NMSU Student Life

What you need to know!

The First Year

Welcome to the department! You've taken the first step towards an exciting and rewarding journey in graduate school. The initial year can be overwhelming, with a deluge of information coming your way. This page is here to serve as a reference for important details you might need, especially if you're feeling a bit lost in the midst of it all. Here are some basics you'll want to keep in mind as you begin your studies here:

  • Campus Navigation: Navigating any university campus can be a challenge, especially during your first year. Be sure to make use of the school map. Familiarize yourself with key buildings such as Educational Services, Corbett Center, the bookstore, and the Physical Sciences facilities. Knowing your way around campus will save you time and make your life a lot easier.

  • Contact Information: NMSU provides an online phonebook that you can use to find contact information for professors, fellow students, and various departments. 

  • Graduate Handbook: Make sure to familiarize yourself with the department's graduate handbook. This handbook typically contains essential information about program requirements, expectations, and policies. It's a valuable reference that will help you stay on track throughout your graduate studies.

  • Enjoy the Journey: While graduate school can be intense, remember to enjoy the experience. Take time for self-care, explore the campus and the surrounding area, and make the most of the opportunities for personal and academic growth that graduate school offers.

AGSO Officers

Within the Astronomy Graduate Student Organization (AGSO), officers play a crucial role in shaping the academic and social environment for fellow graduate students. These officers are selected through a democratic process, with nominations and votes taking place among your peers. The officer positions are typically determined at the final AGSO meeting of the academic year, and each officer is tasked with specific responsibilities to contribute to the betterment of the department. The current AGSO officers are listed here.

Colloquium, Pizza Lunch, & Astro-ph

Attending these three department events regularly should be on your academic to-do list; they serve as an essential part of your journey in the field of astronomy.

The colloquiums often feature guest speakers from other institutions and are held on Fridays, snacks are provided at 2:45 p.m. with talks commencing 15 minutes later. Following the talk, the speaker will join the students on a students-only roundtable, where you will have the opportunity to ask any type of question regarding their research and career advice in general. The speaker is usually around the department all day on the Friday of the talk -- a sign-up sheet for individual 30-minute meetings will be sent out at the beginning of the week, giving you the opportunity to converse one-on-one and/or accompany them to lunch.

Pizza lunch talks are an hour long and are hosted on Mondays, hosting a range of topics and discussions. These serve as an opportunity for students and faculty to share their research, and as such you are encouraged to sign up for a pizza lunch talk when your papers are published!

Finally, Astro-ph discussions are formal times when we talk about impactful recent journal articles, led by two different presenters each time including faculty and students. These are typically scheduled for 30 minutes on Wednesdays and Fridays. All students, following their first year, are expected to participate with a randomly generated astro-ph schedule posted at the start of each semester. If you need to switch dates, you can coordinate with your peers and update the schedule on your own accord. Please remember to update the spreadsheet with your chosen paper as soon as you have it, so that it can appear in the reminders! While you have full autonomy over the paper you wish to present, we employ a voting system on the NMSU benty-fields page to gauge general interest in papers. These astro-ph sessions offer a relaxed opportunity to stay updated on recent developments and encourage questions and discussions, providing a valuable learning experience for all. 

These three events offer a unique opportunity to delve deeper into the multifaceted world of astronomy, bridging the gap between theory and practical application. Attending these events will broaden your understanding of the field, exposing you to diverse topics and cutting-edge research topics. Moreover, attending these talks regularly demonstrates respect for the speakers, who invest their valuable time to share their expertise and travel to our department, which further fosters meaningful discussions and networking opportunities with professionals in the field. Furthermore, these serve as excellent training grounds for your future career, honing your communication and presentation skills and nurturing crucial collaborative relationships in the astronomy community. 

In short, while it may be tempting to skip these sessions during busy weeks, the long-term benefits will be extremely valuable as you advance in your career. Embrace these opportunities to learn, connect, and grow in your journey as an astronomer. Your active participation not only enriches your academic experience but also contributes to the vibrant and supportive community within our department. 

Help with Cumes and Classwork Orals

Following your first semester in the department, you will have to take monthly exams called Cumes, usually hosted remotely on Fridays between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. These are not traditional exams in that they will provide published material such as a paper or slides from a talk, with the questions testing your ability to extract and contextualize the information presented. These exams are written by a different faculty each time with the faculty choosing material for the exam that is relevant to their particular field of research. The name of the faculty hosting the exam will be unknown to the student until test time. You will receive an e-mail informing you whether you passed or failed, but you should know that the front office keeps all of your old Cumes which you can request to see to check your specific score and review your mistakes. 

You will take these Cume exams every month until you pass five, after which you will be done and will be allowed to schedule your qualifying exam, which is a meeting between you and your primary & secondary advisor to discuss your academic progress and future plans. This is a low-stress meeting that is required prior to the oral exam, which is the final exam before you are allowed to propose your thesis. The oral exam is typically 3-4 hours in person, during which you will answer a variety of questions asked by members of your thesis committee.

To help with studying for these exams, we’ve gathered previous exams and questions into a few binders that live in the library upstairs (room 207):

  • Cume Book: Almost all past cumes are available in the binder, though some may be missing the solutions and/or accompanying paper. Some of the more recent ones are also available in an online copy of the Cume book, which is continuously updated by our tireless Cume Czar. The online copies are only accessible through computers connected to the internet within the astronomy department (or off-campus with our VPN) and are available in the astronomy cluster (ssh username@astronomy.nmsu.edu). The following directory contains folders with Cumes for each individual faculty: /home/httpd/html/cume_book

  • Orals Book: This is a handy reference if you want to get an idea of the types of questions that different faculty members ask during orals. This us updated each time a student completes their oral examl, and as such the amount of detail (and humor) included varies wildly from one student to the next. It is important to remember to provide your questions once you’re finished, so that maximum detail can be provided! The online version can be found here.

  • Thesis Proposal Book: Unlike your thesis/dissertation, there is no template for the proposal; the length and level of detail are determined by you and your advisor. This book contains copies of previous proposals that you can look at for some examples of the structure and content, particularly for proposals from students who worked with your advisor.

  • Snake Book: Questions asked by the committee behind closed doors after your defense talk. It’s named for the traditional snake fight that occurs during this meeting. After your victory, add your questions to the binder.

Department Resources

Being a member of our department grants you access to a plethora of valuable resources to enhance your academic journey. Here's a detailed overview of some of these resources and important guidelines:


Our department offers an array of computer-related resources to support your academic endeavors. Visit the computing page for comprehensive information on servers, software programs, copiers, printers, email services, and web pages. Additionally, as an NMSU student, you'll have the privilege of utilizing the Discovery supercomputer for any computational needs — an immensely powerful resource! Don't hesitate to tap into its capabilities for your research, when your account is made you will be granted 100 GB of storage in your home directory, and 1 TB available in your scratch folder. There are many students and faculty in our department who use Discovery regularly and can walk you through how to gain access and use its Slurm Workload Manager to submit your own jobs. For long-term storage of very large files, you can use the department servers. 


NMSU provides access to a wealth of educational opportunities through the Teaching Academy. Take advantage of the numerous talks and learning series they offer, designed to enhance your writing, speaking, teaching, and research skills. These resources are invaluable for your growth as both a student and an educator. Note that the front office administrator will keep all of your TA evaluations, except for the online evaluations, which the department head keeps.


If you are using the department's credit card (Pcard) for purchases, it's important to follow these guidelines:

  • Provide a receipt for every transaction to the office administrator for record-keeping.

  • NMSU enjoys tax-exempt status for goods (but not services). To ensure tax exemption on purchases, direct vendors to our tax-exempt notice and tax-exempt certificate.

  • Be aware of credit card limits: $2,500 per transaction and $10,000 per billing cycle. For items exceeding $999.99 individually, obtain a purchase order.

  • Note that the Pcard is solely for registration expenses and cannot be used for airfare, hotel bookings, or other travel-related expenses. Always check with the front office for any grant or contract-specific restrictions before making a purchase.

If you have questions or encounter any issues with department purchases, do not hesitate to contact the front office for assistance.

Meal Expenses

When hosting prospective students or colloquium speakers for a meal, it's important to adhere to the following established rates as the university will not reimburse amounts exceeding these values. Reimbursement for meals with colloquium speakers is typically limited to four department personnel, including faculty, students, others, and the speaker.

Breakfast $10.50
Lunch $16.00
Dinner $26.00


Each office has a recycling bin. The university picks up recycling from the building every Friday. They collect white paper, clear plastic (1 & 2), aluminum cans, non-food-related cardboard (shipping boxes, not pizza boxes), and also batteries. If you have any batteries you’d like to dispose of, tape over the positive end and give it to our front office administrators.

The Hiring Process

Every year, as graduate students, we go through a re-hiring process within the university. Unfortunately, this process has sometimes caused delays in receiving our paychecks. The front office administrators have outlined the intricacies of this system and offered valuable insights on how we can collectively minimize delays. Here's a closer look at the hiring process and how we can assist our dedicated office staff:

  • Early Registration: One of the key steps to facilitate a smooth hiring process is to register for classes as early as possible. Registration is a prerequisite for being hired, so any delays in registration could potentially result in a delay in receiving your initial paychecks.

  • Tuition Awards: If you've earned any tuition awards, such as HED, NM Space Grant, or any other type of funding that affects your pay, it's crucial to inform the office staff promptly. Each of these awards involves distinct processes and additional administrative steps that the staff must navigate. For instance, HED students are typically hired for 10 hours per week, different from the standard 20 hours. Variations in funding sources among students make this information essential for initiating the hiring process. Additionally, if there are delays in funding disbursement from sponsors to the university, it can result in delays in receiving your stipend or tuition award.

  • External Funding: If you have secured external funding, such as NSF or NESSF fellowships, it's essential to inform the front office immediately upon receiving the award. This ensures that they can initiate the correct award acceptance and hiring processes on your behalf. Keep in mind that if you are not hired by the department, you will receive monthly payments and will need to estimate your taxes, as they will not be withheld from your paychecks.

  • Tax Reporting: Regarding tax reporting, you should receive a 1098-T from Accounts Receivable (6-4911) and a 1099 if you were paid a stipend during the summer, from Accounts Payable (6-1189). In case of any issues with these forms, clarify that you are paid via stipend to avoid confusion. Note that as a graduate student funded through stipends, you may not qualify for certain NMSU awards, such as the Mike Watts Outstanding Leadership Fellowship.

Student Health

Securing health insurance is a crucial step to ensure that you have access to necessary medical care when needed. You have the option to purchase student health insurance through the university or from the health exchange, depending on your preferences and needs. The Health and Wellness Center located on campus offers an array of affordable health services, including access to a pharmacy. Whether you need routine check-ups, vaccinations, or medical advice, the center provides a convenient and cost-effective option for your healthcare needs. The Health and Wellness Center also offers counseling services, which are provided free of charge to students. These services can be instrumental in managing stress, anxiety, and other mental health challenges that may arise during your time in academia. Seeking support when needed is a proactive step towards maintaining a healthy and balanced life as a student.

Direct Deposit

The office administrators strongly recommend that all students sign up for this. It allows any credit balances on your student account to be transferred to the account you have provided, avoiding the hassle of going to Accounts Receivable. Getting direct deposit involves two parts: fill out the Direct Deposit Authorization form and then sign up by filling out your bank information at myNMSU > “Student Accounts” > “Direct Deposit Enrollment”. Each time you get paid, you will get an email with a PDF attachment of your “check”. This file is password protected: use (up to) the first four letters of your last name and the last four digits of your Social Security Number.


Unfortunately, we have to pay tuition as graduate students here at NMSU. To address tuition expenses, you have the option to set up a payment plan that allows you to spread the cost over time. For detailed information on tuition rates, payment plans, and important deadlines, consult the Tuition and Fees webpage. If left unpaid, you will receive several email reminders to pay your tuition promptly.

When making tuition payments online, prioritize security. Use NMSU's web payment system, which offers a secure (https) connection. Avoid paying through myNMSU, as it passes information through an unsecured (http) website. Your financial information's security is paramount, and using the secure web payment
system ensures that your transactions are protected.

After your first year, you may qualify for in-state tuition rates, which can significantly reduce your tuition expenses. To establish New Mexico residency for tuition purposes, it's advisable to file the necessary paperwork during the summer to avoid long lines at the Registrar's Office. This process is essential for ensuring that you benefit from the more affordable in-state tuition rates, which can be a substantial financial advantage.

End of the Year Meeting with Faculty (TPV)

You've likely heard about the year-end meeting with faculty, commonly referred to by students as TPV. These meetings serve a pivotal role in fostering open communication, stimulating dialogue on program improvement, and aligning expectations between students and faculty. They are designed to provide a casual and collaborative forum for exchange.

This meeting format involves separate group sessions between the faculty and first-year, second-year, and third-year students (fourth-years and above all meet as one group). These sessions are typically scheduled for approximately an hour each. Prior to these meetings, each class is encouraged to convene internally to brainstorm general comments, suggestions, and questions they would like to raise during the TPV. The TPV typically commences with the students' points, ensuring that their perspectives are acknowledged and addressed. Subsequently, the conversation broadens to encompass expectations and plans for the following academic year.

It's essential to recognize that while TPVs are an invaluable avenue for discussion and program enhancement, they may not be suitable for addressing interpersonal issues among students. In such cases, individual students are always welcome to request a separate meeting with faculty to address their specific concerns or grievances. These annual meetings represent a unique opportunity for students and faculty to collaborate, align their goals, and contribute to the continual improvement of the academic program. Open and respectful communication during these sessions fosters a sense of community and shared responsibility within the department.

End of the Year Meeting with Your Committee

The primary advisor will draft a brief summary of how things are going. Students should take the initiative to set these meetings up and encourage the advisor to draft up and submit the notes immediately following the meeting.

Fourth-years and above are required to meet with their committees at the end of the year (third-years are encouraged to follow this, but don’t have to). The goal is to ensure that students are communicating with their advisors and are on track to graduate. There are currently two required events and one highly recommended event:

  • Required: One meeting per year with just you and your advisor

  • Required: One meeting per year with you, your advisor, and your committee members

  • Highly Recommended: A research talk to update everyone on your research, probably in the form of a Pizza Lunch

The focus of the meetings is your current progress and future directions; the details of your project should be saved for research talks. Ideally, the committee meeting should occur soon after the talk so everyone knows what you are doing and can focus on the broader issues. At each of these meetings, the Meeting Checklist should be completed, first by you, and then reviewed during the meeting. If you want feedback on your presentation abilities (and you do), you can have your committee fill out the Presentation Form.

Keep in mind that this is all intended to be for your benefit. If the Meeting Checklist isn’t helpful, you should stop doing it. At a minimum, you need to meet with your advisor and your committee annually.

Changes During the Summer

The summer season brings about a few changes that as a graduate student you need to be aware of, particularly regarding financial obligations and access to campus facilities:

  • Tax Exemption Eligibility: To qualify for the student FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act) and Medicare tax exemption, it's important to maintain full-time status, which for graduate students typically translates to enrollment in at least 9 credit hours. This requirement remains in effect during the summer months. It's essential to be mindful of this condition if you plan to maintain your tax-exempt status during this period.

  • Taxation During the Summer: If you choose not to enroll in summer classes (which is common among graduate students), there are some additional financial considerations that differ from the academic year. From June 30th to August 31st, you will be required to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes at a rate of 4.2% and 1.45%, respectively. These taxes are applicable during this period and should be factored into your summer financial planning.

  •  Healthcare Costs: Visiting the Campus Health Center during the summer may entail some out-of-pocket expenses. A co-payment of approximately $35 is typically required for an office visit, and any pharmacy pickups must be paid for upfront, as the option to charge them to your student account may not be available during this time.

  •  Access to Athletic Facilities: If you wish to utilize the university's athletic facilities, including the gym, swimming pools, classes, and fitness programs during the summer, you will need to purchase an AggieFit membership. The cost for this membership is approximately $40, enabling you to maintain your fitness routine and access these amenities during the summer months.

International Travel

NMSU requires all students to fill out a form 30 days prior to their departure. No travel is allowed to countries subject to Travel Warnings issued by the US State Department. Give your form to Lorenza or Ofelia and they will submit it to the Dean of International and Border Programs. Puerto Rico is considered a foreign destination (go figure).

This form mentions international health insurance. Even if you already have health insurance you must purchase the full blanket student accident and sickness insurance to travel to another country. It costs $45/month for students under 50 and $18/month for students over 50. Our department head has graciously allowed department funds to pay for this extra health insurance. When you give your form to the office staff, they’ll make sure the correct billing number is on it.

If you’re traveling to a conference, you can get funding via the AAS International Travel Grant. Application deadlines are in June and January of each year. Before you leave (actually, as soon as you know your travel dates), call your credit card (or debit card) company to let them know when and where you’ll be traveling. This way your card won’t be declined when they see a non-US charge. Even if you don’t intend to use your card abroad, this is a good backup just in case you end up needing it.

Make sure your electronics will work wherever you go. In terms of electrons coming from the wall, most items that have a big blocky transformer (computers, cell phone chargers, etc.) will be able to convert from 120V/60Hz to 240V/50Hz, however, the outlet shape will vary by country. Make sure you have the correct plug adaptor to make your North American 2 or 3-prong plug fit wherever you go.

Getting Your Degree

After earning your degree, you have to make sure NMSU actually gives it to you. The following sections expand on that. For more information, check the NMSU Graduate School page. There is also the Graduate Degree Form Guide which sums up the needed paperwork for Astronomy grad students.

Setting up your committee

Your committee must include a “Dean’s representative”, a non-astronomy NMSU professor. This person ensures the process is fair and is usually someone from whom you’ve taken an out-of-department class. Non-NMSU committee members must be made honorary department members in the eyes of the university. This is something your advisor handles but be warned that the process takes time. Advise your advisor to start early.

Comprehensive exam (orals)

After you pass your Cumes and before your thesis proposal, you will take your comprehensive exam, which is an oral examination based on all your class work. The orals binder is located in the upstairs library. Check the Help with Cumes and Classwork Orals section above for details. 

Thesis proposal

The pinnacle of your journey toward becoming an official PhD candidate is the thesis proposal. This crucial step entails both written documentation and an oral presentation, where you'll eloquently describe your proposed thesis research. Following this presentation, you'll face an intense and enlightening session of questioning from your committee behind closed doors. The forms are available on the school's Graduate Forms page.

  • Doctorate of Philosophy Examination FormThis form should be submitted no later than 10 days before your examination. It's prudent to complete and submit it as soon as you've determined the date for your classwork orals. After gathering the necessary signatures, deliver the form to Graduate Student Services in the PSL building.

  • Doctoral Program of Study formThis form serves as a comprehensive record of all the courses you've completed and will take to fulfill your degree requirements, including Pre-Dissertation Research (ASTR 600) and Doctoral Dissertation (ASTR 700) credits. Your completed form needs to be submitted to your committee at least one week before your scheduled talk.

Your completed paper needs to be submitted to your committee at least one week before your scheduled talk.

Masters degree

Earning your Master's degree is a significant achievement. You earn your Masters when you pass your thesis proposal, regardless of when the university gets around to sending you the official diploma. To get the university to give you your degree, you need two forms. 

  • Masters Program of Study formThis form should enumerate the classes you've taken, including Masters Thesis Credit (ASTR 599) and all other relevant coursework. Note that it should not include Pre-Dissertation Research (ASTR 600) or Doctoral Dissertation (ASTR 700) credits. Obtain the signature of the Arts and Science Dean in Breland Hall and then proceed to submit this form along with the next one.

  • Examination Fee formAfter securing the required signatures on the previous form, have Graduate Student Services in the EDS building sign both forms. Subsequently, bring the forms to the Cashier's office in the EDS building.

Applying for your Masters degree will confuse the university, especially when you register for doctoral research credit the following semester. Keep copies of the final forms in case of a bureaucratic mishap, as they can place a hold on your account. To resolve issues, visit Grad Student Services in the Educational Services Building and clarify your intention to continue towards your PhD. Occasionally, the graduate school may encounter difficulties recognizing your status as a dissertation student, especially after you've earned your Master's degree. In such cases, our front office administrators will assist as they are well-versed in navigating these administrative complexities.

Doctorate degree

Earning your doctorate degree will be the monumental achievement of your academic journey, so it's important to be aware that the process of submitting your thesis can be a meticulous endeavor. Here's a comprehensive guide to help you navigate this final phase of your doctoral journey:

  1. Thesis Document: To start, you'll need to prepare your thesis document. Fortunately, one of our esteemed alumni, Jeff Coughlin, has generously provided an exceptional LaTeX template that adheres to NMSU's formatting guidelines, which you can download here. This template ensures that your thesis meets the university's requirements.

  2. Committee Form: As of spring 2019, NMSU transitioned from a "graduate school approval" form to a "committee" form for thesis submission. You can download a template for this form created by Lauren Kahre on the department's resources page. 

  3. Revisions and Defense: Following your successful thesis defense, it's prudent to allocate approximately three weeks for revisions as requested by your committee. This allows you to address any feedback and ensure that your thesis meets the highest standards.

  4. Submission Process: NMSU provides a range of checklists and guides to help you navigate the process of submitting your thesis for printing and obtaining your degree. Familiarize yourself with these resources to ensure a smooth submission.

  5. Forms Submission: Always provide our office administrators with copies of any forms you submit, from your defense documentation to your revised dissertation. This practice serves as a safeguard in case forms go missing during the administrative process. Our office staff can efficiently fax over copies if needed, saving you a trip across campus.

  6. Formatting Check: You'll need to officially submit your thesis to the graduate school, typically located in the Physical Sciences Laboratory building. They will meticulously review your document for formatting issues, including margins, figure/table captions, and more. It's important to double-check your margins before submitting to avoid unnecessary revisions (use that ruler!)

  7. Minor Changes: Minor changes you make during the resubmission process (beyond committee-requested changes) are unlikely to draw significant attention. However, it's essential to aim for a polished document without substantial alterations.

  8. Checklist and Binding Fees: When you submit your thesis to the graduate school, you'll also provide a checklist. While the checklist may mention paying binding fees before submission, this requirement is often overlooked. You are typically required to print four copies for binding, with designated destinations for each:

    • Two copies for NMSU libraries (Branson and Zuhl)
    • Two copies for the Astronomy Department (advisor and library)

Thesis Tips and Tricks

Be mindful of the number of figures you incorporate from other papers. Copyright law typically allows you to include only one figure from each external source. If you intend to use multiple figures from the same source, it's essential to obtain written permission, as outlined in NMSU's thesis guidelines.

Watch your writing style. To maintain a professional writing style, pay attention to common writing mistakes:

  • Avoid Passive VoiceInstead of writing, "The model calculated," opt for a more engaging and proactive approach like, "We modeled."

  • Verb TenseWrite in past tense, as your research work is already completed. The exception is the "Future Work" section, where future tense is appropriate.

  • Eliminate "How" Phrasing:Strive for clarity by avoiding sentences like, "We show an example of how we varied x in Figure 5." Instead, convey your message directly, such as, "We vary x by a prescribed amount, as shown in Figure 5."

Format when you start writing, not after you are done. Familiarize yourself with formatting guidelines early on to avoid extensive reformatting later. LaTeX, a powerful typesetting language, is a valuable tool for maintaining consistent formatting throughout your thesis. Additionally, learning to use BibTeX can streamline your reference management.

Check out the LaTeX tips and workarounds we’ve collected from grads throughout the years. If you get stuck on the technical stuff, consult our skills database to find someone who can help.

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