Mission of the Caltech astrophysics undergraduate program

With the goal of understanding the physical processes that govern the universe, its constituents, and their origins and evolution, astronomy uses the apparatus and methodology of physics to gather and interpret data. Theoretical predictions, modeling and interpreting astronomical observations with physical laws, and the development of new detector technologies define the broader field of astrophysics.

The astrophysics option is designed to give the student a broad overview of the modern understanding of physical laws, an understanding of the basic facts and concepts of astronomy today, to stimulate his or her interest in research, and to provide a basis for graduate work in astronomy/astrophysics. This mission is fulfilled through course work, lab classes, and research opportunities, primarily through our SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships) program and/or the senior thesis.

Our program has a special emphasis on equipping the students with the tools needed for a successful research career, and virtually all students undertake multiple research projects. The program requires a broad range of physics, mathematics and astrophysics courses, which include practical and computational laboratory exercises. It recommends additional courses tailored to the student plans in mathematical methods, computational methods, engineering or planetary science. It requires both writing and oral presentation courses.

Learning outcomes

By graduation time, our students are expected to have the following:

  1. A broad knowledge of fundamental physical laws applying to the world at scales ranging from the nuclear to the cosmological.
  2. Experience in data and statistical analysis, experimental and observational techniques.
  3. The equivalent of several quarters of research work.
  4. Experience in computational methods
  5. A broad range of problem-solving experience.

The knowledge and skills acquired are consistent with admissions to graduate programs in peer institutions.

Means of evaluation

The outcomes of our program are regularly evaluated through several channels. Students provide course feedback to faculty and teaching assistants directly and through the online TQFR system; graduating students fill out an exit survey; the astrophysics option representative meets with students regularly; the students in the program collectively discuss the program annually with representatives of the faculty as part of the Student Faculty Conference. In addition, alumni outcomes are monitored at annual national astronomy meetings attended by a large fraction of our alumni. The information gathered is discussed in faculty meetings and used to improve class teaching and professor assignments, and to motivate curriculum changes.

Mission of the Caltech astrophysics graduate program

An advanced degree in astrophysics at Caltech is contingent upon an extensive research achievement. Students in the program are expected to join a research program, and carry out independent research leading to publications in peer-reviewed journals, as well as a thesis. They must complete a minimum of 9 terms of formal oral research presentations. In their first year, the students must pass a series of six courses in astrophysics and by the end of their second year, also a minimum of four physics or equivalent courses. The students must pass three oral exams administered by faculty committees: a qualifying exam at the end of their first year, a candidacy exam during their third year, and the final PhD defense. Each of these examinations includes evaluation of the students' research work and also their mastery of broader facts, concepts and current frontiers of astrophysics. The examining committees read and evaluate the candidates' descriptions of their work, their published and unpublished work, the PhD thesis, and evaluate their performance in the oral examinations.

Graduates of our program are expected to have extensive experience with modern research methods, a broad knowledge of contemporary astronomy and astrophysics, and the ability to perform as independent researchers at the highest intellectual and technical levels.