during the first year.
    • Students who do not pass this second part will be given a second opportunity at an oral examination, using the same or a revised write-up of the same project that was initially assigned to the student. The second opportunity will be scheduled before the end of the spring quarter subsequent to the second year of study. 
  • Students who do not pass after the second attempt will be allowed to continue a third year of study leading to a Masters degree in the concentration as described in the catalog. 
  • Students who enter the program with a Masters from another institution are not required to take the comprehensive examination.
 
Rubric for grading the comprehensive examination.
  • It is expected that the written report will be scientifically accurate and will follow established process for scientific writing in a style appropriate for a journal article. The student will receive feedback from the PD and the committee as drafts are processed. The PD will set a timetable and meet with students individually every quarter to follow the progress. The write-up is expected to show the scientific knowledge on the assigned topic and to place the work in the broader context of research being done in the area.
  • The oral presentation provides opportunity for students to summarize the topic and the written document as one would be communicating to scientists during a research seminar or a conference presentation. The emphasis would again be on the background sciences, including provision of an adequate background and motivation for the scientific goals of the topic assigned. Students are also expected to provide a clear discussion of results and be able to complete the presentation roughly within the allocated time.
  • The questions that follow during the oral examination is aimed to testing the ability of the student to demonstrate a good understanding of the key results, why this research was done, and what scientific questions the project was designed to answer. The same examination will also test student’s ability to demonstrate a good understanding of the topics in the core courses relevant to the astronomy and astrophysics concentration. 
  • As part of the overall qualifying exam, student’s grades of the first-year courses – as measured by course grades and performance in the final course examination - will be taken into account.
 
Examples of research projects that are appropriate for the comprehensive examination
  • Stellar streams in the Milky Way halo
  • Stellar population ages and chemical abundances of dwarf spheroidal galaxies
  • Mass segregation and core collapse in globular clusters
  • The rotation curve and mass distribution of the Milky Way
  • Diffuse ionized gas in the Milky Way (the “warm ionized medium”)
  • Ultra-low-metallicity stars in the Galactic halo
  • Mapping extinction in the Milky Way
  • Stellar initial mass function 
  • Hypervelocity stars
  • Stellar populations and kinematics at the Galactic Center
  • Radial velocity methods for exoplanet detection
  • The Rossier-McLaughlin effect in exoplanet transits
  • The masses of stellar-mass black holes in X-ray binaries
  • Dynamics of the Sagittarius dwarf spheroidal galaxy
  • The Habitable Zone and its limitations
  • The runaway greenhouse effect (inner edge of the habitable zone)
  • The maximum CO2 greenhouse (outer edge of the habitable zone)
  • The effect of incondensable greenhouse gases on the traditional habitable zone boundaries
  • Gravitational effects on planetary habitability
  • Radiative effects on planetary habitability
  • Stellar effects on planetary habitability
  • Use of climate models to explore and forecast the impact of anthropogenic CO2 on the surface temperature of the Earth
  • Transit timing variations
  • Detection capabilities of biosignature gases with next-generation telescope instrumentation
  • The planet-star boundary
  • Epoch of reionization
  • Epoch of recombination
  • Approximations employed in radiative transfer calculations in stellar atmospheres
 
 
 
 
 
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