Qualifying Exam

The qualifying exam is typically held in September and is an oral examination covering both research and coursework that lasts up to 1.5 hours per student (CoViD-19 adjusted).

This year's qualifying exam will take place over several days between 22 and 24 September 2020, with two to four students per day.

The examination committee is: J. Fuller, G. Hallinan, L. Hillenbrand P. Hopkins, M. Kasliwal.

Location: Your Very Own Zoom Studio @Home!


22 Sept: Viraj (13:00), Samantha (14:30), Yashvi (16:00)
23 Sept: Sarah (10:30), Max (13:00), Evan (14:30), Zhuyun (16:00)
24 Sept: faculty meeting

Important: Do not talk with anyone else about the exam until after the last student has completed it. We will plan a faculty meeting following the qualifying exam, in order to review the committee's assessment of the exam results, and gain further insight from research advisors and course professors. Results will be communicated to the examined students as soon as possible, but possibly not until after the discussion with the broader astronomy faculty. We aim to let you know within a few days.

First-year research submissions: directory

As in previous years, the exam will have two parts:


Each student should submit a written report to the Option Rep at least one week before the examination (this year by 15 September 2020), which will be made available to the faculty. We are all eager to learn about your research interests and progress! The committee members will read the reports in detail in advance of the exam. Your report should be 4-10 pages long, with ``brief but complete" being the main guidance. Succint, persuasive writing is an important skill to develop.

The student will give a 12-15 minute presentation on the research project, followed by a 5-15 minute question and answer session. The presentation should be clear and self-contained. Suggested are no more than 15 primary slides, with perhaps some backups in anticipation of potential points of clarification. Students should be sure to describe their exact role in the project, especially if it involves more than just you and your advisor. Broader collaborative work is of course fine, but the committee needs to appreciate what aspects of the research you have carried out yourself.

Course and General Knowledge:

The committee will then proceed to ask the student questions intended to probe general knowledge of astronomy and astrophysics, at the level of the Ay 12X classes. There will be both qualitative and quantitative questioning, but we will not ask the student to carry out lengthy calculations that would be more appropriate on a homework set or written exam.

The first question asked in the general knowledge section will come from this list. Subsequent questions also may be drawn from the list, but the conversation is likely to wander away from the list. The panel will probe breadth by asking questions of topics of current general interest, such as those potentially covered in colloquia or journal clubs, and probe depth by going in detail on processes and phenomena considered to be quite basic in astrophysics.

In addition to the standard Qualifying Examination, some students may be examined in greater detail on specific courses in which they underperformed (obtained less than B grade) during the first year. We would notify you after the conclusion of the academic year if this applies to you. The format of the additional scrutiny could be either in-depth questioning during the normal Qualifying Exam, or a separate written exam similar to the final exams offered for the Ay 12x series courses.

An oral exam, by its very nature, is open ended. The spirit of the exam is to assess the research and scholarly capabilities of the student. Your future potential as a researcher will be assessed based on both the submitted research document + presentation, and the demonstration of comprehension of fundamental knowledge in astronomy and astrophysics. We are also interested in whether your mastery of standard material is sufficient, at a minimum such that your suitable performance as a Caltech TA can be anticipated.

Evaluation of the student's accomplishment on the Qualifying Exam will lead to a pass/fail determination. We will also strive to deliver detailed feedback that is intended to help you as you continue your progress through the Caltech Ay graduate program, and into your career.

In some cases, the committee may determine at the Qualifying Exam juncture that the student has some deficiencies. At the discretion of the EO, a second exam may be held at a later time (three to six months) and could be similar to the original exam, or it could be focussed on a particular area. A decision based on this second assessment will be final. It is possible that some students will not be continued in the Ay graduate program after the end of their second academic year.