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Graduate Student Handbook
Astrophysical Sciences & Technology

Semester transition  ***The Handbook is currently being revised, please contact the AST Director with questions*** (June 2022)

RIT transitioned from the quarter calendar to semesters in Fall 2013. Most of the policies and procedures are unchanged. However, the credit requirements have changed and there are also significant curriculum changes.
  • Students who entered the program in Fall 2013 or later must satisfy the new credit requirements.
  • Students who entered the program prior to Fall 2013 must satisfy the equivalent in semester hours of the quarter credit requirements.
Version 2.0, November, 2013


If you are looking for a form or document template, please visit the COS Graduate Students webpage.

More general information about graduate studies at RIT please visit the Graduate Studies webpage.
RIT Library Information & Services for Graduate Students Webpage provides information for graduate student success.

INTRODUCTION   (Back to Contents)

Astrophysical Sciences and Technology offers programs of graduate study and research leading to the degrees of Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy. Students have opportunities to undertake research in a wide range of topics selected from the fields of detector development, observational, computational and theoretical astrophysics.
The research work is funded by grants and contracts, mainly issued by governmental agencies such as NASA and NSF. A limited number of Graduate Teaching Assistant stipends are available for qualified students entering the PhD program.
This handbook is intended to provide a ready reference to the basic information you need to navigate successfully through the AST graduate program. Though it is still a work in progress, we hope you will find it useful. Suggestions for improvement and additional content are always welcome.

CONTACTS   (Back to Contents)

Program Director Sr. Staff Assistant
Dr Andy Robinson Cheryl Merrell
Office: CAR-1270 Office: CAR-1260 
Email: axrsps (at) Email: camsps (at)
Tel. (585) 475-2726 Tel. (585)475-5302 


The Astrophysical Sciences and Technology Program resides within the School of Physics and Astronomy (SoPA), which in turn is an academic unit of the College of Science. AST is a multidisciplinary program and draws its faculty from several academic units, currently including the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science and the School of Mathematical Sciences, as well as SoPA.
The recommended affiliation for AST students on publications, posters and other forms of presentation is:
School of Physics and Astronomy, Rochester Institute of Technology
If you are also associated with one of the research labs or centers (LAMA, CCRG, CfD), this can be added as a second affilication, e.g.,
School of Physics and Astronomy and Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation, Rochester Institute of Technology
Good Standing: All graduate students must achieve a GPA of 3.0 or better (assessed at the end of each semester) to remain in good standing in the program.
Residency: Students must register for a minimum of 9 academic credits in each of 2 consecutive terms excluding summer and intersession to establish residency. A full-time academic load is defined as a minimum of nine academic credits per semester or an equivalent amount of research as certified by the AST Program Director.
PhD  Credit requirements (Semesters):
You must earn a total of 60 semester credit hours. This includes a minimum of 27 course credits and 24 research credits.
Students take a common set of core cores and select other courses in one of the following tracks:
  • Astrophysics
  • Computational Astrophysics
  • Astronomical Instrumentation
A concentration in General Relativity is also possible within the Computational Astrophysics track.
The credit distribution is as follows:
Course Credits Research Credits
Core courses:                         12 Graduate Seminar:                               2

Track or elective courses:       min. 15

Masters-level research project:            6

  Dissertation research:                    min. 16
An additional 9 course or research credits must be taken to meet the minimum program requirement of 60 credit hours.
For more details of program credit requirements, tracks and courses see the curriculum page.
Qualifying Exam:
Before embarking on your PhD dissertation project you must complete the core courses, the Graduate Seminar sequence and the masters-level research project. You must also pass both parts of a two-part qualifying examination consisting of
  • A written examination based on the core courses.
  • An oral examination based on a research portfolio consisting of a written report on the research project and a record of graduate research seminar activities.
You must normally complete the qualifying procedure by the end of year 2. The qualifying procedure is detailed here.
PhD Dissertation
Your PhD dissertation must contain original work of publishable quality, which in the judgment of the Dissertation Committee, contributes significant new knowledge to the field.
Time requirement:
A minimum of three years of full-time study or their equivalent in part-time study is required.

MS Credit requirements:
You must earn a total of 32 credit houres. This includes at least 18 course credits and 8 research credits, distributed as follows:
Course Credits Research Credits
AST Core:                         12 Graduate Seminar:                               2

Electives:                       min. 6

Thesis research project:                       6

The Masters thesis will be more limited in scope and depth than a PhD dissertation but must still contain original work of publishable quality.
MS to PhD transfer
Depending on progress in your coursework and research project, you may be allowed to attempt the PhD Qualifying Examination. If you pass, you may choose to proceed to PhD candidacy, rather than taking a terminal Master's (this is contingent on the availability of an advisor and research funding).
For more details of program credit requirements and courses see the curriculum page.
Scheduled Core and Elective Courses
Core and elective courses offered by AST are listed here. You will also find brief course descriptions and a suggested list of courses offered by other RIT graduate programs that may be counted as electives for AST. You can register online for scheduled courses
Independent Study
You can also take an independent study (reading) course with a faculty member in a topic of interest and benefit to you. You will need to recruit a member of the AST Graduate Faculty to supervise your studies. This need not be your mentor or research adviser. With your supervisor, you design your own course of study around a specific topic, and work towards a set of predefined outcomes, meeting agreed upon assessment criteria.
In order to register for Independent Study, you will need to complete the form "Independent Study Contract", have it signed by the supervising faculty member, the AST Program Director and submit it to the AST Staff Assistant, who will register you for the course.  The credits you earn for Independent Study are course credits, not research credits.
Research credit
With the agreement of your Faculty Mentor, or your research Advisor, you may also elect to take research thesis credits. The procedure for registering for research credit differs depending on whether you are doing Master's level project or your PhD Dissertation.  Guide to register for AST research credit. (updating information)
Each semester, you will need to fill out a Graduate Student Full Time equivalency form, to establish that you qualify as a full time student in that you have registered for at least 9 credit hours for the semester. If the total of course plus research credits is less than 9, you may claim "Graduate Course Equivalent" credits if you are employed as a GTA or GRA at a level that you determine in conjunction with your mentor/advisor.  Note that these credits only count towards establishing full-time status, they do NOTcount towards the MS or PhD requirements.
To summarise, your registered course credits, registered research thesis credits, and your graduate course equivalent credits must total at least 9 for you qualify as a full time student. When you have completed this form you need to get it signed by the Program Director and then hand it in to the AST Staff Assistant.
During your first weeks in the program you will develop a plan of study in conjunction with your Mentor, which will be updated annually, or more frequently as necessary. This has a threefold purpose:
  • it is a planning aid for you to keep track of course & research credits;
  • it will assist your advisor and the Program Director in monitoring your progress towards satisfying the program credit requirements;
  • it sets out your plan for accumulating research credits after advancement to PhD candidacy. The Academic Coordinator will consult this when registering you for research each quarter.
The Plan of Study form (Please Use Semester worksheets)
There are multiple worksheets: two are the blank forms for the MS and PhD, respectively, the others are filled out examples, with annotations. Develop your plan in consultation with your advisor, then complete the form, print it, get your advisor to sign it and submit it to the Program Director. 
In addition:
If you have not yet been promoted to PhD candidacy, you should attach a brief (max 1 page) outline of your Master's Level research project to your Plan of Study. If you are in your first quarter, your interests and ideas are likely still taking shape, so your outline may simply indicate some general preferences for your research topic.
This is NOT required if you have already been promoted to candidacy (you should be developing your PhD proposal!)
Some things to keep in mind:
  • The Plan of Study will always be a work in progress. It can and should be altered as your studies develop. At minimum it is expected that you will review the plan with your advisor at least annually and revise it as necessary.
  • When filling out the form, include all courses and research credits that you have already accumulated.
  • If you are in yrs 1 or 2, it is not necessary to define your entire program from day one to thesis defence. Consider the plan in two phases: (1) entry to qualifying exam or Masters defence, (2) promotion to PhD candidacy to PhD defence.
Every Fall Semester, AST holds an informal one-day research symposium at which all AST students, except those taking their qualifying exam or about to defend a thesis, are expected to give a presentation summarizing progress made during the preceding year. Following the symposium the Program Director will meet with you to provide feedback on your presentation and also on your progress towards meeting the requirements for either the Master's Degree or PhD Qualifying examination (during the first two years), or the PhD (after passing the qualifying examination). This is also an opportunity to discuss any concerns you may have.
If you are taking your qualifying exam, the Oral Examination of your research portfolio, which includes a 40-minute oral presentation, takes the place of the annual review talk.
PhD PROJECT VALIDATION   (Back to Contents)
After you have passed the Qualifying Exam, you will need to develop a PhD project proposal. You will be required to present your proposal to your Dissertation Committee for validation within 6 months of the Committee being appointed. You will need to submit a written research proposal and give an oral presentation to the Committee, who will provide constructive feedback on the project plan.
The proposal needs to contain enough information to convince the committee that
(a) the work (when finished) will satisfy the requirements for the Ph.D. (broadly speaking, sufficient in scope, depth and originality for publication in a leading journal)
(b) that the remaining work is tractable within the proposed timescale.
Typically, proposals consist of 
- an introduction explaining the current state of the field and the motivation for the work in that context;
- a chapter outline;
- a summary of work completed & results obtained to date;
- an outline of any further work planned for completion of the dissertation;
- a discussion of the expected contribution to the field;
- a timeline for completion of the dissertation.
The final examination of the dissertation may not take place until at least 6 months have elapsed from the date on which the PhD proposal was approved by the Dissertation Committee (see PhD Project Validation).

The purpose of this rule is to ensure that the PhD Dissertation Committee has proper oversight of the development of the dissertation so that any problems can be identified in good time for remedial action to be taken.

When you and your Committee are satisfied that you have assembled enough material and results to meet the PhD requirements, it is time to start preparing the final draft of your dissertation. It must be prepared according to certain style and formatting requirements, which can be found at the Wallace Library's Thesis page. There, you will also find information on copyright law, writing assistance services and hints and tips for thesis preparation.
In the final draft, you will need to include a title page and a signature page.
Submission of Your PhD Dissertation
You must submit a print and an identical electronic copy (ProQuest) to the Wallace Library to fulfill graduation requirements.  
Please vist the RIT Libraries: How to Submit Your Thesis/Dissertation webpage for submission information and library staff contacts.
Please review this AST PhD Dissertation Checklist for a list of important steps. 
AST Graduate Faculty
AST Graduate Faculty are established researchers in fields relevant to the program and will normally hold appointments within the RIT College of Science, in one of three home departments: Physics, The School of Mathematical Sciences or the Center for Imaging Science. Current List of AST Faculty 
Graduate Faculty Mentor
Graduate Faculty mentors are assigned to all students admitted into the AST program. The mentor's role is to guide you through your first year(s) in the program, until you are paired with your research advisor. Your mentor will be your academic advisor and will advise you on curriculum requirements, elective choices, transfer options, choice of Master's level/Master's thesis research project, preparation for the qualifying exam, and any concerns of a more personal nature. Your mentor may also act as research advisor for your Master-level project/Masters Thesis.
Graduate Faculty Advisor
Upon passing the qualifying examination, a dissertation research advisor will be formally appointed by the AST Program Director. In most cases, the advisor will have been identified well in advance of the qualifying exam and can be the same person as the Graduate Faculty Mentor. The pairing of students with advisors is by mutual agreement and will be based on common research interests and available research funding. Your advisor will provide advice (obviously!) on your research project and will guide you through the project validation process and eventually, your PhD dissertation defence.
The relationship you establish with you research advisor is a formative one — and likely to be important for your future career.
Dissertation Research Committee: Ph.D.
Once you've passed the Ph.D. qualifying exam, a Dissertation Research Committee will be appointed to oversee and ultimately examine your Ph.D. research. It's your responsibility, in consultation with your research advisor, to recruit the members of the committee and submit a request for approval to the Program Director. This will usually happen during the Summer quarter of Year 2 or Fall quarter of Year 3. The committee must have at least four members including: your advisor, one other member of the AST Faculty, an expert in a related field of research, and the Provost's Representative ("external chair"). The external chair must hold a Ph.D. and be a tenured member of the RIT faculty — but cannot be a member of the AST faculty. The external chair is appointed by the Provost, via a request initiated by the Program Director through the Dean of Graduate Studies.As noted above, least one member of the committee other than the advisor should be an expert in a closely related field. The subject expert can be a member of the AST faculty, but students are strongly encouraged to recruit from outside RIT. The subject expert, whether from AST or outside RIT, should not be a direct collaborator. 

The duties of the PhD Dissertation Committee include:

  • Guiding the candidate through the project validation process.
  • Assisting in planning and coordinating the research.
  • Providing research advice.
  • Supervising the writing of the dissertation.
  • Conducting a yearly review of the student's progress towards dissertation completion and reporting the results to the Program Director.
  • Conducting the final examination of the dissertation.
Thesis Research Committee: M.S.
The M.S. thesis Research Committee has at least three members: your research adviser (or mentor) and two additional members who hold a PhD in a field relevant to the student's research. At least two of the committee members must be AST Graduate Faculty. 
The duties of the MS Thesis Committee include:
  • Assisting in planning and coordinating the research.
  • Providing research advice.
  • Supervising the writing of the thesis.
  • Conducting regular reviews of the student's progress towards dissertation completion and reporting the results to the Program Director.
  • Conducting the final examination of the dissertation.
TIME LIMITATIONS   (Back to Contents)
All candidates for the Ph.D. must maintain continuous enrolment during the research phase of the program. Normally, full-time students complete the course of study for the doctorate in approximately four to five years. A total of seven years is allowed to complete the requirements after first attempting the qualifying examination.
For the M.S. degree, successful completion of all course work and the thesis is required within seven years of the time of initial registration for graduate study.
When your dissertation is ready to be distributed to the Dissertation Committee, and the Committee agrees to administer the final examination, the doctoral candidate can schedule the final examination.  The graduate student must distribute the copy of the dissertation to the committee and make the dissertation available to interested faculty, at least four weeks prior to the dissertation defense.

You must notify the Program Director of the date of your dissertation defense at least 6 weeks in advance, so that it can be properly advertised.

The final examination of the dissertation is open to the public and is primarily a defense of the dissertation research. The examination consists of an oral presentation by the student, followed by questions from the audience. The Dissertation Committee will normally privately question the candidate following the presentation. The Dissertation Committee will caucus immediately following the examination and thereafter notify the candidate and the AST graduate coordinator of the result of the examination.

The Committee will certify the outcome of the defense and provide the candidate with a written statement of any required changes to the dissertation.


M.S. and B.S./M.S. students who are expected to complete all degree requirements by the end of the summer term may participate in graduation. M.S. and B.S./M.S. students may only participate in graduation and be listed in the commencement booklet one time.

Ph.D. students who are expected to complete all degree requirements, including the dissertation defense, by the end of the summer term may participate in the spring term graduation
ceremonies. Those not having completed the dissertation defense with at least a conditional pass on or before April 1 and not having completed all other degree requirements as of the end of the
spring term must have their likely summer-term completion documented by April 1 in letters of request to the COS Dean from their dissertation advisor and school head. The Dean will then
make all final decisions regarding participation in commencement ceremonies. Ph.D. students may only participate in graduation and be listed in the commencement booklet one time.

All students are expected to familiarize themselves with responsible and ethical research practices. Training in such practices is increasingly required by major funding agencies. For example, NSF requires graduate students and post-docs to undergo online training. These issues will be covered in Graduate Seminar, but students are encouraged to explore these resources compiled by RIT's Sponsored Research Services:Responsible and Ethical Conduct of Research.
Students undertaking travel that is related to their PhD or MS programs or otherwise sponsored by RIT must familiarize themselves with and adhere to the RIT Travel Policy.
Examples might include trips to conferences or meetings, research visits to collaborators at other institutions, observing trips, etc. Please note in particular:
1) For any trips outside of "the Rochester regional area or that involve overnight stays", the student's mentor/advisor should ensure that the student signs and returns the appropriate Release Form to the Sr. Staff Assistant. A trip itinerary and emergency contact details will need to be provided to the School of Physics & Astronomy & the Program Director, via the Sr. Staff Assistant44. 

2) In addition, if the student is traveling abroad then the RIT International Travel Policy also applies. In the case of AST students, trips to destinations not subject to State Department warnings or alerts require advance approval from the AST Director. Permission to travel to countries that are subject to State Department warnings or alerts must be sought from the Provost.
3) RIT students have access to an emergency Travel Assistance Service for a nominal fee that will be paid by the AST program. Please inform the AST Director of your travel details well in advance, so that you can be enrolled before leaving.