Student Perspectives

Home / Student Life / Student Perspectives

Hear from real students

Here we provide links to learn about the programs of SESE and life of a SESE graduate student - from the perspective of students. All the pages below are written by students, and represent our take on what its like to be a graduate student at SESE. All opinions expressed here are OURS; they do not represent SESE's or ASU's.


So you have decided on a career in Astrophysics?

Congratulations on taking the first step to what might be the rest of your life. Second step: DON'T PANIC. Astrophysics in SESE has great things to make your life as a graduate student normal as any other school. What makes SESE stand out from the norm are the other graduate students. They will be the ones you will see day and night. Here at ASU I have made some of my best friends - all while completing a Ph.D. What else do you want? Education. Right. We have great programs as well.

Learn about Astrobiology in SESE

Your Background

SESE accepts people to the Astrophysics program from all disciplines. We have students with undergraduate degrees in Physics, Geology, Astronomy, Astrophysics and Computer Science. Starting a graduate degree in Astrophysics from an undergraduate degree in something else, like Physics, may come as a shock to you (I know it did to me). Astronomers have a very different lingo and ways of doing research. It is hard in the beginning but soon enough you find yourself fluent in the lingo and able to produce great results in your research. That is something I liked about SESE. I wasn't the only Physicist lost in all of this Astronomy stuff (IRAF comes to mind). You have people from other disciplines and you will all be lost together and can get through it together.

This in turn allows you to collaborate with others in your field and other fields within the school. Things that used to be considered only for geologists are now combined in research collaborations. I know of graduate students that are doing their research on the composition of the soil and rocks of Pluto and Charon and getting their PhDs in Astrophysics. SESE is all about finding what interests you in the Universe (and yes that includes the Earth).


Officially you will be enrolled in the Astrophysics MS or PhD program. From within the Astrophysics program you will then decide what is your muse. What do you want to know more about? There are many different fields covered at ASU: High-z universe, galactic dynamics, computational astrophysics, planetary astrophysics, stellar formation and evolution, etc. You name it; we probably have someone who does research in the field.

In the astrophysics program you don't have to start the program knowing exactly what you want to do. During the first semester you should meet with professors to learn more about their research and to see what opportunities they have to offer. Don't be scared to ask about projects and funding. Another unique aspect of SESE is the two-project requirement. Besides your primary project that will become your thesis, you must work on a secondary project that is "substantially" different. Many theorists choose a project involving observations and vice versa. Substantially different doesn't mean you have to choose a project involving geology (but you can if you want). Along with the project comes another advisor, and a new topic to learn about. At first it seems a bit daunting, but actually it is one of the best parts. You get a chance to explore the different types of research SESE offers. Also, students take advantage of the requirement by writing papers and presenting results at conferences on research from their secondary project.

While you are doing this you need to complete the necessary required courses and exams in order to continue in grad school. Although there are basic, required courses for you to take, you are allowed and encouraged to take courses that interest or are beneficial to you.

Note that graduate program policies and procedures may change with time, so keep in contact with your advisors and the graduate committee to stay up-to-date.

Always discuss options with your advisors. Also it might be possible to substitute some of the required courses for courses that best fit your research. ALWAYS discuss these possibilities with both your advisors and the graduate program committee.


Although there are required courses that everyone in SESE and Astrophysics has to take there are many electives that are optional. Below are the required courses and then some electives that have been offered in the past 5 years.

Courses offered through SESE — note that some may be cross-listed between AST/GLG or in other departments:

GLG 591: Faculty Research Seminar
Every week a new talk by one of our own faculty members. Many professors will advertise possible project available to work on. Good for helping find a secondary or even primary project. You HAVE to take this course during your first semester to graduate from SESE.

GLG500: SESE colloquium
Every week a new talk in a subject related to SESE. Usually you have to do a small write up on a couple of talks. Not too much work though, mostly based on attendance. Best to get done your first semester. You HAVE to take this course to graduate from SESE.

AST521: Stars and ISM I
This course is one of the best I've taken at ASU. It covers the subjects of optical depth, scattering of light, formation of emission and forbidden lines, etc. Take this course. You'll enjoy it. It is a bit of work but you feel so good once you finish all the homework. You'll learn a LOT.

AST522: Stars and ISM II
This course is again mislabeled. A better name would be Stellar Evolution. It covers everything related to how stars evolve and what properties affect their evolution. How does mass affect the size, energy production, etc.

AST523: Stars and ISM III
Again the title should be ISM. This course covers specifically the subject of the Interstellar Medium and how light interacts with it. Also how the ISM becomes stars and what happens to the rest of the ISM once stars are born within it. Shock waves! Fun course as well.

AST531: Galaxies and Cosmology I
This course should be titled Galactic Dynamics. It covers all the components of the galaxy, how they interact and what are the dynamics that describe their motion and existence.

AST532: Galaxies and Cosmology II
This course should be titled Properties of Galaxies. It covers the formation, properties and evolution of all the galaxies. You'll see the subjects of emission and absorption lines, Hubble classification, properties of galaxies in different wavelengths, Magorrian relation, etc.

AST533: Galaxies and Cosmology III
This course should be titled Cosmology. It covers the subjects of structure formation, metrics of the universe, components of the universe and future evolution of the universe as a whole.

AST591: Seminar (a.k.a. Journal club)
This is not a required course officially but professors and your thesis committee expect to see at least four AST598 grades on you transcript. Easy course. Pick a paper and present it to other graduate students. You'll learn a lot and learn how boring other subjects are! You can take as many versions of AST591 as you want.


This course changes names depending on what is being offered. Sometimes it is Instrumentation (all about telescopes and how they work and how to reduce data) and sometimes is computational astronomy (all about specific routines needed in many astronomical codes, e.g. Monte Carlo, etc.). You can take as many versions of AST598 as you want.

MAT598: Scientific computing
This course is offered in the math department. All about learning to program in one specific programming language. Last time it was offered was Fortran :-S

SESE's Earth Sciences Program

Description of the program in geosciences

The graduate program within SESE is very flexible and allows the student and advisor to work together to determine the best course of study. Because of this, it is difficult to clearly spell out how a student's Ph.D. will play out without speaking with an advisor/committee. For this reason (and others listed below) it is highly suggested that students meet and choose an advisor before being accepted into the graduate program at ASU.

Sedimentary class hikes the Grand CanyonIn general this is what you can expect:

Most students take between four and five years to complete a Ph.D. (even with a Master's degree). The first two years will be heavy on class work as you develop research ideas and relationships with potential collaborators. In addition to course work, the first two years are spent preparing for the comprehensive exam. The exam will take place in the fourth semester and will cover general science knowledge as well as a detailed understanding of two distinctly different research projects of the students choosing. After the comprehensive exam, it is up to the student and their committee to determine what objectives need to be completed before defending a dissertation.

Student research

The geoscience Ph.D. program is primarily based on original research. Ph.D. students are required to design and defend two projects that are "distinctly different" with different advisors in preparation for the comprehensive exam. This is a unique and great experience for those wanting to explore many topics or those torn between different fields. One of these research projects will be directly related to the student's dissertation work, but it is becoming more commonplace for advisors to require that their students see both projects through to fruition. Research is best started as soon as possible to allow for proper preparation for the comprehensive exam and timely completion of the Ph.D. program. It is advisable to have discussed at least one possible project with your advisor before starting the program. Be sure to check out the SESE Web site to get an idea of what faculty and students are actively pursuing.

Course offerings

The course offerings in and outside of SESE are as diverse as its students. The first courses students usually take fill any deficiencies (e.g., additional math). The exact courses and how many will be up to the student and advisor to determine. Students starting the Ph.D. program with a Master's may transfer credits, but there will always be plenty of interesting and important courses to fill student's schedules.

There are only are two required courses. These courses are taken during the first year and are designed to get students acquainted to the research going on in SESE and provide them with research opportunities. Students are welcome to take courses in other schools/departments as well (e.g., School of Sustainability, Physics etc.). However, course credit will only be granted for graduate level classes (500 and above). Learn more

Completing the dissertation

One of the larger hurdles to complete on the road to a dissertation is the comprehensive exam, which is completed in the fourth semester of study. The comprehensive exam requires the student to begin two research projects with two different advisors. The examination committee (the committee of faculty members that decides whether you pass) is chosen by the graduate committee (the faculty body that oversees the graduate program). The exam committee is made up of 5 SESE faculty members from various backgrounds (including astrophysics). The comprehensive exam consists of two parts: 1) a written proposal for each project, and 2) a three-hour oral exam. At the time of the oral exam, the student is not expected to have completed either of the two research projects, but they are expected to have clearly thought out the steps needed to complete the projects. Students may receive an unconditional pass, a conditional pass (meaning they need to fulfill some specific requirements, such as classes, in order to receive their degree) or a no pass. While most students pass the exam the first time, some students are required to take the exam again.

Blue Mesa in the Petrified Forest, ArizonaAfter completing course work and passing the comprehensive exam in the fourth semester, the student should be well on their way to acquiring useful data and preparing for publication. Up to this point there has been much guidance and many rules about progress. However, after the second year it is up to the student and their supervisory committee (the body of faculty members that are to oversee the student after the comprehensive exam) to layout the guidelines for completing the dissertation. Once the student nears completion of their dissertation, a technical review will be scheduled with their supervisory committee. This review is another oral examination to ensure the student is ready for defense. Upon passing the review the student may schedule a defense date. It is then up to the students supervisory committee to decide whether the student has successfully defended their dissertation.

Working environment

Much like everything previously mentioned there is no clear answer here. Research labs and student space are split amongst six buildings (most centrally located around Bateman Physical Science F-Wing 'PSF'). Students will have to communicate with their advisor regarding lab and workspace. Unfortunately, for right now we are pretty spread out until we get our new building.

SESE is quite large and still growing! We have more than 45 faculty members and more than 100 graduate students. The opportunities are endless! There are many unique collaborations going on in our school. These collaborations present students with a vast pool of resources. To see more about what facilities are available in SESE and at ASU visit SESE's Web site and contact a faculty member; they love hearing from interested students.

Grad student life in SESE and at ASU

Though we are spread out we do our best to stay connected. Every Wednesday we have our school wide colloquium series. This series is run of, by and for the graduate students. Students are in charge of determining what researchers will be invited and hosting the guest speakers. On Wednesdays, students are encouraged to engage the speaker in an informal setting over lunch (provided by the department). There is often a large group that joins the speaker for dinner at a local establishment as well. We also have a weekly graduate student social hour on Fridays!

Nearly all students live off campus in apartments or houses in Tempe. It is easy to find an affordable place within bike riding distance. There are also some free forms of public transportation (the Orbit) and heavily discounted rates are available for an unlimited public transportation pass (includes the bus lines and the light rail). The greater Phoenix area has a lot to offer in terms of museums, dinning, nightlife, and outdoor pursuits (golf, hiking, climbing, biking, etc). The summers can be warm but many parts of Arizona are pleasant all year around and a lot are a short drive away from Phoenix/Tempe/Scottsdale/Mesa.

Financial support

This part is completely dependent on the arrangement you make with your advisor. Most students are supported on large grants in SESE (research assistantships). Other students have teaching assistantships and fellowships (internal and external). Some students are supported by a combination of funds and this changes from semester to semester. Be sure you have a clear understanding with your advisor.

Engineering in SESE

Currently there are three professors in SESE who were hired to conduct engineering-based research. However, there are also a few faculty in the school who are actively interested in instrumentation. Someday soon, however, there may be many more engineering researchers, as SESE's culture emphasizes the integration of engineering research with scientific research. There are just as few graduate students in SESE studying engineering as well. This is mostly due to the relatively unestablished nature of engineering within SESE.

Currently, you can only pursue the engineering research under the Astrophysics or Geology Masters/Ph.D. but rumor is that a third graduate degree of Systems Engineering may come in the future. Regardless of which department you may belong, you have the opportunity to take any class you wish, including graduate classes within the Fulton School of Engineering. You should work with your advisor to discuss courses that would be relevant to your specialized area of research.

While there may be only a couple grad students doing engineering work in the department, it's not for a lack of opportunity or exciting research. The engineering research in this department is extremely trans-disciplinary, which means that the engineering faculty and students can branch out into any of the broad research areas covered by SESE, which gives the graduate student the opportunity to explore a wide range of field and pursue almost any aspect of research. This may be a bit scary for someone who doesn't know what they are interested in and wants someone to show them their academic path from Day One to graduation. However, I think the ability to explore and determine exactly what you want to study and take whatever classes you want to get you there is really exciting. Secondly, there are so many avenues of unexplored research that there are ample opportunities for you to develop original research with real application!

This author has found that the scientists within SESE are extremely eager to work with engineers on different projects, especially those projects which may lead to new instrumentation to further advance their scientific study.

Links to other information you may find useful:


Resources for Current Graduate Students

ASU Resources

Out and About

Outside in Arizona (soon!)