ANSWERS FOR PROSPECTIVES FROM FELLOW GRADS
- How big is the department? How many faculty? How many grads?
The department has, as of October 2023, 16 faculty, 18 additional affiliated faculty, 35 grad students, 12 postdocs, and 3 support staff members. Check out the "People" tab above.
- What are the requirements for a PhD?
- What are classes like?
Graduate level astronomy classes are a step up from senior level undergraduate classes. You will work hard in the core courses, but you will learn a lot too, with more involved assignments and projects. Beyond the core courses, the department offers several "seminar" courses each year, where the faculty teach topics in their specialty. Its a great opportunity to learn cutting-edge astronomy! Students are also encouraged to pursue courses in other departments which might help them with research.
- How many classes do I have to take?
Most students take two grad-level classes per semester, for a total of 8 credit hours, for their first four semesters. This generally tends to cover the requirements laid out in the handbook (linked above). It's possible to do more, but can start to cut into your research/TA/life time.
- What are my responsibilities if I'm a TA?
It depends on the class. Some TAs just grade papers, some run discussion sections for a large lecture class. Most of the TAs at the freshman level also have to do observing sessions (nighttime and daytime) at the Campus Observatory. Nearly all TAs do some form of grading and host office hours. To be clear though, all astronomy classes are taught by professors; no TA ever has complete responsibility for a class.
- How soon do I get to do research?
All grad students are guaranteed funding for their first summer and are required to do a research project. However, if you want to get started early, talk to faculty members -- or even fellow grad students (who can help point you in the right direction). Also, the first summer research project does not have to lead to a thesis. Use it to explore a part of astronomy you've never done before! If you're into theory, do an observing project! If you're an observer, do some modeling! While many students will have started their main project by some time during their second year, you will likely be taking classes that whole time, and productivity really takes off in the third year.
- How long does it take to complete a PhD?
The average time is about 5.5 years to complete a PhD (for a grad student entering with a Bachelor's degree). In recent history, it has taken from 4 years to 10 years.
- What funding opportunities are available for graduate students?
The department usually has a number of TA positions available, and most professors have grant money to fund RA positions. In addition, the University Research Board offers funds for RAs (limited funding, so proposals are required). The University also keeps a list of fellowships you can apply for.
- What is the typical graduate assistant stipend?
For the 2023-24 academic year, an astronomy TA or RA is given a stipend of about $22,200 for the 9-month academic year. A summer stipend covers an additional 2 months, normally at the same rate (about $4900 for the summer). Its a quirk of the University, but RAs don't get paid in August, unless there is separate funding from your advisor. If you have a TA in the summer, you get paid in July and August, but not in June (same amount of money as an RA, but distributed differently).
- What does it cost to live in Champaign-Urbana?
Everyone is different, so we can't tell you it will cost you X dollars per year to live here - too many variables. We can tell you the current rent rate: $744 and up for a studio apartment (Note: rents are higher closer to campus). Overall, Champaign-Urbana has a cost of living below the national average. So, astronomy grads can do all right on TA/RA stipend since a dollar goes farther in Champaign-Urbana than at other top schools. Using the salary.com on-line cost of living calculator, a $27,100 stipend at the University of Illinois (a full 11 months of support) is worth:
- a $30,075 stipend at Univ. of Texas at Austin,
- a $26,992 stipend at Univ. of Arizona, Tucson,
- a $28,316 stipend at Cornell,
- a $32,585 stipend at Princeton,
- a $30,991 stipend at University of Chicago,
- a $41,913 stipend at UC Santa Cruz,
- a $46,050 stipend at UC Berkeley,
- a $42,215 stipend at Harvard or MIT, or
- a $39,790 stipend at CalTech.
- Exactly where is Champaign-Urbana?
Champaign-Urbana is a college town in rural Illinois; it is 135 miles south of Chicago, 120 miles west of Indianapolis, and 180 miles east-northeast of St. Louis.
- How do you get to Champaign-Urbana?
Willard Airport is the local airport. (Air Force One once got stuck in the mud there). American Airlines has daily flights to Champaign-Urbana. Champaign-Urbana is also at the junction of three interstates: I-57, I-72, and I-74 (See the map below). In addition, Champaign-Urbana has daily inter-city bus and train service.
- How easy is it to find housing in Champaign-Urbana?
Its not difficult at all to find good, reasonably-priced housing in Champaign-Urbana. However, it can be difficult to find something if you want to live within a couple blocks of campus. Housing in this area (referred to as "Campustown") is geared to undergrads and is usually rented out well before summer begins. Away from campus, housing is cheaper, quieter, and usually in better shape. Don't have a car? Don't worry -- Champaign-Urbana has a great bus system! (See the next question)
An important resource to know about for new grad students is the Student Legal Services Tenant and Housing. There is also the Off-Campus Community Living center. They have information on all the leasing companies and will even look over your lease for you before you sign it.
- Does Champaign-Urbana have a public transportation system?
Yes, and a very good one. The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (MTD) is an award-winning public transportation system offering services 24 hrs a day (of course, the services are limited late at night). The MTD has a deal with the University that makes your student ID a bus pass. All students pay a fee each semester that gives them unlimited access to MTD services - and graduate students don't need to pay this fee, but still get the benefits! The MTD has complete on-line schedules and route maps available.
- What is the weather like?
We have a saying in the Midwest, "If you don't like the weather, wait a minute." Weather in Champaign-Urbana is very seasonal. We have hot and humid summers, quickly cooling autumns, cold and windy winters, and stormy springs. Bring your shorts and your heavy coat!
- What is there to do in Champaign-Urbana besides take classes, teach, and do research?
What do you like to do? Of course, Champaign-Urbana as all the usual amenities for a college town: bars, movie theaters, restaurants, coffee houses, shopping. The University boasts a world-class performing arts scene in the Krannert Center (and student tickets are quite inexpensive), art musuem, wellness facilities, its own on-campus bowling alley and billiard hall, as well as a pair of golf courses (again, inexpensive for students). The area has several large parks for hiking, nature walks, or just relaxing in the outdoors. Also, whatever your interests, there is sure to be a student organization for you to join. Check out the University's Community page for more info!