NMSU Student Life

What you need to know!

The First Year

Welcome to the department! We think you made a good choice! The beginning of grad school involves a flood of information, so this page serves as a reference for the details you may have forgotten.

Throughout your years at NMSU you’ll need to visit various buildings (Educational Services, Corbett, Physical Sciences, etc.), so we suggest using maps.nmsu.edu to navigate. For finding contact information use NMSU’s online phonebook.

AGSO officers

Officers are assigned to perform various tasks to help out around the department. In your second year you will be elected to one of the officer positions via the democratic process of an AGSO meeting.

Colloquium & pizza lunch

Why attend these talks? It’s important to learn about all areas in the field of Astronomy, and this is an opportunity to hear firsthand how the things you learn in grad school are applied in the field. While it may to tempting to skip these talks during particularly busy weeks, the speakers took the time to travel here and speak to us, so they deserve an hour and your respect, especially considering you will likely be giving similar talks in the future. (Also, the faculty do notice who attends and who doesn’t, so keep that in mind as well).

Help with Cumes and Classwork Orals

To help with studying for cumes and orals, 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 website is only accessible through computers connected to the internet within the astronomy department, but you can ssh into the astro cluster (username@astronomy.nmsu.edu) and navigate to /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. The amount of detail (and humor) included varies wildly from one student to the next, but the important thing is to provide your questions once you’re finished. 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 is 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 part of the department means that you have a lot of computer-related resources available! Check the computing page for more information on servers, programs, copiers, printers, email, and webpages.


As an NMSU student you have access to the many talks and learning series from the Teaching Academy, which are useful for improving your writing, speaking, teaching, and research skills.

Department purchases

When using the department credit card (Pcard), you must provide a receipt for Lydia to upload. NMSU is a tax-exempt institution so you don’t have to pay tax on goods, only on services. To honor the tax exemption on purchases please feel free to direct vendors to our tax exempt notice and tax exempt certificate. If you have any questions or run into issues, please feel free to contact Lydia for assistance. There are some limits on credit card use: $2,500 limit per transaction and $10,000 per billing cycle. Also, there’s a limit of $999.99 per item; if you want something that costs more individually, you’ll have to get a purchase order. The Pcard can only be used for registration, not for airfare, hotel, or any other travel expense. Be aware, grants and contracts sometimes have other restrictions, be sure you check with Lorenza before you make a purchase.

When taking prospective students and colloquium speakers out to a meal, keep these rates in mind. The university will not reimburse for amounts exceeding the maximum established rates. Reimbursement for meals with Colloquium speakers will be limited to four department personnel (faculty, students, others) plus the speaker.

Breakfast $10.50
Lunch $16.00
Dinner $26.00
Image of Car Key board



If you take the NMSU defensive driving course, whose $40 fee will be reimbursed by the department, you can drive the two department cars or rent a vehicle from the university motor pool. The vehicle 

can be used for more distant public events, going to APO, or even driving to Austin for AAS in a 15-person van. Keys for the department vehicles are inside the server room (Ay 116A) just next to the door. If you want to use either car, first check the calendar to ensure no one else reserved it for the time you want it; if you’re in the clear, write on the calendar when you’ll have the car. Replace the keys with your name tag (if you don’t have a name tag, ask the office staff for one). Before you go see the office staff so they can instruct you on how to use the gas card. To keep track of useage and billing, there is a clipboard in the driver’s side door. Before your trip write down your name, the date, the starting mileage, and the account which will pay for your use of the car (usually ‘dept’ for astro stuff, but sometimes the Teaching Academy or something else); after your trip indicate the ending mileage.

You already know about the cume system, but you should also know that Ofelia keeps all of your old cumes. It’s a good idea to see them to check your score (beyond pass/fail) and correct your mistakes. Ofelia also keeps all of your TA evaluations, except for online evals, which the department head keeps.

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 Lorenza or Ofelia.


The Hiring Process

Each year the university “re-hires” you as a grad student. Some years, this has led to a delay in getting a paycheck. Ofelia and Lorenza laid out how the process works and what we can do to avoid delays. The main problem is that every department is trying to hire their students, and this slows down the admin staff. Here are some suggestions for how we can help our amazing office staff with this process:

We can help by registering for classes as soon as possible. We must be registered before we can be hired, so any delay might lead to a delay in your first few paychecks. Also, we should give Ofelia information about any kind of tuition awards we’ve earned, such as HED, NM Space Grant, or anything else which would affect our pay. There are separate processes and additional irritations for the office staff to go through for these things. A HED student is hired for 10 hours versus 20 like everyone else. The sources of funding vary from student to student and without this information, Ofelia and Lorenza cannot start the hiring process. Additionally, if awards are late in coming from the sponsors (i.e., giving the money to the university), the students won’t get their stipend or tuition award.

You may run into hiring issues if you have your own funding. Most of these should be sorted out (NSF, NESSF) but let Lorenza know right away when you receive a fellowship award so that she can begin the correct award acceptance and hiring process for you. If you are not hired you will be paid monthly and need to estimate your taxes and pay annually because taxes will not be withdrawn from your paychecks. You should receive at 1098-T from Accounts Receivable (6-4911). If you were paid a stipend during the Summer, Accounts Payable (6-1189) should be sending you a 1099. If there are any problems with these forms, when you call either office be sure to tell them that you are paid via stipend so they don’t get confused. Since you’re not a Graduate Assistant (more like a self-paid free agent of research), you won’t qualify for certain NMSU awards (such as the Mike Watts Outstanding Leadership Fellowship).

Student Health

Purchase your student health insurance on or off the health exchange. The Health and Wellness Center on campus is relatively cheap (including the pharmacy), and they also provide counseling services that are free for students.

Direct Deposit

Lorenza recommends 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 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 here. You can set up a payment plan to pay off your tuition. Check the Tuition and Fees webpage for more information. You will receive many emails reminding you to pay your tuition on time. It’s incredibly irritating. If you want to pay off your balance online, use NMSU’s web payment system instead of paying through myNMSU. The former is a secure website (https) and the latter passes the info through an unsecured website (http).

To qualify for in-state tuition after your first year, you need to file for New Mexico residency. We recommend you do this during the summer to avoid long lines at the Registrar’s Office.

End of the Year Meeting with Faculty (TPV)

You have probably heard about the meeting with the faculty at the end of the year (referred to sometimes by students as TPV). The goal is to ensure open communication, to discuss ideas and possibilities for improving the program, and to discuss expectations for students and faculty. They are meant to be a low-key forum for communication between faculty and students.

Instead of having individual meetings with students, there will be separate group meetings with each of the first year, second year, and third year students and as many of the faculty present as possible. These meetings will last about 30 minutes. Each class should meet in advance to come up with general comments, suggestions, and questions. The TPV will begin with the students’ points and then proceed to a discussion including expectations for the following year.

Obviously, if there are inter-student issues, this group format may not be a good place to bring them up. As a result, any individual student is welcome to request (via Jon) a meeting with the faculty, or an individual meeting with Jon.


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 to Jon 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 advisor 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, 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, 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

To be eligible for the student FICA and Medicare tax exemption, we must have full-time status (9 credit hours for grad students), and this is still true during the summer. If you don’t enroll in summer classes (grad students rarely do), there are some extra costs that don’t apply during the academic year. We have to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes to the tune of 4.2% and 1.45%, respectively, from June 30th to August 31st. If you visit the Campus Health Center, there is a co-pay of ~$35 for an office visit, and you have to pay for any pharmacy pickups before leaving, rather than having the option of putting it on your student account. To use the athletic facilities (gym, swimming pools, classes and fitness programs), you’ll have to purchase an AggieFit membership ($40).

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 into wherever you go.

Want to talk to home but won’t have a strong enough internet connection for Skype? If you have an iPhone or similar device, there is a free app called talkatone. As long as you have access to a wifi network, this app allows people in the US to call you for free. The connection is clearer than a normal phone call and you don’t even use up minutes on your phone plan. Want to watch/listen Netflix or Pandora? For one week you can use UnblockUs for free; after that you’ll need to find another way to get your fix.

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 adviser handles but be warned that the process takes time. Advise your adviser 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 classwork. The orals binder is located in the upstairs library.

Thesis proposal

The final step in becoming an official PhD candidate is your thesis proposal. This involves writing a paper and giving an oral presentation describing your proposed thesis research (followed by grilling behind closed doors with your committee). There are two forms you need to fill out, and we suggest you keep a copy of the forms after they’ve been signed, just in case the university loses them.

  • Doctorate of Philosophy Examination form: this is due no less than 10 days before your exam, so take care of it as soon as you pick a date for your classwork orals. Gather your signatures and turn it over to Graduate Student Services (PSL building).
  • Doctoral Program of Study form: this lists all the classes you’ve taken and all future courses you’ll take to complete your degree, including Pre-Dissertation Research (ASTR 600) and Doctoral Dissertation (ASTR 700) credit.

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

Masters degree

You earn your Masters when you pass your thesis proposal, regardless of when the university gets around to sending you the piece of paper. To get the university to give you your degree, you need two forms. Again, keep copies of the final forms in case of a bureaucratic mishap.

  • Masters Program of Study form: the classes listed should include Masters Thesis Credit (ASTR 599) and all other coursework but not Pre-Dissertation Research (ASTR 600) or Doctoral Dissertation (ASTR 700) credit. Have the Arts and Science Dean (Breland Hall) sign this and bring this and the next form to the Grad Student Services (EDS building).
  • Examination Fee form: have Graduate Student Services (EDS buliding) sign this and the previous form, then bring this form to the Cashier (EDS building).

Applying for your masters degree will confuse the university, especially when you register for doctoral research credit the following semester. They can place a hold on your account. To clear it, go to Grad Student Services (Educational Services Building) and tell them you’re continuing on to your PhD. Invariably, the grad school will have problems recognizing your status as a dissertation student, especially after earning your Master’s degree. Let Ofelia deal with the grad school, she knows how to bend them to her will.

Doctorate degree

For the thesis document itself, one of our alumni, Jeff Coughlin, provided an amazing LaTeX template (tar ball) which is compliant with NMSU’s guidelines. As of spring 2019, NMSU changed the “graduate school approval” form to a “committee” form; Lauren Kahre made a template for that form that can be found here. After you successfully defend your thesis you should leave 3 weeks for revisions from your committee. NMSU offers a series of checklists and guides to process submitting your thesis for printing and getting your degree. The URLs mentioned in the text might not be correct, but a bit of searching should get you what you need.

You should give a copy to Ofelia of any forms you turn in (from defense to submitting your revised dissertation. This way, when Grad Student Services called saying they don’t have a form (meaning they lost it), Ofelia can fax it over and save you a hike across campus. Before your actual defense, you should call Grad Student Services to double check that they have all of the forms (in case of a last-minute loss of form, which is entirely possible).

You officially turn in your thesis to the graduate school (Physical Sciences Laboratory building) so they can check it for formatting issues: margins, proper figure/table captions, etc. If your margins aren’t correct, they’ll give it back to you and tell you to fix it, after which you’ll have to resubmit it. Save yourself time and double-check your margins (break out that ruler!) after you print and before you turn it in to them. Watch Milen Bartnic’s video. Submit your dissertation to him a day early, and he’ll have it reviewed within an hour. Submit your dissertation to Milen at the Grad School office (Corbett Rm. 230), not the Graduate Student Services. If you’re curious as to which office deals with what in the grad school, check out their website.

Note: For a given set of margins, the actual location of the text on your printed page will change whenever the printer gets retonered. Luckily, the margins don’t seem to change when you refill the paper tray.

If you need to make a few minor changes when you resubmit (aside from changes they request), they probably won’t notice. However, you shouldn’t have any significant changes to make. Remember, when you submit your thesis to the graduate school, you also give them a checklist. Some of the items on the checklist refer to having made all the changes requested by your committee. It seems that there isn’t much else aside from margin size that the Grad School looks for, so some rules in the PDF you might be able to ignore. For example, the PDF demanded that the short descriptions used in the Table of Figures be identical to the first “sentences” in the figure captions; however you can get away with not doing this all the time.

Also, according to the checklist you need to have paid your binding fees before turning in your manuscript. This is ridiculous and you can safely ignore it. You are required to print four copies for binding. Their destinations:

  1. Two copies for NMSU libraries (Branson and Zuhl)
  2. Two copies for Astronomy Department (advisor and library)

Thesis Tips and Tricks

Watch how many figures you use from other papers. Per copyright law you may only have 1 figure from each source. If you want multiple figures from a single source, you must obtain written permission as in the NMSU thesis guidelines.

Watch your writing style. For a professional appearance keep an eye out for these common mistakes in writing style:

  • Avoid passive voice: “The model calculated…”, “It calculated…” should be “We modeled as…”
  • Watch your verb tense: write in past tense because the work is already done (except for future work section)
  • Avoid writing with “how”: The sentence “We show an example of how we varied x in Figure 5” is not as good as “We vary x by a prescribed amount, as shown in Figure 5”.

Format when you start writing, not after you are done. It’s easier to read through the formatting guidelines at the start of your writing and do things right the first time, rather than going through and re-formatting to appease the Graduate School. On that note… LaTeX is amazing. You will be using the powerful, straightforward/backwards, frustrating typesetting language to write your thesis. You should also learn to use BibTeX. 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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