First Year Grad Student Survival Guide
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.
Getting to Caltech
First things first: if you arrive by plane, the nearest airports are LAX (further from Pasadena, but more flights are available) or Burbank (closer to Pasadena, but typically fewer flights).
To get from the airport to Pasadena, here are the main options:
- Ask another grad student! A number of us have cars and might be able to pick you up.
- The fastest (but not necessarily cheapest) option is to use Lyft/Uber/other rideshare app. If you're at LAX, you'll need to follow the signs outside the baggage claim to take a shuttle to the rideshare area. The fare may vary significantly, depending on when you arrive and how bad the traffic is; around $50 is typical.
- There are some 24-hour shuttle services between LAX and Caltech, and many offer discounted (~$35) fares for Caltech students. The most popular is Prime Time Shuttle (Caltech discount code 272792). Note that you will need to get dropped off at one of the Caltech "standard" stops:
- 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.
- Wilson Ave. / San Pasqual corner, west of campus (near the Catalina Apartments)
- California Blvd. stop (south of campus).
- Another option which can sometimes be cheaper is to take the FlyAway bus to Union Station ($10), but you'll need to get picked up from there (using a current grad student, rideshare app, or taxi).
- Finally, the most expensive option ($50-80) is to take a taxi from the airport.
Getting to Cahill
The Astronomy department is housed in the Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, located just south of California Blvd.
You can find an interactive map of Caltech at:
I'm at Cahill, what now?
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. If you need help finding anyone, ask the grad students!
You'll want to talk to Patrick Shopbell (Cahill 311) and/or Anu Mahabal (Cahill 228) to get your email account ready. They know all of you are coming and they are working to ensure that you all have desktop computers. Your desk and computer may not be ready yet, though! Last year's class may still be in the process of moving out of the office.
Don't forget to visit the Astronomy Library (at the southeast end of the first floor) to meet Joy Painter, the librarian. Our librarian will register you in the system and give you important information about the library resources.
Lynne Hillenbrand (Cahill 218) is the current option representative, a faculty member who you should get to know. Lynne will meet with you to discuss what is expected from you during your first year. You should also become familiar with her option representative website. Don't hesitate to ask her any questions you might have: what classes you should take, how to get started on research, what the department expects from you, etc.
Until you get an official research advisor, the option rep is your main academic resource, so check in with Lynne if you need to make an important academic decision. A good suggestion is to meet her at least once a term on your first year, so she can give you feedback about your performance and you can tell her what your plans are for the next term.
If you want to talk to other professors, here's their contact info:
Here are some other people you may want to get to know:
- The graduate representative is the grad student who serves as a liaison between grads and faculty. If you have any questions or concerns, but don't feel comfortable bringing them up directly with a faculty member, talk to the grad rep! The current grad rep is Mia de los Reyes.
- If you have questions about department administration (offices, keys, etc.), ask Gita Patel.
- If you have questions about student support, advocacy, or funding (payroll, reimbursements, etc.), try Nam Ung (the Director of Graduate Programs) or Mika Walton.
Not sure who to ask? Try contacting Nam!
You should definitely go to Orientation Week! 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 (it can be difficult to do this during the academic year when everyone gets busier!). Check out this website for information on orientation.
Those of you who are from outside of the United States, you'll have an additional orientation week!
To get to know all the new grad students and postdocs, we typically have a department BBQ just before classes start. It's the perfect occasion to meet all the people from Astronomy, and the food and drinks are great, so don't miss it!
First week of classes
On the first day of the term, the department holds an organizational meeting at 9:00AM (see the Course Schedule for time and date, http://www.registrar.caltech.edu) where 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.
The Caltech Astronomy Library will almost always have required textbooks for you to read or check out. More senior grad students may also have copies of the textbooks. If you want to buy your own textbooks, you can go to the Caltech Bookstore website and use their online system.
Getting to know your professors
As first year students, you are encouraged to meet your professors. To facilitate this, the department pays for class lunches with the faculty members. Just talk to Gita Patel and let her know what date you're getting lunch. Gita can tell you about the details (e.g., maximum amount of money, how to get reimbursed).
Free food (and getting to know other people)
On Thursdays at 4pm, astro grad students get together in the Cahill 2nd floor kitchen for donuts, bagels and refreshments... if you're here, do join us and start getting to know the other students! Also, the entire department congregates on the patio every Friday at 5pm for Happy Hour, complete with free drinks and snacks!
Other opportunities to meet people (and get free food) are the Monday Pizza Lunch (12pm in Cahill 319, free pizza), Tuesday Tea Talks (3:30pm in Cahill 315, free cookies but bring your own tea), the Astronomy Colloquium (Wednesdays 4pm, Cahill Auditorium, wine & cheese after) and the graduate student Journal Club (Friday 4pm, Cahill 317, right before Happy Hour).
Make sure you attend the Halloween party in October and the annual grad ski trip to Mammoth Mountain. Ask your second year classmates for details!
A (somewhat outdated, but still 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 found about it too late and ended up buying in the most expensive places.
If y'all 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're looking forward to meeting you all!
This webpage is based on the email Dr. Karin Menendez-Delmestre sent to the '06-'07 incoming class.
Last update: 07/31/2020
Updated by: Mia de los Reyes