College of Natural & Agricultural Sciences

HST Cluster

Doctoral Degree in Astronomy

Doctoral Degree in Astronomy (NEW): Requirements


The UCR Department of Physics and Astronomy expects to offer a PhD program in Astronomy starting Fall 2023.  The degree is designed to provide a broad background in observational, theoretical, and computational astrophysics through a combination of courses and research.  Requirements for the program are described below.

Courses will include a set of core courses taken in the first year, followed by electives (see below).  The program emphasizes an early start to research, with students will beginning research project at least as early as the Winter quarter of their first year.  It is expected that students in the PhD program will be associated with a thesis research advisor by the end of the spring quarter of their first year.  A special seminar class PHYS288 is designed to familiarize the student with research activities of the faculty.

A student is recommended for advancement to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree in Physics upon completion of the following requirements:


Satisfactory completion of the core courses listed below. Each course must be passed with a grade of B- or better and the student must maintain an average for all courses of B or better.

The following Core Courses will be taken in the first year. The five courses which are examined in the comprehensive exam are in bold.

Core Courses:

PHYS 206 Computational Astrophysics
PHYS 211A Radiative Processes in Astrophysics
PHYS 213 Astrophysics of the Interstellar Medium
PHYS 214 Techniques of Observational Astrophysics
PHYS 215 Dynamics & Evolution of Galaxies
PHYS 217 Stellar Structure & Evolution
PHYS 219 Cosmology & Galaxy Formation
PHYS 297 Directed Research (two quarters)
PHYS 401 Professional Development in Physics and Astronomy
Phys 296 Summer Research in Physics and Astronomy

Students should also take two elective graduate lecture courses from the list below.  Other courses, including those outside the Department, may also count as electives with the approval of the Astronomy Graduate Advisory Committee.

Elective Courses:

PHYS 203 Statistical Astronomy
PHYS 204 Advanced Galaxy Formation and Cosmology
PHYS 208 General Relativity
PHYS 211B Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics
PHYS 216 Star Formation
PHYS 218 Fundamentals of Astrophysics
PHYS 226 Cosmology (Advanced Topics)
PHYS 227 Particle Astrophysics
PHYS 229 Theory of Dark Matter Halos and Galaxies
PHYS 247 Introduction to Applied Data Science
PHYS 261 Special Topics in Astrophysics


Comprehensive Exam


Ph.D. students must pass a comprehensive exam, with two parts, a written test on the courses and an oral test on the research. They will both be taken at the end of the summer of your first year. Students must pass both parts. If a student does not pass on the first attempt, the student will be asked to retake the part they didn’t pass.


Written section of the comprehensive exam


Each course will have about 1 hour of material, set and graded by the instructor of the course. Grading will be done blind based on a pre-written mark scheme.

There will be two exams on separate days. The first day will test the fall courses, PHYS 211A and PHYS 217, and will be 2 hours long. The second will test the winter and spring courses, PHYS 213, PHYS 215 and PHYS 219 and will be 3 hours long. Each course’s questions will be normalized to 20% of the total grade. The pass mark shall be 50% of the total available marks. Adjustments to the grading scale may be made at the discretion of the Comprehensive Exam Committee.

The comprehensive exam is a rigorous and challenging test, but you were admitted in part because we believed you have the ability to succeed in it.

Students may request to see their graded exams at the Student Affairs office. Any grading concerns should be submitted to the Student Affairs office in writing within one week of the results being announced. The request will be forwarded to the Comp Committee Chair for the Committee’s consideration. The Committee Chair will inform the student prior to the Add/Drop deadline about the decision made by the Committee. The affected exams will be regraded in their entirety; the overall grade may decrease as a result. The Committee's decision is final.


Research section of the comprehensive exam


Students will present an oral report, approximately 30 minutes in length on the background, motivation, and methods of their research. This will be based on the two quarters of research time in winter and spring, as well as the first summer of research.

The presentation will be followed by a question and answer session with a 3-member faculty committee, chaired by a comprehensive exam member and containing the student's advisor. The committee will be looking for evidence that the student has read the most important parts of the research literature and understood the major problems in the field. They will also look for evidence that the student has done some new research. It is not necessary to have a completed project at this stage, but the committee would like to see that the student has started research in earnest.

Examples of things that a student could show to the committee are:

  • Results to go in a first draft of a paper, perhaps some new figures.
  • A proposal for telescope time
  • Some data reduction or analysis of a simulation
  • Newly developed code

Students should explain what they have done, show their results, and describe how they did it.

To show that the students understands the background, they should have read some of the significant papers in their subfield (although not all of them) and be able to describe and discuss the current big problems in the subfield.

The committee will give written feedback after the exam. As part of the feedback, each student will receive two scores from 1-5. There will be separate scores for literature review and for research progress. A score of 5 shows exceptional progress. A score of 3 on each component is required to pass the research exam. If a student scores a 3, they are likely to be given significant feedback which should be taken into account.

If a student scores 2 or 1 on either component, they will be required to retake both components. Students will be asked to give another presentation after another 3 months of research work, at the start of winter quarter, and will be expected to improve. The presentation should contain both a literature review and a demonstration of research progress, even if the student scored 3 or above on one of the components in the first exam.


Qualifying Oral Examination


Ph.D. students must complete an oral qualifying exam in the general area of the student's proposed dissertation research.  The oral presentation should provide background and motivation for the dissertation research, preliminary results from this research, and a clear plan for completion of the thesis including a timeline for the acquisition of data (if relevant), analysis, other key milestones, and papers to be submitted to journals. The exam committee will be composed of the student’s research advisor, at least two other departmental faculty, and one faculty member from outside the department.  The exam must be taken before the end of the student’s third year in the program.  At the discretion of the committee, a student may be permitted to take it a second time.
After passing this exam and advancing to candidacy, students will provide yearly updates on their progress to the thesis committee.  The thesis committee will be comprised of the student’s research advisor and at least two other departmental faculty, typically those who have served on the student’s candidacy committee.


Completion of the Degree


The student is recommended for the Ph.D. degree following their advancement to candidacy and completion of the following requirements:


Doctoral Thesis

Doctoral candidates must complete a satisfactory written thesis that presents a review of existing knowledge relevant to the candidate's original research, an outline of specific problems addressed by the candidate’s work, and a detailed description of the strategies, analysis techniques and results of the candidate's original research.  The research must be of sufficiently high quality to constitute a contribution to knowledge in the subject area.  

Final Oral Examination

Doctoral candidates must perform satisfactorily in a final oral defense of their thesis before the candidate's thesis committee.


Normative Time to Degree: If the student is full-time with no deficiencies, the normative length of time pre-candidacy (before the Qualifying Exam) is not more than three (3) years. The normative time between Candidacy and Defense/Ph.D. completion is three (3) years. Overall, the normative time from enrollment in the program to Ph.D. degree is expected to be six (6) years.

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