FAQ: Department Atmosphere

Q: What is it like to be a graduate student in the NMSU astronomy department?
A: In your first year you are very busy. You have at least two astronomy classes, maybe a computational physics class, and seminar. You also teach the undergraduate astronomy labs or TA for a different astronomy undergraduate course, you may work one night a week at the campus observatory, and if you have any time left you do research. A research advisor will be assigned for you if you aren’t sure what kind of research you want to do when you arrive here, otherwise you will be able to have some input. The advisor you are assigned to or that you choose in first year is not ‘set in stone’ though, as many students find that in their first year as they are learning more about astronomy, their research interests may change.

In the second semester your classes depend on what is being offered and what you want to take, but will usually consist of mostly astronomy classes. By the end of the first year most people know with whom they want to work, and end up doing research with that person over the summer months. As a graduate student, you are expected to do research over the summer. While some people do take short vacations (two or three weeks), the summers are prime time for us to get a lot of research done.

In your second year the class schedule is the same, but research becomes more important. If you haven’t taken any ‘non-astronomy’ courses by this time, now is the time to start. Some students take courses in engineering, geophysics or computer science. This is also the time to start concentrating on the CUMEs (Cumulative Exams). You start taking them immediately on arrival, but in your first year it’s more of a learning experience, and you aren’t really expected to pass many of them until your second year.

In your third year you should have passed a total of five CUMEs (the number you need to pass if you want to get your Ph.D. here). You don’t take seminar anymore, and you will probably have only one class. This is when you decide on a Ph.D. thesis topic, set up your committee, and take the oral exams. The orals have two parts which are six weeks apart: a two hour oral exam on classwork, and a colloquium where you present your Ph.D. thesis proposal. When you pass that you automatically receive a Master’s degree, and then you work on your thesis until you finish, which should be in about the fifth year or so.

The department is small enough that you can get personal attention and help whenever you need it, but big enough that people in the astronomical community know who we are. The other graduate students in the department are friendly, supportive, and fun.

Q: What kind of interactions do students have with other students – inside and outside the department? Is there a definite separation between graduate students and undergraduates, etc.?
A: There are about 30 graduate students, and there is an undergraduate astronomy minor (but no major) at NMSU. Undergraduates in other programs (i.e. physics) who are interested in astronomy will often take the lower-level astronomy graduate courses. The department of astronomy and the department of physics are in physically separate buildings, and have their own separate colloquia. We do have a modest number of undergraduates working with faculty members in their research groups, etc. Usually those undergraduates interact a lot with the graduate students in the same research group. Besides that and the introductory astronomy labs that many of us teach, we really have very little contact with undergraduates at this university.

While the graduate students do tend to segregate into classes – first years hang out with first years, etc. – everyone gets along for the most part. Students generally help each other a lot, and there is not a strong sense of unfriendly competition among us. Usually, if you have a question, you can find some graduate student who is knowledgeable and is willing to help you out. The graduate students are supportive of each other and we all get together to celebrate when any student passes their qualifying exams, orals or their Ph.D. thesis proposal and defense. Generally things are very busy, as the course workload is high in the first and second year, but there is always time to unwind. Sometimes a small group of us will get together for a road trip, i.e. camping in the Organ mountains or skiing at Ski Apache in Ruidoso. Las Cruces itself is a small city, but there are plenty of fun and interesting things to do and see around New Mexico and surrounding areas.

Q: How are student/faculty relations?
A: In general, students get along with the faculty. As with anywhere, there are some personality conflicts, but we all try to keep the atmosphere professional and not let our personalities get in the way. Most students get along well with their advisors, or they change advisors.

Q: What kind of resources are available?
A: One of the key assets of this medium-sized department is the number of resources. We have plenty of workstations, CDROMs, tape drives, colour printers, etc. Our primary computer system is a cluster of PCs running Linux. It is pretty difficult to NOT find a computer to work on; every student has their own workstation on their desk, and there are also many public workstations.

There are also great opportunities for observing from here. We are part of one of the largest university-run telescopes in the world, as well as members of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and faculty members and students routinely observe in Hawaii or at other 8-meter class telescope sites around the world. Being at NMSU represents an excellent opportunity to get exposure to lots of observing techniques, and a better chance to finish your thesis in a timely fashion if it involves lots of observing! There are also many other telescopes in the immediate area. The Apache Point Observatory and the Very Large Array are each only a two-hour drive away, and Kitt Peak in Arizona is not too far away either.