First year astronomy graduate student guide to survival

Hello people!

We would like to welcome you to the astronomy department here at Caltech and give you a few (informal!) hints as to what you should do once you're here... But be advised that whatever you read here is not set in stone! (the official rules and info for each year are given in the Caltech catalog that you should receive during the orientation week)

Getting to Caltech

First things first: when you get to L.A. by plane to LAX airport, you can take a shuttle to Caltech. Two companies (Super Shuttle: blue shuttles, and Prime Time: red shuttles) have discounted fares for Caltech students if you are dropped at one of the Caltech "standard" stops. You don't need to make a reservation in advance, just go to their stop at the airport (just outside of the baggage claim area there are different stops on the curb, go to the one that says something like "shuttles and vans"... though it's better to ask, just to make sure you're at the right place!) and tell the representative that you're going to Pasadena (the driver will get the details on where in Pasadena). They'll charge you $29 if you can be dropped either at:

1.- Holliston Ave. / San Pasqual corner, east of campus (near the Security office, in case you need to pick up your apartment keys at off-business hours). The housing office is also near here.

2.- Wilson Ave. / San Pasqual corner, west of campus (near Catalina Apartments)

3.- California Blvd. stop is right behind the astronomy department (i.e. south of campus).

Getting to the Astronomy Department

You can find an interactive map of Caltech at:

The Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astophysics is where the astronomy department is, and is located near the southeast corner of the campus (just to the right of building #6 on the map. Since the building is so new is hasn't been incorporated on the interactive map).

I'm at Cahill, what now?

You might want to go to Gita Patel's office to tell her that you've arrived. Her office is in the 2nd floor (Cahill 246).

The office for first year students is Cahill 250. If you came here to visit as a prospective student, you might remember it from your visit.

Next, you'll want to talk to Patrick Shopbell (Cahill 228), Anu Mahabal (Cahill 227) or Jose Calderon (Cahill 227) to get your e-mail account ready. They know all of you are coming and they are working to ensure that you all have your computer. But it might be the case that your computer is not ready exactly when you get here... last year's class is still in the process of moving out of the office, so desk/computer space hasn't really been allocated. It's you guys who get to design the desk distribution in your office and then you'll have to draw straws to decide who gets what space... fun, fun, fun! ;-)

Don't forget to visit the Astronomy Library (at the south/east end of the first floor) to meet Arun Sannuti. He will register you in the system and give you important information about the library resources.

Option Representative

Chris Hirata (Cahill 272) is the current option representative, so he's the faculty member you should get together with at some point to get the official information (previous option representative website) on what is expected from you during your first year. When you meet him do not hesitate to ask all the questions you might have (academic requirements: classes you should take, research, what the department expect from you, etc.) and try to do so every time you have a doubt.

He is the link between the faculty and you, so try to meet with him every time you are taking an important academic decision. A good thing will be to meet him at least once a term on your first year, so he can give you feedback about your performance and you can tell him what your plans are for the next term.

If you want to talk to other professors, here is the website with their info:

Orientation week

You should definitively go! There are a lot of activities and free food, and more important this is the time when you get to meet people from other departments (during the academic year you'll be too busy to do that!). They also give free iPods to the lucky ones! Check the following website for information on the Orientation week:

Those of you who are from outside of the United States, you'll have an additional orientation week. Don't forget to check the International Student's office website:

Physics Placement Exam

I know, it's no fun to start with exams so soon! But don't forget to go and take this exam on Monday, September 20. If for some reason you will not be here by this date, DO INFORM CHRIS HIRATA AND GITA PATEL.

The results of this 2-part exam (Classical Mechanics + EM and QM) will help the option representative determine if you're required to take some extra Physics courses. Once your results are in, probably a week after you take it, George will discuss with each of you individually what's going to happen. Our advice is: review your Physics! but don't miss the orientation week for a last minute study. Check this website for the time and place of the exam:

Welcome BBQ!

To get to know all of you (and the new post-docs) we are having a department bbq just before classes start. The information for this year's bbq will be updated soon. It's the perfect occasion to meet all the people from Astronomy, so don't miss it!

First week of classes

Usually during the first day of the term there is an organizational meeting (see the Course Schedule for time and date, where the lecturers and students decide the schedule for all the astronomy classes of the term. Be sure to attend, otherwise you might find that your Ay12X classes are scheduled at the same time that some of your other classes outside astronomy.

Buying textbooks

To buy textbooks you can go to the bookstore website and use their online system. They use to have a price matching policy for textbooks. If you find a textbook at a lower price than in the Bookstore (from a list of websites they accept) they will match the price, so you can save a few bucks and don't have to wait for delivery. They have made a few changes so this might not be true anymore, check their website for updated information.

Getting to know your professors

The information below has to be reviewed!

As first year students, you are encouraged to meet your professors. To facilitate this the department pays dinners with the faculty members. All you have to do is is to talk to Gina Armas and organize it. Gina can tell you about the details (eg. maximum amount of money, how to get reimbursed, etc.)

Thursday Donuts, Seminars, meeting people and free food

On Thursdays, at 3:45pm, astro grad students get together in the Cahill patio for donuts, bagels and refreshments... if you're here, do join us and start getting to know the other students!

Other opportunities to meet people are the Tea Talks (Monday 4:00, Cahill Auditorium, wine and cheese), the Astronomy Coloquium (Wednesday 4:00, Cahill Auditorium, fancy cookies) and the Journal Club (Friday 4:00, Cahill 317, beer and munchies afterwards). Besides attending an interesting talk and meeting other people you can get some free food too.

Make sure you attend the Halloween party on October and the ski trip to Mammoth Mountain. Ask your second year classmates about the details!.

Other stuff

In general, a good resource for Caltech students is "The Technique". It's a guide that covers a ton of things from history of Caltech, to restaurant reviews. Before doing any shopping you should read where to find good deals there... many of us find about it too late and ended up buying in the most expensive places. Take a look at it and you might find it very helpful!!

If you guys have questions, don't hesitate to ask one of the older students, especially the second year students, who have more fresh memories about being a first year. We'll be happy to answer questions and help you out.

We'll be looking forward to meeting you all!

Last update: August 31, 2010
Many thanks to Dr. Karin Menendez-Delmestre.
This webpage is based on the email she sent to the '06-'07 incoming class.