Astronomy PhD Degree Requirements

The Northwestern Astronomy PhD is designed to provide students with a broad training in astronomy while enabling them to get started quickly with their graduate research. The Astronomy PhD is a flexible program that allows students to complement their astronomy training with a selection of physics courses or courses from other quantitative disciplines such as applied mathematics, statistics, computer science or engineering relevant to their research.

Students pursuing astronomy or astrophysics research in our department will benefit from the vibrant environment and opportunities offered by the Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Exploration in Astrophysics (CIERA).

Course requirements

  • Six (6) 400-level astronomy courses
    • Selected from Astron 314/414, 321/421, 325/425, 329/429, 410, 416, 448, 449, and 451
  • Two (2) 400-level physics courses.
    • All students must take Phys 411-0: Classical Mechanics during their first quarter at Northwestern.
      • This ensures that Astronomy PhD students get to know the Physics PhD students when they start at Northwestern.
  • Four (4) other 400-level quantitative science or engineering courses (including in physics or astronomy).

How long will it take to finish the required coursework?

Most of the astronomy graduate courses are offered every other year, so students will typically take 2 years to finish their course requirements.

Where are descriptions of the Astronomy courses?

Descriptions of our graduate courses are available here. Please scroll to the bottom of the page to find the relevant courses.

PhD qualifying examination

Astronomy PhD students will take an oral qualifying exam focused on general core astronomy.

When is the qualifying exam?

The qualifying exam will be administered at the end of the first year of a student’s graduate studies.

What will the exam cover?

The oral examination will cover material taught in the 400-level astronomy courses offered during the academic year.

How many times may the exam be taken?

Students who do not pass the qualifying exam the first time will have a second chance at the end of their second year.

Research and the Thesis 

When do students start doing research?

We encourage students to become engaged in research as early as possible in their studies. Incoming students on University Fellowship support are especially encouraged to begin part-time research in their first year. To acquaint themselves with the research opportunities in the department, most new students work with one of the faculty during the summer of their first year of graduate study. (However, there is no requirement to do so.)

When do students choose an advisor?

Students may choose a thesis advisor and/or topic at any point in their first two years.

When is the Candidacy Exam (Prospectus)?

A proposed thesis topic must be defended before a faculty committee no later than by the end of the student's fourth (4th) year at Northwestern.

How long does it take students to complete the degree?

The thesis must be defended by no later than the end of the student's ninth (9th) year at Northwestern.

The median number of years to completion is five (5) years.

Can students receive their Master's degree along the way?

Yes, students may apply to receive a Master's degree en route to their PhD degree. This may be helpful on applications for outside funding.


Further questions?

Contact the Director of Graduate Studies for Astronomy.

Please refer to our Resources page for direct links to The Graduate School (TGS) for information that can guide you in your academic career.