Candidates for a PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics should complete one core course in astronomy, at least five electives from a list designated by the department, and one course in another scientific discipline. Details follow.  With the exception of AY200, astronomy courses are generally offered every other year.  Please plan accordingly.  Beginning with students entering in the Fall of 2021, it will be expected that students complete all required courses and teaching requirements by the end of their third year; petitions to go beyond this schedule requires approval from the CAS and advisor by the Spring of the second year. 

1. Each student must receive a satisfactory grade (B- or higher) or pass an oral examination in one core course: Astronomy 200 (Radiative Astrophysics)

2. Each student must receive a satisfactory grade (B- or higher) in at least five electives chosen from the list below:  

  • Astronomy 201: Astrophysical Fluids & Plasmas
  • Astronomy 202a: Extragalactic Astronomy & Cosmology I
  • Astronomy 202b: Extragalactic Astronomy & Cosmology II
  • Astronomy 203: Interstellar Medium & Star Formation
  • Astronomy 204: Stellar Astrophysics
  • Astronomy 209: Exoplanet Systems
  • Astronomy 214: Observational Astronomy
  • Physics 210: General Relativity*
  • Data Analysis (Physics 201 or Applied Math 207 but not both)
  • Earth & Planetary Science (EPS 220 or EPS 237 but not both)

3. Each student is expected to complete and receive a satisfactory grade (B- or higher) in an additional 200-level course outside the department. Known as the Practical Elective, this course should pertain to a student’s research field of interest or assist the student in furthering research skills in such areas as data analysis, engineering, geology, chemistry or biology.  Any one of the non-Astronomy courses listed as electives in category 2 above can be used as the Practical Elective, but taking one course cannot be used to meet two requirements.  Your advisor must approve your choice of the Practical Elective.  If the course is not one of non-astronomy courses listed above, then the DGS must also approve your choice.

4. The Graduate School requires 32 units of "residency" for the PhD degree.  Students are allowed 4 units of Astronomy 300 to make up this total.

Exceptions to the above requirements (e.g., substituting one course in category 2 with another course outside the department) are generally not granted because the department believes that a broad education within the domain of astrophysics is an essential component of a PhD in Astronomy.  However, a student may petition for an exception to the CAS, who will review such cases.

* Note from the instructor for Physics 210:  Students interested in taking this course should have a very strong background in vector calculus, linear algebra, analytical mechanics, and electromagnetism and be able to devote a substantial amount of time to problem sets.

Study Plans

At the beginning of the fall semester, first and second year student are expected to discuss their proposed study and research schedule with their advisor and to submit a Study Plan for review by the Committee on Academic Studies. First year students should make an appointment to go over their Study Plan with their advisor.  Study Plan forms are available here.   Ideal timelines are just that.  But in general the CAS would like course requirements to be completed at the end of year 2 and research exams by the beginning of year 3.  Completing your teaching by the end of year 3 is preferred.  Please note that the Practical Elective requires advisor sign-off which is accomplished most easily via the Study Plan.  Note that beginning with students arriving in the Fall of 2021, coursework and teaching requirements must be completed by the end of year 3.

First-Year Study Plan

This Study Plan summarizes the course requirements and lists when individual courses are offered as well as providing useful background on your undergraduate training.   Advisors must sign off on this plan and it is due in the Department office by Friday of the first week of classes.

Second-year Study Plan

This Study Plan helps update the CAS on your progress to date and make certain that your research is well under way.  Advisors must sign off on this document which is due in the Department office by Friday of the first week of classes. 

Course Exemptions Process and Policy
1. For students who matriculate at Harvard with a "normal" undergraduate transcript, and may have taken one or a few graduate courses, the only exemption that will be considered is for Radiative.  In other words, if a student has taken a comparable graduate radiative course (to be determined by the instructor for AY200 and the DGS), they should not need to repeat AY200 for credit.  No additional exemptions should be allowed.
2. For students who arrive with a full Masters in Astrophysics (at least 6-8 graduate courses), they will need to sit down with the Coordinator, go through their transcripts and document the correspondence between our 9 listed courses and those already taken.  Those that match could count towards the total number of courses required at Harvard.  Note that for exemptions to be approved, the student will need to speak to the instructor of the course in question and perhaps take the final exam. 
3. For students who arrive with a Masters in pure Physics or other science, an exemption of one elective could perhaps be made, but not for the required elective taken outside the department.
4. Graduate students who wish to apply for a Masters in Passing degree must have completed a full 7 courses at Harvard for letter-grade credit as stipulated in the PhD requirements that appear earlier on this page.

Grading Rubric
Below is the grading rubric for graduate courses in the Department of Astronomy.  Note that a B- grade constitutes a "satisfactory grade"; however, GSAS defines "satisfactory progress" as a minimum GPA average of 3.0 (see  So multiple B- grades, while individually satisfactory, could jeopardize the student's good standing in GSAS.

A: Earned by work whose excellent quality indicates a full mastery of the subject.

A-: Earned by work that indicates a strong comprehension of the course material, a strong command of the skills needed to work with the course material, and the student’s full engagement with the course requirements and activities.

B+: Earned by work that indicates a solid comprehension of the course material, a solid command of the skills needed to work with the course material, and the student’s full engagement with the course requirements and activities.

B: Earned by work that indicates an adequate and satisfactory comprehension of the course material and the skills needed to work with the course material and that indicates the student has met the basic requirements for completing assigned work and participating in class activities.

B-: Earned by work that is largely unsatisfactory but that indicates some minimal command of the course materials and some minimal participation in class activities that is worthy of course credit toward the degree.

C+ or lower: Earned by work which is unsatisfactory and unworthy of course credit towards the degree.