The following contains a great deal of information on studying astronomy at the University of Virginia. To skip directly to a particular section, follow the links below.
Astronomy in Charlottesville
The University of Virginia (UVa) is the center of a large, active, and diverse astronomical community. The University’s Department of Astronomy currently has 18 faculty and 40 graduate students, post docs and research scientists. The grounds of the University are also home to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array Project (ALMA) which together employ roughly 35 research astronomers and a further 20 instrument scientists. Both the University Department and NRAO pursue research in a wide range of subjects, including observational, theoretical and instrumentation groups. The University has direct access to a number of optical telescopes, both local and worldwide, while NRAO runs facilities in West Virginia, New Mexico, and Chile.
Professional astronomy in Charlottesville had its start with Thomas Jefferson, who directed that an observatory should be built on Observatory Mountain (now named Mount Jefferson), and that Astronomy be in the course of study of the newly formed University. In 1877, the gift by Leander McCormick of a twenty-six inch Alvan Clark refractor led to the establishment of a School of Astronomy and the Leander McCormick Observatory was dedicated in 1885. The refractor was, for a short time, the largest telescope in the country. Photographic observations were begun in 1914 for the purpose of measuring stellar positions and motions and continued until the mid-1990’s. Over 155,000 plates have been accumulated, and more ground-based distances were determined at McCormick Observatory than at any other observatory on earth during the 20th century. UVa’s historical interest in astrometry continues in more modern guise, through programs targeting nearby brown dwarf stars and stars with possible planets.
The early 1960’s marked the start of a time of rapid growth for the Department of Astronomy. Because of increased light pollution at McCormick Observatory, a new observatory was founded on Fan Mountain about 15 miles south of town. While the astrometry program was maintained, the primary research effort of the Department evolved toward astrophysics. The Department grew as new faculty were hired to complement the scientific staff of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), whose headquarters have been located on the grounds of the University of Virginia since 1965.
In 1985 the Virginia Institute for Theoretical Astronomy began operation. VITA is an astronomical research institute within the University, specializing in interdisciplinary astrophysical problems. VITA has a small permanent scientific staff and a number of long term (months - 2 year) visiting scientists and post docs. In recent years, research by both VITA and Department of Astronomy members has been recognized by a number of national awards and honors.
In 1998 the Department of Astronomy moved to pleasant and more spacious quarters only a short walking distance from both NRAO and the McCormick Observatory. The new building features larger and more offices (for both students and faculty), as well as more extensive shop space, lab facilities, and common areas.
The 2000’s saw a period of vigorous growth in the Department of Astronomy. Through a generous gift from The Celerity Foundation founded by UVa Astronomy Ph.D. Frank Levinson and his wife Wynette, the Department has expanded in the area of astronomical instrumentation through the addition of new faculty, staff and the Virginia Astronomical Instrumentation Laboratory facilities. These efforts support Virginia’s role as a member of Steward Observatory, the Astrophysical Research Consortium (ARC), and the the Large Binocular Telescope consortium, which has built a dual 8.4-meter telescope on Mt. Graham in Arizona, and our future entry into one of various other frontier-class telescope projects currently under review. Membership in Steward Observatory gives the University of Virginia access to a number of world class facilities, including the twin Magellan 6.5-m telescopes in Chile and the MMT 6.5-m in Arizona, while membership in ARC gives us access to the 3.5-m APO telescope in New Mexico (see Research Facilities below). UVa Astronomy is a member of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) III program, and is leading one of the four primary programs, called APOGEE (APO Galactic Evolution Experiment). The 300 fiber high-resolution near-infrared spectrograph was built in our Instrument Lab and is now taking data at the Apache Point Observatory. Upon project completion in 2014, radial velocities and chemical abundances will have been measured for 100,000 stars spread throughout the Galaxy. The scientific aim is to reconstruct the dynamical and chemical evolution of the Galaxy.
The Astronomy Department has faculty actively researching in several areas:
GALACTIC ASTRONOMY AND STELLAR POPULATIONS:
Majewski, O’Connell, Patterson, Skrutskie
Evans, K. Johnson, Majewski, O’Connell, Patterson, Sarazin, Saslaw, Thuan, Whittle
STARS AND STELLAR EVOLUTION:
Chevalier, Li, Majewski, Nelson, Skrutskie
Chevalier, Indebetouw, K. Johnson, R. Johnson, Li, Murphy, Sarazin
THEORETICAL AND HIGH ENERGY ASTROPHYSICS:
Arras, Chevalier, Davis, Hawley, Li, Sarazin, Saslaw
Evans, Indebetouw, K. Johnson, Li, Skrutskie, Whittle
Majewski, Patterson, Seidelmann
Indebetouw, K. Johnson, Skrutskie, Wilson
Indebetouw, K. Johnson, Murphy, Thuan
Majewski, O’Connell, Patterson, Sarazin, Seidelmann, Whittle
Indebetouw, Majewski, Skrutskie, Wilson
R. Johnson, Li, Seidelmann, Verbiscer
The faculty and staff members and their specific research areas are listed below. More detailed information can be found on their home pages, available by following the links on their names.
- Michael F. Skrutskie, Prof., Ph.D. Cornell:
- Infrared instrumentation, sky surveys (2MASS), Galactic structure and stellar populations, low mass stars and brown dwarfs.
- Philip L. Arras, VITA Assoc. Prof., Ph.D. Cornell:
- Exoplanets, compact objects
- Roger A. Chevalier, Vanderbilt Prof., Ph.D. Princeton:
- Supernovae, gas dynamics, gamma-ray bursts
- Shane W. Davis, VITA Asst. Prof., Ph.D. UCSB:
- Computational astrophysics, accretion disks
- Aaron Evans, Assoc. Prof., Ph. D. Hawaii:
- Starburst galaxies, active galactic nuclei
- Laurence W. Fredrick, Prof. Emeritus, Ph.D. Pennsylvania:
- Astrometry, space astronomy, instrumentation
- Robin Garrod, Asst. Prof (Chemistry and Astronomy), Ph.D., University College London:
- Astrochemistry, molecular astrobiology.
- John F. Hawley, Associate Dean and VITA Prof., Ph.D. Illinois:
- Computational astrophysics, accretion disks
- Philip A. Ianna, Prof. Emeritus, Ph.D. Ohio State:
- Parallaxes, white dwarfs, Ba stars, low luminosity stars
- Rémy Indebetouw, Asst. Prof., Ph.D. Colorado:
- Star Formation, the ISM
- Kelsey E. Johnson, Assoc. Prof., Ph.D. Colorado:
- Star formation at high redshift
- Robert E. Johnson, Newcomb Prof. Eng. Phys. (resident), Ph.D. Wisconsin:
- Dust grains, sputtering processes, planetary rings and magnetospheres
- Zhi-Yun Li, Prof., Ph.D. Colorado:
- Star formation, exoplanets, gamma-ray bursts
- Steven R. Majewski, Prof., Ph.D. Chicago:
- Galactic structure and evolution, quasars, deep surveys, astrometry, instrumentation
- Edward M. Murphy, Assoc. Prof., Ph.D. Virginia:
- Galactic structure, interstellar medium, high velocity clouds, UV and radio astronomy
- Matthew J. Nelson, Instrument Sci., Ph.D. Arizona:
- Instrumentation, pulsars, white dwarfs
- Robert W. O’Connell, Hamilton Prof., Ph.D. Caltech:
- Extragalactic astronomy, space astronomy
- Richard J. Patterson, Sen. Sci., Ph.D. Virginia:
- Galactic structure, astrometry, dwarf galaxies
- Craig L. Sarazin, Vanderbilt Prof., Ph.D. Princeton:
- Interstellar medium, X-ray astronomy, clusters of galaxies
- William C. Saslaw, Prof., Ph.D. Cambridge:
- Cosmology, radio galaxies, stellar dynamics
- P. Kenneth Seidelmann, Res. Prof., Ph.D. Cincinnati:
- Astrometry, solar system astronomy, celestial mechanics
- Trinh X. Thuan, Prof., Ph.D. Princeton:
- Extragalactic astronomy, evolution of galaxies, observational cosmology
- Charles R. Tolbert, Prof. Emeritus, Ph.D. Vanderbilt:
- Galactic structure, photometry, 21-cm radio astronomy
- Anne Verbiscer, Res. Assoc. Prof., Ph.D. Cornell:
- Photometric properties of planetary ices
- Mark Whittle, Prof., Ph.D. Cambridge:
- Active galaxies, star formation in galaxies, cosmology
- John Wilson, Sen. Sci., Ph.D. Cornell:
- Infrared instrumentation, brown dwarfs
In addition to the staff members of our department, there are many other scientists in Charlottesville active in astronomically-oriented research. Besides contributing to the level and diversity of astronomical research here, they are readily available to students for consultation and thesis advising.
The following NRAO scientists hold visiting professorships in the Astronomy Department:
- Timothy S. Bastian, Ph.D. Colorado:
- Solar radio astronomy
- Jim Braatz,
- Richard F. Bradley, Ph.D. Virginia:
- Microwave instrumentation, semiconductors
- Alan H. Bridle, Ph.D. Cambridge:
- Extragalactic radio sources
- Crystal Brogan,
- Butler Burton,
- Chris Carilli,
- Jim Condon, Ph.D. Cornell:
- Radio galaxies, quasars
- Bill Cotton, Ph.D. Texas:
- Radio galaxies, extragalactic radio astronomy
- Bob Dickman,
- J. Richard Fisher, Ph.D. Maryland:
- Radio astronomy, radio instrumentation, galaxies
- Edward B. Fomalont (email), Ph.D. Caltech:
- Radio astronomy
- John E. Hibbard, Ph.D. Columbia:
- Extragalactic astronomy, galaxy interactions
- David E. Hogg, Ph.D. Toronto:
- Strong radio sources
- Gareth Hunt,
- Radio astronomy
- Phil Jewell,
- Kenneth I. Kellermann (email), Ph.D. Caltech:
- Very long baseline interferometry
- Anthony R. Kerr, Ph.D. Melbourne:
- Microwave electronics
- Mark Lacy,
- Adam Leroy,
- Harvey S. Liszt, Ph.D. Princeton:
- Interstellar medium, molecules
- Fred K. Y. Lo (email), Ph.D. MIT:
- Instrumentation, galactic and extragalactic astronomy, cosmic microwave background, masers
- Carol Lonsdale,
- Jeff Mangum,
- Brian Mason,
- Patrick Murphy, Ph.D. Dublin IAS:
- Shing-Kuo Pan (email), Ph.D. Columbia:
- Receiver electronics
- Marian W. Pospieszalski (email), Ph.D. Warsaw:
- Microwave electronics
- Scott Ransom, Ph.D. Harvard:
- Anthony Remijan,
- Morton S. Roberts (email), Ph.D. U. C. Berkeley:
- Neutral hydrogen in galaxies
- Kartik Sheth,
- Paul A. Vanden Bout (email), Ph.D. U. C. Berkeley:
- Director; Interstellar medium, molecules
- H. Alwyn Wootten, Ph.D. Texas:
- Molecular clouds
- Qi-feng Yin, Ph.D. Beijing:
- Supernovae, starbursts
There are typically several postdoctoral fellows at NRAO as well as many visiting astronomers who stay for times ranging from a few days up to a year. Other Charlottesville-area astronomers and scientists with strong interests in astronomy include:
- Peter Arnold, Physics:
- Baryogenesis in the Early Universe
- Jeffrey Hesler, Electrical Engineering:
- Infrared detectors
- Alan Howard, Environmental Sciences:
- Planetary atmospheres
- Pham Q. Hung, Physics:
- Fundamental particle physics and cosmology
- Stephen Macko, Environmental Sciences:
- Amino acid content and isotopic abundances in meteorites
- William W. Roberts, Jr., Applied Mathematics, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering:
- Galactic dynamics
Students may do dissertation research under the joint supervision of a department member and a scientist from NRAO, VITA, or another UVa department.
The University is also close enough to the Space Telescope Science Institute, Goddard Space Flight Center, the Naval Research Laboratory and the Naval Observatory (all in the Washington-Baltimore area) to allow students to undertake collaborative projects with scientists at those institutions. Scientific contacts between University staff members and these organizations are good in all cases.
As part of the Department’s growth initiative, and in response to a large gift from The Celerity Foundation founded by UVa Astronomy Ph.D. Frank Levinson and his wife Wynette, UVa has joined the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) Consortium, which operates twin 8.4-m telescopes at Mt. Graham in Arizona (http://www.lbt.org). Working together, the twin mirrors of the LBT have the light gathering power of a single 11.8-m telescope, but because of its binocular arrangement has the resolving power corresponding to a 22.8-m telescope.
Coupled with our involvement with the LBT, UVa has become a member of Steward Observatory, which operates fully or partly the Magellan twin 6.5-m telescopes in Chile, and the MMT 6.5-m, Heinrich Hertz 10-m sub-millimeter, the Bok 2.3-m, the VATT 1.8-m, and the Kuiper 1.6-m telescopes in Arizona.
UVa is a partner in the Astrophysical Research Consortium (ARC), with access to the 3.5-m telescope at Apache Point in New Mexico. UVa leads the APOGEE project which uses a custom built fiber-fed spectrograph to measure accurate radial velocities and chemical abundances for 100,000 giant stars. The project uses the 2.5-m Sloan Telescope as part of the SDSS-III project.
Students can expect to make use of these facilities for Ph.D. projects.
At Fan Mountain, 25 km south of the University, the Department operates a 1.0-m Baker-Schmidt astrometric reflector and a 0.8-m Cassegrain reflector. In terms of transparency and sky darkness, Fan Mountain is one of the best observing sites available on the east coast.
The Department is also investigating several other options for large telescope collaborations.
NRAO is not only the center of American radio astronomy but a world leader in radio and millimeter instrumentation. NRAO operates the 22-mile wide Very Large Array telescope in New Mexico as well as the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope, the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. More recently, arrangements were made to have the development, assembly, test and operations center for the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA, an array of no less than fifty 12-meter antennas operating at an elevation of 16,400 feet on Llano de Chajnantor, Chile) located on the campus of the University of Virginia. ALMA is a collaboration between NRAO, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), and several other European partners. A new building dedicated to ALMA operations and science has been built on campus adjacent to NRAO. Various departments at UVa, including the Departments of Astronomy, Physics, Chemisty, and Electrical Engineering are planning, or are already participating in, technical and scientific aspects of ALMA, and will provide opportunities for students interested in millimeter astronomy and associated instrumentation development.
Instrumentation and Observatory Support Equipment
Available instrumentation for the Department’s telescopes includes several SITe and SBIG CCD cameras for direct or spectroscopic applications, photoelectric filter photometers, a medium dispersion spectrograph, a student spectrograph, a student speckle interferometer, a Shack-Hartmann analyzer, and a high speed CCD video imager. A fiber fed spectrograph for precision stellar radial velocity work was recently completed as part of Jeff Crane’s Ph.D. and is now used on the Fan Mtn. 1-m telescope. A state-of-the-art Near Infrared Camera has recently been designed and built by graduate students Chan Park and Srikrishna Kanneganti, and is in use on the Fan Mtn. 0.8-m telescope. The Department operates its own machine and electronics shops, which are being expanded to accommodate new instrumentation capabilities.
The Department has recently undertaken a major initiative to foster active programs in instrumentation development. The Virginia Astronomical Instrumentation Laboratory has facilities for the development of state-of-the-art radio and visible/near-infrared detection systems. The radio effort benefits strongly from our association with and proximity to NRAO. The Department’s recent involvement with the Large Binocular Telescope project, and thus with Arizona’s Steward Observatory and its facilities, provides a natural focus for the efforts underway in visible and near-infrared instrumentation. Examples of major instrument development includes Triplespec (a near-IR spectrograph for the APO 3.5-m), LMIRcam (a near-IR camera that takes advantage of the LBT’s highest angular resolution), and APOGEE (a 300 fiber-fed high-resolution spectrograph used on the SDSS-III 2.5-m telescope at APO).
Fan Mountain Observatory’s two research-grade telescopes provide a nearby testbed for locally developed instruments. They also provide unique research opportunities because they are continuously available and can be instrumented with systems (e.g. infrared cameras and spectrographs) not normally found on modest-sized telescopes. The instrumentation laboratories have also been integrated into the graduate teaching program via hands-on courses in instrument/optical design and fabrication.
Library and Plate File
The astronomy research library consists of approximately 20,000 books, journals, and catalogs. The plate collection includes more than 155,000 parallax and proper motion plates and 4600 low dispersion objective prism plates. Extensive science, mathematics, and engineering libraries are, of course, also available at the University. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory has its own self-contained library specializing in radio astronomy and electrical engineering, which is available to University faculty and students.
The University Academic Computing Center operates several multi-node Linux clusters. However, most Department computing is done on local network of Linux Workstations networked with multi-processor servers and supported by terrabyte data storage, tape and DVD/CD drives, and other auxiliary equipment. In addition, for medium-sized parallel computing jobs, the Department operates its own 300-node Beowulf-type cluster. Finally, there are a number of PCs and Macintosh computers for image processing, poster preparation, etc. There is full support for interactive graphics and astronomical image processing using IDL, IRAF, AIPS and STSDAS, and large format color printing. By most standards, the Department’s computing resources are considerable. It is typical for each graduate student to have a Linux workstation on their desk. All University computing facilities are linked to an Ethernet network, which provides immediate, around-the-clock access from on-campus terminals, external TCP/IP sites, or modems. Faculty and students make regular use of Cray or Connection Machine class supercomputers at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (University of Illinois), the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, and the NASA Center for Computational Science at Goddard Space Flight Center.
The Department offers a broad program emphasizing theoretical and observational astrophysics, instrumentation, and radio astronomy. Special seminars, often involving outside astronomers, are organized to discuss specific topics of current interest. Courses in physics and mathematics are also encouraged to complement a student’s studies. Most students take three lecture courses per semester during the first two years.
The primary courses of the Astronomy core curriculum are the following:
- ASTR 5010: Astrophysical Processes
- ASTR 5110: Observational Techniques
- ASTR 5340: Radio Astronomy
- ASTR 5420: Interstellar Medium
- ASTR 5430: Stellar Astrophysics I: Nuclear Astrophysics, Stellar Interiors, Evolution
- ASTR 5440: Stellar Astrophysics II: Stellar Atmospheres
- ASTR 5450: High Energy Astrophysics
- ASTR 5610: Galactic Structure and Stellar Populations
- ASTR 5630: Extragalactic Astronomy I
- ASTR 5640: Extragalactic Astronomy II
- ASTR 8500: Current Topics (taken each semester)
A student’s course load will be filled out with courses selected primarily from the following:
- ASTR 5350: Radio Astronomy Instrumentation
- ASTR 5460: Binary Stars
- ASTR 5480: Evolution of the Universe
- APMA 5070: Numerical Methods
- PHYS 5210: Mechanics
- PHYS 5310: Optics
- PHYS 7420/30: Electricity and Magnetism I and II
- PHYS 7610/20: Quantum Mechanics I and II
- PHYS 8220: Lasers and Nonlinear Optics
- PHYS 8310/20: Statistical Mechanics I and II
- PHYS 5240: General Relativity
We encourage students to become involved in research as early as possible. A student is expected to work closely with members of the faculty on research topics in an arrangement rather like an apprenticeship, since this allows the student to gain competence and independence in a relatively short period of time. Many student research projects produce published papers. Students normally take 3-4 hours of directed research per semester through the first two years, before moving to full-time (12 hour) research following the Master’s degree.
The student must complete a Master’s degree before beginning a Ph.D. dissertation. An M.S. is awarded after the successful completion of a) 30 graduate course credit hours, with no more than 6 credit hours coming from 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. The Ph.D. dissertation is a significant, original research contribution and ordinarily takes several years to complete. The time from admission to Ph.D. should be about five to six years. A list of recent dissertations is given on our web site. There you may also find a listing of the present positions of our Ph.D. graduates.
Qualifying exams for the M.S. and Ph.D. are given in January of each year. First year students take a single four-hour written exam covering basic undergraduate physics and astronomy, as well as material contained in the first semester of basicastronomy courses. Second year students take this exam and an additional four-hour exam at a more advanced level. The results of the exams, course work, progress toward the M.S. and other indications of research potential are all considered by the departmental graduate committee when recommendations for degree candidacy are made in March. There is no language requirement for either degree.
Our graduate program is small and friendly. There are typically 30 resident graduate students. Few departments offer graduate students such ready access to faculty and visitors as Virginia. We also try to provide students with an informal atmosphere and adjust requirements to individual cases. Strongly self-motivated students should be able to get maximum benefit from our program.
Students typically complete observational parts of their research projects at facilities outside of Charlottesville. Recent students have undertaken observing projects at Apache Point, Steward, Kitt Peak, Cerro Tololo, Las Campanas, McDonald, Palomar, Green Bank, Arecibo, the JVLA, ALMA, Effelsberg, the Anglo-Australian Observatory and the Keck Observatory. Others have used space facilities such as the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra, and Spitzer.
Preparation for Graduate School
Students entering our program need a good background in undergraduate physics (preferably a physics major or an astronomy major with a strong physics component). This is the best preparation for graduate school in astronomy. We do not expect incoming students necessarily to be familiar with astronomy, though we do expect them to have acquired a comprehensive understanding of basic astronomy by the time of their Ph.D. qualifying exams (the middle of their second year). Physics students without much exposure to astronomy might find a text like The Physical Universe by Frank Shu to be useful in preparing them for their first year of astronomy courses.
Like nearly all graduate astronomy programs, we place emphasis on the Graduate Record Examinations (GREs) in selecting students. Though some applicants complain about this, the GRE’s represent the only objective basis available for evaluating students from different undergraduate programs. They also offer good examples of the kind of problems you will be expected to solve on a daily basis as a graduate student. You should take the GRE’s seriously. Most successful applicants will have studied for these exams and will have taken them more than once if their first scores were not strong. (Note that advanced planning is necessary if your scores are to reach us by 15 January.) The GRE Physics subject test is the most important.
Since publications are expected from students once they are in graduate school, significant scientific publications at the undergraduate level will obviously be favorably received on an applicant’s record. Copies of such should be sent with your application forms.
Financial support is available in the form of fellowships, teaching assistantships, and research assistantships, all of which are either awarded or administered by the Department. These are often awarded in combination. No separate application is required for these types of financial aid; any applicant is automatically considered for this aid as part of the normal application process. The deadline for consideration for this financial aid from the Astronomy Department is the normal 15 January application deadline.
At the present time, the department does not admit students without offering them full financial support.
The Department of Astronomy normally has full support available for about 4 - 6 students a year. "Full" support implies sufficient funds paid out during the academic year (September - May) to cover all tuition and fees and to provide an adequate after-tax stipend for living expenses.
Limited supplementary income is available in forms such as graderships. Some senior students can supplement their income by teaching at nearby colleges. Department support during the summer months is usually available for most of our students in the form of either research or summer teaching appointments. This normally amounts to 25 - 30% of the academic year stipend. Note that while most students are primarily supported through the financial aid from the Astronomy Department described above, the Graduate School independently administers programs of financial aid, primarily in the form of loans, which are based on need. Information on these programs is contained in the Admissions Catalog for the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. Note that to be considered for these sources of financial aid from the Graduate School, applications must be received at the Graduate School by 3 December. Though most astronomy graduate students are supported by departmental sources of financial aid, we encourage students to look for scholarship opportunities offered by the Graduate School.
One should note that there is a very considerable advantage to being a "Virginian." Some fellowship money is designated for Virginia residents only, and the tuition which must be paid is reduced by over half. There are stringent rules which determine eligibility for in-state status. Please address residency questions to the department BEFORE application.
Financial aid is usually allocated one year at a time. We cannot ordinarily guarantee support for more than one year because we do not know how much money will be available. However, we do recognize an obligation to support continuing students in preference to recruiting new students. To the best of our ability we will do so, as long as satisfactory progress towards a degree is being made.
Because admissions and Astronomy Department financial aid decisions are considered simultaneously, application materials must be complete in our office by 15 January for fullest consideration for admission in the following academic year. Consideration for financial aid administered by the Graduate School requires application materials to be received by the Graduate School no later than 3 December.
The Job Market
Most applicants to graduate school have been warned of the "difficult" job market in astronomy and other sciences. It is obvious that changes in employment patterns for professional scientists are inevitable following the end of the Cold War and the restructuring of Federal funding which is necessary to reduce the national debt. Unfortunately, it is not at all clear what form those changes will take. During the past five years, postdoctoral positions have been plentiful in astronomy, but relatively few permanent faculty-level jobs have been available. That situation might be on the reversal; for example, there are many more tenure-track positions being advertised in the last year compared to the several previous years, partly in response to a growing number of retirements from the many scientists who began their careers in the 50’s and 60’s. It is not clear whether this trend will continue; especially with the expected coming economic recession, Federal and state budget constraints may prevent the filling of some of these expected vacancies, and some areas of the private sector (e.g. aerospace) which used to take up the slack may do so no longer.
Frankly, the situation regarding employment is fluid at present and will not stabilize for some time. (Of course, this is true of almost all professional areas.) If you are serious about becoming an astronomer and are willing to make the very considerable effort necessary to do that (which has never changed), then by all means enroll in graduate school. Truly good graduates will always find good jobs in astronomy, and the field will remain exciting. Understand, however, that the relatively clear pipeline to permanent employment in a university-level position which existed for graduates of most good programs, including ours, up to about a decade ago has become constricted. On the other hand, it is also true that astronomy graduate school provides skills (in basic physics, computers, instrumentation, writing, teaching) which are generally in demand, and many post-graduate careers are possible for astronomy Ph.D. recipients.
Charlottesville as a Place to Live
The University of Virginia is located in Charlottesville in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is widely regarded as one of the most attractive areas in the country. The spring and fall are long, colorful, and pleasant. The winter is mild (an average of 40 cm of snow a year) with snow seldom on the ground for more than a few days. July and August are admittedly hot and humid. The town has a population of about 50,000 as does surrounding Albemarle County. The county consists largely of low density suburban housing and attractive farms and estates.
In a 2004 book entitled "Cities Ranked and Rated", Charlottesville city and surrounding counties beat out 402 other metro areas in the United States and Canada to claim the title of "best place to live in North America". The book used 10 categories, including economy and jobs, cost of living, crime, and arts and culture to make its selection. It states: "The city possesses a special mix of college town and historic amenities and is clean and heavily shaded." Charlottesville was commended for its low unemployment and crime rates, good health care, temperate climate and cultural amenities. The primary negative was distance to a major airport and a median home price 10% higher than the US average.
Charlottesville is about 70 miles NW of Richmond and 100 miles SW of Washington, D. C. It is a 2 hour drive to downtown Washington if traffic is light. Travel to the other scientific and cultural centers of the east coast, including Goddard Space Flight Center, the Space Telescope Science Institute, NASA-Langley, Princeton, New York, and Boston is also relatively easy.
For a town of its size, Charlottesville is an unusually active place. This is in part due to the University and in part due to the attraction that the surrounding area has had for authors, artists, show business people, the wealthy, etc. The University has several excellent film series; the revived downtown area contains an excellent independent film theatre. The University sponsors the Virginia Film Festival each Fall. There are numerous off-campus cinemas, including an IMAX, showing the standard fare. There are several on- and off-campus theatre groups. There is an excellent Chamber music festival. A Tuesday evening concert series includes symphonies, famous pianists, bagpipe groups, etc. There are several local musical organizations welcoming members and providing enjoyable concerts. From May until October there are weekly outdoor musical events at the downtown bandshell. There is a new16,000 seat on-campus arena which along with a restored downtown theatre, a local brewery, and a number of other venues host a wide variety of musical entertainments. Undergraduate organizations bring in assorted rock, folk, and jazz groups. The University offers several art museums, including an uniqueAustralian Aboriginal Art Collection. The University offers an excellent speaker series, often featuring Washington heavyweights. Washington is close enough that you can attend concerts, sporting events, etc., without staying overnight.
Charlottesville offers a wide variety of good restaurants. The best of these have been favorably reviewed in the N. Y. Times, the Washington Post, andGourmet magazine. While these may be a bit beyond typical graduate student means, when visiting relatives say, "Let us take you out to dinner," you’re in luck. Raw materials for those who cook themselves are readily available, even rather exotic stuff usually available only in large cities.
The University fields the usual assortment of teams (soccer, lacrosse, and tennis are good; basketball and football play games in the competitive ACC conference). There are three steeple chases, including the Grand National. Sporting attractions in the immediate area include hiking, camping, skiing, bicycling, horseback riding, hunting and fishing (if you so indulge). The homes of three presidents - Monticello, Ash Lawn - Highland and Montpelier are all near by, as is Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace. The Blue Ridge Mountains and Skyline Drive are less than 30 minutes away. Good beaches and many scenic or historical attractions, including Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown, are within 3 hours. For its part, the Department sponsors Halloween and Winter Holiday parties, spring and fall picnics, and an annual formal dinner in the University’s Rotunda.
Your impression of the local housing market probably will depend on where you come from. The large University population keeps Charlottesville prices up and availability low. Still, graduate students have little difficulty in finding apartments they considered suitable. The University does have some housing available for married and single graduate students. It is in short supply, and only a few of our students in recent years have made use of it. Generally, prices drop with distance from the University, and one may often find very nice country homes for rent at affordable rates for two or more students.
Good employment opportunities for spouses - particularly for persons with office or computer skills - exist in various industries, retail businesses, and at the University. The University Hospital, regional federal offices, local school systems, etc. are also large employers. The unemployment rate in Charlottesville has been virtually zero lately, so qualified workers are in high demand.
Applications and Deadlines
Normal application to our program is via the UVa Graduate School of Arts and Sciences online admission web pages. You application will be forwarded automatically to us. Currently, the deadline for our application is Jan 15, with entry into our program the following September. We do not admit students at other times.
If you are not planning to seek admission for other than the next year, then you should wait to request new application material in the fall semester preceding the year in which you wish admission.
REQUIRED APPLICATION MATERIALS
- Completed application forms (please include your e-mail address if you have one)
- Transcripts of all college-level work
- Three letters of recommendation (one more than normal for the Graduate School)
- GRE scores including the subject examination in physics
- TOEFL scores, for applicants whose native language is not English
We cannot act on an application without (4) and (5), where necessary.
To receive fullest consideration, application materials should be complete in the Astronomy Department by 15 January. Since processing by the Graduate School office takes some time, it is best to mail all materials to them well in advance of the 15 January deadline. Note that consideration for financial aid programs administered by the Graduate School requires their receipt of your complete application materials by 3 December.
We generally are able to establish an admissions list and a waiting list by 15 March, and normally you will have heard from us by that time. The admissions process is usually completed by 15 April.
If it is convenient, you are encouraged to visit Charlottesville for an interview and firsthand inspection of our facilities and program.
Correspondence concerning applications for our graduate program or requests for more information should be addressed to:
Department of Astronomy
University of Virginia
P. O. Box 400325
Charlottesville, VA 22904-4325
Our telephone number is (434) 924-7494.
One of the most efficient ways to communicate with us is by e-mail. If you have an e-mail address, you should include that with any correspondence. The current co-Chairs of the Graduate Admissions Committee are Kelsey Johnson and Mark Whittle, who can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.