Frequently Asked Questions

about Grad student life in the UVa Astronomy Department

This informal page of frequently asked questions will give you some idea of what it’s like to be a grad student in the Astronomy Dept, at the University of Virginia. The information on this page was originally compiled by former graduate student Noella D’Cruz. Additional information has been added by former grad students Peter Frinchaboy, Chris Palma and Joshua Kempner.
  1. What are the requirements for the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees?
  2. What courses do students usually take?
  3. Which textbooks are commonly used in classes?
  4. What are the typical TA duties?
  5. What are the work areas for graduate students like?
  6. When does one begin research work?
  7. What is the average time to a degree?
  8. What is the typical stipend?
  9. How does one obtain summer funding?
  10. What health insurance does the University offer?
  11. How much does housing cost in Charlottesville, and where can I find apartment listings?
  12. How much does it cost to keep a car in Charlottesville?
  13. Traveling around town
  14. Other information about the department



(1) What are the requirements for the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees?

An M.S. is awarded after the successful completion of a) 24 graduate course credit hours, including 6 credit hours of ASTR 9995 (Graduate Research), b) a small research project including a written report, and c) the qualifying exam for the M.S. The ideal M.S. project would be a short publishable paper.
As far as qualifying exams go you will have to take the masters qualifying exam at the beginning of the 2nd semester. It covers all aspects of basic physics and astronomy at the level of Shu’s Physical Universe or slightly higher. At the beginning of the 4th semester you will have to take the PhD qualifying exam which is spread over two days: on the first day you take the masters qualifying exam (Part I), and on the second you take an exam based on course work over the past 3 semesters (Part II). You need to pass both parts of the PhD exam at the first attempt. Each of the exams is written and is 4 hours long. It is important to remember that the qualifying exam is only one of the factors that determine whether you are admitted to the Ph.D. program; the other important considerations are research, coursework, and your work as a TA.

(2) What courses do students usually take?

You take a total of 12 courses in the first two years - three courses each semester, two of which are astronomy classes. The astronomy classes are scheduled in a rotating sequence so that each course is offered every other year so the 1st- and 2nd-year students attend the same core classes. The 3rd course each semester is usually a physics course, but other options are applied math, mechanical engineering, or computer science courses depending on your background and interests. You can check the listing of courses to know what students typically take.

(3) Which textbooks are commonly used in classes?

Some textbooks that are useful to have (and that have a high likelihood of being used in classes) are: Other good astronomy books to have, if you can find them, are: Some more general, upper level introductory texts that are useful to look through in advance are:

(4) What are the typical TA duties?

You can expect to be a TA for at least the first two years, either as a half time (10hrs/week) or a full time TA (20 hrs/week). The TA load usually involves supervising night labs (giving constellation quizzes or helping students use 8-inch Meade telescopes), and support duties such as maintaining the classroom demo equipment, the audio-visual equipment, etc.

(5) What are the work areas for graduate students like? (Offices, desks, computers, etc.)

In June of 1998 we moved to a nice building on campus that is rather spacious. Grad students are 3 to 10 to an office with their own desks, bookcases, etc. Every grad also has at minimum a PC running Linux on their desk. As a result of very good state support in this area, we have rather nice computer resources.

(6) When does one begin research work?

All graduate students are required to start on a research project in their first semester. Some new students even arrive the summer before they formally start in order to get a jump on research. You can do research with any of the faculty members, or with the scientists at NRAO. You can take a look at the department’s Research page (or the pages of individual faculty members) to see what research is currently being done in the department.
Since most incoming students don’t know exactly what area of research they want to work in, it is common for students to work on one project for the Master’s and a different project with a different adviser for the Ph.D.

(7) What is the average time to a degree?

The American Astronomical Society has been studying the national average time to degree and has found it to be rising in recent years to approximately 7 years. The AAS has recommended that departments take steps to reduce the average time back to 4-5 years, and, in response, we restructured our graduate program in 1995. Before then many of our students took 6-7 years to finish. However, to reduce that time, the requirement that our students write a master’s thesis was replaced with the requirement that students complete a publishable quality research project within their first two years. This has reduced the time to the master’s degree by about a year, and all students since then finished their masters and began their PhDs within 2.5 years of matriculation (the average for a masters degree is now about 1.5-2 years). This appears to have paid off in the long term as well, as the average time to degree since the new rules were put into place has dropped to 5.5 years.
It is the case that theory students tend to finish sooner. However, the majority of our grad students do observational projects, and so the numbers given above would change only a small amount if we excluded theory students.

(8) What is the typical stipend?

Nine month stipends are competitive, and seem reasonable given the cost of living in Charlottesville. In addition, while not guaranteed, it is normal for students to obtain some summer support (provided their advisor has grant funding), which provides additional funds, at the level of 1/3 of the academic year stipend. The cost of health care insurance through a provider approved by the University is covered by the Graduate School or your advisor’s grant. For more information on health insurance, see below.
Some students elect to take advantage of other opportunities offered by the department to increase their salary, for example, by teaching at the local community college, or operating telescopes for the night lab or by grading papers. Except in a few cases, grading papers is NOT considered a task of a teaching assistantship — EXTRA funding is provided for graduate students who volunteer to be graders. The stipend and other benefits are normally renewed each year, as long as you remain a student in good standing, making progress towards your degree, within the Department of Astronomy.
For many years, UVa grad students have been teaching astronomy classes at Piedmont Valley Community College, located just outside Charlottesville. Teaching opportunities also present themselves on occasion at Hampden-Sydney College, a liberal arts college in Farmville VA, as well as Mary Baldwin College located in Staunton VA.

(9) How does one obtain summer funding?

It is possible to obtain research support over the summer from your advisor (if they have grant funding available). If research funds are limited then you can apply to teach one of the four astronomy courses that are offered in the summer. Teaching in the summer time is a good way to get teaching experience. It also takes up only 4 weeks (plus preparation time), so you do have time left to work on your research.
In recent years all students have obtained either research or teaching funds from the department, but summer funding is not guaranteed.

(10) What health insurance does the University offer?

The University health plan is administered by Aetna Student Insurance. You are required by the University to have a health insurance plan. However, the University (or an advisor’s grant) pays the health insurance premiums of all TAs, RAs, and students on fellowship who receive at least $5000 in support annually (this includes all fully-funded astronomy grad students). Student health is free for all full time students. The University has a very well equipped hospital with some of the best doctors in the country.


(11) How much does housing cost in Charlottesville, and where can I find apartment listings?

If you are willing to share an apt or a house then your housing costs work out to be about $200-$300. One bedroom apts cost about $500-$550 or more. Housing is easy to find near the department (within 10 - 15 minutes walking distance). University housing for graduate students consists of suites with a common kitchen or two bedroom apts for 4 people (you have to share a bedroom) Below is a list of web sites with Charlottesville housing information to get you started:
  1. University On-grounds Housing Information
  2. The Blue Ridge Apartment Council (This is an excellent site which allows you to search apartment offersings from multiple realtors.)
  3. Private ads are one of the best places to look for off-grounds housing: craigslist for Charlottesville
  4. The local papers have their classifieds online: The Cville Weekly, The Daily Progress, and The Hook.
  5. rent.net
  6. Some local realtors with apartment web listings: Woodard Properties, Wade Apartments, and Management Services Corporation.
  7. Co-Operative Housing at the University of Virginia


(12) How much does it cost to keep a car in Charlottesville?

Compared to other East Coast states, the costs associated with owning a car in the Charlottesville area are reasonable. A typical 22 year old graduate student with a fairly new car and a good driving record can expect to pay around $900 a year in car insurance. If you’re older or drive an older car, the rate will probably be around $650 a year. Once you’re over 25 rates go down even further to less than $500 a year (again depending on your car, driving record, etc.).
You may have heard that Virginia has a "car tax" which is assessed on every car registered in the state. This is true, however in 1998 the state attempted to phase out the car tax over 5 years. The resulting budget shortfalls severely impacted state universities and local governments, and the tax was never fully phased out. Currently 70% of the 4% tax gets refunded off the top, so the amount you are assessed every 6 months is very small only about 0.12%.
Finally, parking at the University is like many large universities - limited. Students who live further from campus and wish to drive to campus will be able to get a blue parking permit which currently costs $10 a month. This allows you to park in the huge lot near the basketball stadium. If you have a spouse or significant other who works in the UVA Hospital complex, they can get a red parking permit for the lot next to the football stadium. These are the same price as the blue permits, but the lot is much closer. There are other lots near our building, and anyone is eligible to submit their name to the waiting list for these lots. They are smaller reserved lots, and are therefore more expensive ($14-$17 a month). These lots are, however, near to the building and don’t require a bus ride or long walk like parking in the blue lot does.

(13) Traveling around town:

The university has a free bus system whose route includes a shopping center (with a couple of grocery stores). It operates from 6:30 am to midnight. The City of Cville has buses which go to all the shopping malls, and these city buses are free for university students. Hence, it is possible to manage without a car. To travel to the observatories the department has a state van which students can use. If you like to go to the Blue Ridge Mountains often then you will need a car.
Charlottesville is a nice place to live as you can tell from the description in the graduate program page.

(14) Other information about the department:

The department has weekly colloquia on Thursdays (jointly with NRAO) and NRAO has informal lunch talks on Tuesdays. Hence there are a lot of astronomers who visit Cville throughout the year to give talks. Frequently, the department has visiting professors with whom you can meet to discuss research.

Fun Stuff: The department has two picnics each year at the Fan Mountain Observatory. The picnics are a lot of fun with volleyball, softball, and drinking beer being some of the activities that are indulged in. The department together with NRAO hosts a Christmas party. Every February the department has a banquet dinner in the dome room of the University’s Rotunda (a historical landmark designed by Thomas Jefferson).

The students often participate in intramural softball, volleyball, basketball, soccer, etc.

This page was created by Noella D’Cruz, and updated by numerous grad students since.