Graduate Degree Requirements

Degree Requirements

Doctorate Degree

The requirements for the Astrophysics Ph.D. degree are the following:

  1. Required Classes 
    1. Astronomy 290AB (a seminar)
    2. A total of 6 graduate (or equivalent) courses, 3 of which are from the Astronomy Dept.
  2. Teaching
  3. Exams (Preliminary and Qualifying)
  4. Thesis (signed by committee)
  5. University Registration

Ph. D. Courses

A Ph. D. student is expected to complete six classes at the graduate level or their equivalent. At least three of these classes must be taken in the department. This is in addition to the research seminar 290AB. See below for details.


All candidates for the Ph.D. in Astrophysics must acquire two semesters of teaching experience during their graduate career, whether or not compensated.

It is desirable that this requirement be satisfied early in the graduate career, but it may be delayed for those international students who have not acquired adequate command of English, or other reasons, at the discretion of the Chairperson. The requirement may be waived for transfer students who have acquired similar teaching experience elsewhere.


All candidates must pass two oral examinations administered by the faculty. The preliminary examination should be completed by the end of the second academic year of study and focuses on basic competency in three subfields selected by the student. The qualifying examination should be completed by the end of the fourth academic year of study and is composed of a review of a thesis topic and an examination of a student’s competency in his or her research subfield. Students entering with a Master’s Degree or its equivalent may have the preliminary examination requirement waived subject to the discretion of the Chair.


The thesis is an original piece of research carried out by the candidate under the supervision of a thesis adviser and two other faculty members (one of whom must be from another discipline). The Graduate Division has published guidelines for dissertations and theses.

University Registration

Registration is required of all students making any use of University facilities, including access to faculty. A student is required to be registered, or pay the filing fee, whichever is applicable for the semester in which the degree is conferred. To be eligible for filing fee status the student must have been continuously registered since entering (allowing for one year of approved withdrawal), and registered in the term immediately preceding the one in which the Filing Fee is requested. You must register each semester before the end of the third week of classes.

Master’s Degree

Students are required to pass the Preliminary Exam and must complete 24 units of upper division and graduate courses, including 12 units of “non-research” (lecture) courses.

Students are normally not admitted for the Master’s Degree only, but may find it worthwhile to add to their record en route to the Ph.D. Once these requirements have been fulfilled, the student should see the Student Affairs Officer to obtain an Application for Candidacy for the Master’s Degree.


Core Classes

All students are encouraged to prepare themselves for the preliminary and specific research work by engaging in a program of courses. It is strongly recommended that these be drawn from the following basic courses:

  • Astronomy 203 Astrophysical Techniques
  • Astronomy 204 Numerical Techniques in Astronomy
  • Astronomy 216 Interstellar Matter
  • Astronomy 217 Radiative Astrophysics: Stars, Disks, and Winds*
  • Astronomy 218 Stellar Dynamics and Galactic Structure
  • Astronomy C202 Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics
  • Astronomy C207 Radiative Processes in Astronomy
  • Astronomy C228 Extragalactic Astronomy and Physical Cosmology
  • Astronomy C249 Solar System Astrophysics*
  • Astronomy C252 Stellar Structure and Evolution
  • Astronomy C254 High Energy Astrophysics
  • Astronomy 255 Computational Astrophysics
  • Astronomy 267 Plasma Astrophysics*
  • Astronomy 290AB – The Introduction to Current Research seminar is required of all students in their first year. This consists of weekly lectures by different faculty members and research staff, and introduces the student to current research being carried out in the Department and nearby Labs. (This course is not a prelim topic.)

*these courses are offered based on interest.

Recommended Courses

  • Astronomy 298 – Tutorials are recommended for all students at times until the Qualifying Examination has been passed. Depending on the time commitment, students may sign up for one or two units per semester. This, along with participation in seminars, can be a primary mechanism for advancing your knowledge and developing skills. It depends on Faculty availability.
  • Astronomy 375 – Instruction Techniques in General Astronomy is normally taken concurrently with Graduate Student Instructor duties in Astronomy 7 or 10. This allows the student to take credits for acting as a GSI.

Outside Course Option

A formal requirement no longer exists for courses outside the Department. Nonetheless, the Dept. still feels it would be valuable to take up to two outside courses at the advanced graduate level (200 level and above). These courses should form a cohesive group to provide depth in a particular area. Up to four courses could be taken instead on the 100-200 level (these count for half a graduate course in the course requirement). The lower division course option should be chosen if it is advisable to complement the student’s background and provide a broad base for future work. These courses count towards the overall course requirement (up to 3 full courses). Each student’s course list must be approved by a Graduate Adviser. There is no specific list of allowable courses; the full variety of offerings should be used to greatest advantage. For students who do not yet have definite ideas, this list can be used as a starting point; it includes the basic “bread-and-butter’’ courses for a student in any physical science. However, the list should not be regarded as restrictive.


Preliminary Examination

The Prelim is an oral examination conducted by three members of the Department appropriate for the fields in which the student will be examined. The primary purpose of the Prelim is for the student to master the fundamentals of a broad slate of topics in astrophysics. The student should speak comfortably, knowledgeably, and quantitatively about the topics tested and demonstrate that his or her level of understanding is sufficient to understand, and to place in context, a typical Department-wide colloquium in astrophyics. Another purpose of the exam is to develop the skill of thinking on one’s feet: to perform rough but quantitative estimates in real time, on the blackboard if necessary, and to reason using physics and mathematics.

The Exam may be taken at any time the student chooses, subject to the regulations listed below. The choice of topics and Prelim Committee members must be approved by the Head Graduate Adviser at least a month in advance of the proposed date of the exam, on the Prelim Application Form. The examination will be at the general level of the graduate core courses. Normally, the topics consist of three fields chosen from among the list of courses in the core curriculum. The student may choose to be examined in another topic at a comparable level of difficulty. Occasionally, the topics of a special topics class (AY 250) may be used as an exam topic. Some non-standard topics have included:

  • Stellar Atmospheres
  • Star Formation
  • Planetary Dynamics
  • The Sun

The prelim is subject to the following rules and guidelines:

  1. The student must attempt the Prelim by the end of the second academic year. If a student does not pass the Prelim the first time, one more try will be allowed without penalty.   The 2nd prelim exam should be taken a minimum of 2 months and a maximum of 6 months after the first attempt.   After a failed second attempt, the chair of the exam committee and the Head Graduate Advisor will discuss future options (e.g., exiting with a Master’s degree) with the student.
  2. In order to remain in the Department a student must pass the Prelim within six months after the end of the second academic year.
  3. It is strongly recommended, but not required, that the student’s major research adviser not serve on the Prelim Committee, to avoid possible biases and conflicts of interest.
  4. Prelim committee members can be drawn from all instructors of the core graduate courses. A student’s prelim committee member need not have been the student’s instructor for a core course. Indeed, if the course instructor is also the student’s primary research adviser, alternate prelim committee members should at least be considered (see preceding point).
  5. Radiative Processes (Astro 201) and Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics (Astro 202) cannot both be used as prelim topics, on the grounds that a student is not tested on enough phenomenology. Other combinations (e.g., Star Formation and Interstellar Medium) may also be disallowed to ensure that the students develop breadth. The eligibility of a Special Topics course taught as Astro 250 will be reviewed by the faculty on a case-by-case basis — the instructor of the Astro 250 in question should announce at the beginning of the semester whether the course is eligible and what, if any, prelim topic combinations involving the course are prohibited.
  6. The choice of topics and committee members must be approved by the Head Graduate Adviser, on the prelim application form, for all prelims occurring after July 1, 2009.
  7. The student must pass all three areas in order to pass the Examination. A pass is equivalent to the level of performance meriting a “B” grade on any of the graduate core courses.
  8. The student selects one member of the committee to serve as the Chair of the committee. This Chairperson is responsible for timing the examination and any necessary paperwork following the examination. The student selects the order in which the topics are examined.
  9. Students taking a preliminary exam shall not obtain the questions to any prelim given in the three months prior to their exam.

The Student Affairs Officer maintains a comprehensive list of all topics and questions asked during the preliminary examination. To aid in the enforcement of the three-month question embargo, the questions used in exams shall not be added to this list until three months have elapsed from the giving of the exam. Typically, each topic is allotted 40 minutes of questions for a total of two hours.

Qualifying Examination

The purpose of the Qualifying Exam is to show that the student is ready to begin thesis work. The “qual” is an oral examination at which a Committee of four faculty members examines the student in depth on three topics pertinent to the student’s intended thesis topic. The customary format is that the student speaks for 40 min on the three topics. This presentation is typically interrupted by questions, and is followed by general knowledge questioning. The three topics are often chosen to lead the discussion from a broad subject foundation to the specific area of investigation in proposed research. One intent of the exam is to explore the student’s readiness to tackle a thesis and the feasibility of the proposed research as to definition of questions and methods and as to time for completion. The exam also has a broader goal concerning the student’s mastery of topics and ability to present the material concisely and coherently including responding to probing questions.

One member of the Committee (the “outside member”) must be on the regular Berkeley faculty (i.e., a member of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate) with NO appointment in the Astronomy Department. The Chair, or designated Head Graduate Advisor, and the student’s thesis supervisor can aid in the selection of the outside member [NOTE: As of 2019, the “outside” committee or the academic senate representative (ASR) member no longer has to come from outside the department, i.e., they can be an an academic senate member from the astronomy department.]. The student’s thesis supervisor cannot serve as Chair of the Committee. The Committee Chair is selected by the Department Chair/Head Graduate Advisor. The Committee Chair’s role is supervisory during the exam. The Qualifying Exam is required by the University in order to get the Ph.D. degree – no exceptions are allowed! Department policy is that the Qualifying Exam must be taken no later than the end of four calendar years of graduate study, unless a specific exemption is granted by the Chair/Head Graduate Advisor. If not passed on the first try, a second attempt must be made within six months. Graduate division policy is outlined on the Degrees Page of the Berkeley Graduate Division.

The Qualifying Exam is required by the University in order to get the Ph.D. degree – no exceptions are allowed! Note that the student must submit an application to the Graduate Division at least one month in advance of the proposed date of the exam. See the Student Affairs Officer for an application form.

Department policy is that the Qualifying Exam must be taken no later than the end of four calendar years of graduate study, unless a specific exemption is granted by the Head Graduate Adviser. If not passed on the first try, a second attempt must be made within six months.


Upon completion of the Qualifying Examination and all other requirements, except the thesis, a student should file immediately for advancement to candidacy, bearing in mind the filing fee regulations discussed under the registration requirements.

Normative Time to Degree

The Department has established six years as the Normative Time to Degree. Normative Time is the elapsed calendar time in years that under normal circumstances will be needed to complete all requirements for the Ph.D., assuming a student who enters without deficiencies, who is engaged in full-time uninterrupted study, and who is making desirable progress toward the degree.

After Advancement to Candidacy, the student is eligible for a Fee Offset Grant, for which the student must apply to the Graduate Division. Rules regarding this may be obtained from the Graduate Division or the Student Affairs Officer.


The Chair will act as adviser for first year graduate students. After the first year students will be assigned a faculty member to act as an adviser. This adviser is typically the primary research supervisor of the graduate student. Students and advisers will meet at least once per year until the Qualifying Examination has been passed. Once a thesis topic has been found, a Thesis Committee with at least 3 members. This is typically the same as the Qualifying Examination committee, though the chair of the Thesis Committee and chair of the Qualifying Exam Committee cannot be the same person.


Graduate Advising

Yasasha Ridel, the Department of Astronomy’s Graduate Adviser, is available to answer your questions about the Astronomy graduate program and other department matters. 

Office: 501 Campbell Hall


Graduate Faculty Adviser

Dan Weisz is the Department of Astronomy’s Graduate Faculty Adviser. He is available to assist with a number of course and research matters that may arise as you begin your graduate career at Berkeley.


Please contact him to set up times to meet.