Master of Science in Physics: Concentration in Astronomy

Admission to Graduate Programs

Most students admitted to our graduate programs will have undergraduate degrees in Physics, Astronomy, Astrophysics, or very closely related fields. Ideal preparation includes coursework in calculus through multivariable and vector calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, classical mechanics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics and statistical physics, quantum mechanics, and computer programming. Students interested in astronomy & astrophysics should also have had an introductory survey of all of astronomy, and some coursework in stellar astronomy, galactic astronomy, and extragalactic astronomy & cosmology.

On the other hand, we welcome students whose undergraduate degrees are outside Physics, Astronomy, Astrophysics, or related fields. Some of our most successful students have had backgrounds in Music, Fine Arts, Psychology, or Economics! However, it is crucial that students from such non-STEM backgrounds still have completed calculus through multivariable and vector calculus and had a thorough calculus-based introductory survey of all of physics. This coursework can be completed at community or junior colleges or extension schools affiliated with universities. Upper-division undergraduate coursework can then be taken at SFSU before taking graduate coursework.

Applications for admission to the graduate program must include:

  1. Transcripts from all previous institutions of higher education. The overall GPA or the GPA in the last 60 units of study should be at least 3.0. The GPA in mathematics and physics courses should also be at least 3.0.
  2. Two letters of recommendation from faculty who know your academic record and potential for independent research.
  3. A statement of purpose describing your interest in pursuing graduate study in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at SFSU.

We do not require the GRE General or Subject Tests.

Students whose GPA is slightly below 3.0 should contact the department in advance of applying; it may be possible to petition the Division of Graduate Studies to allow the application.

Students who attended foreign universities in which English was not the primary language of instruction will be required to submit results of the TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE.

Progress toward Degree

Students admitted to the program are initially given the status “conditionally classified.” This means that you must satisfy certain conditions in your first year in order to be advanced to candidacy for the M.S. degree. Some of these conditions include:

  1. Satisfy Writing Proficiency Level 1 – We will ask you to submit a writing sample. If your writing in standard academic English needs further improvement, you will be required to enroll in a writing-intensive class in your first year. Students may also meet this requirement by obtaining a score of at least 4.5 on the GRE Analytic Writing. 
  2. Physics & Astronomy Placement Tests – All incoming students must take an open-book physics placement test two weeks before the start of the first semester. Students in astronomy will also take a placement test on undergraduate astronomy. These tests will be reviewed by the Graduate Coordinator who will also review your undergraduate transcripts. You may be strongly advised to enroll in undergraduate courses to strengthen your understanding of the foundations of physics and astronomy before proceeding to graduate coursework.
  3. Major Field Test – All graduate students must take the Major Field Test (MFT) in Physics at the end of the first semester and reach the 50-percentile. Students who do not achieve this level will not be allowed to take any further graduate courses until they review undergraduate physics and retake the MFT. Such students may enroll in undergraduate courses to aid in their review.

Please be aware that if you are required to take additional coursework to strengthen your writing skills or improve on your undergraduate physics foundation, you may need more than four semesters to complete the program. Graduate students who do not successfully complete two courses per year toward their Advancement to Candidacy are subject to disqualification.

Graduate students are expected to attend department colloquia and must attend at least five per semester unless excused by the Graduate Coordinator.

Culminating Experience

There are three options for the graduate Culminating Experience requirement:

  1. ASTR/PHYS 895: Culminating Project — Independent and original culminating project in physics, astronomy, or astrophysics, under faculty supervision leading to written project report and oral defense of the project. Culminating projects could include: development of new teaching/curricular modules, portfolios of science writing/journalism, internships in science museums/planetaria or industrial or national research labs, development of technical reports/manuals for new scientific instruments, etc.
  2. ASTR/PHYS 898: Master’s Thesis — Independent and original experimental, observational, theoretical, or computational research in physics, astronomy, or astrophysics under faculty supervision leading to written Master's Thesis and oral defense of the thesis.
  3. ASTR/PHYS 896EXM: Comprehensive Oral Examination — Comprehensive oral examination on core topics in physics, astronomy, or astrophysics.

The written project report for ASTR/PHYS 895 or the written Master’s Thesis for ASTR/PHYS 898 will satisfy the graduate Writing Proficiency Level 2 requirement. Students who select ASTR/PHYS 896EXM will need to submit an additional substantial writing assignment to satisfy the Writing Proficiency Level 2 requirement.

Advancement to Candidacy (ATC) and Proposal for Culminating Experience (PCE) forms must be approved by the Division of Graduate Studies before registration for a culminating experience class.

Program Learning Outcomes

Graduates with M.S. Physics and M.S. Physics, Concentration in Astronomy degrees will be able to:

  1. Describe universal physical principles in classical mechanics, electricity & magnetism, special & general relativity, thermodynamics & statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, astronomy & astrophysics, and relate fundamental conservation principles (conservation of energy, conservation of linear momentum, conservation of angular momentum) to underlying symmetries of nature.
  2. Analyze real-world physical systems on Earth and throughout the Universe, develop simplified models of such systems, translate physical principles into the language of mathematics, and then apply the appropriate mathematical tools (vector calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, variational techniques, probability & statistics, numerical & computational methods) to determine a system's spatiotemporal evolution with an awareness of the limitations of any solutions due to the approximations of the physical models and/or mathematical/computational techniques.
  3. Demonstrate proficiency with basic laboratory skills and experimental techniques with electronics, lasers & optical devices, sensors, detectors, microscopes, and telescopes, always with appropriate safety practices (especially with respect to lasers, chemicals, radioactive materials).
  4. Articulate and apply the “scientific method,” the empirical, iterative method of acquiring new knowledge through developing models to explain observations of the natural world, formulating testable hypotheses, designing and executing experimental, computational, and theoretical investigations to test predictions, analyzing data with appropriate statistics and attention to uncertainties, ascertaining consistency with existing theories, and sharing results with the broader scientific community for confirmation and validation.
  5. Demonstrate writing, speaking, and visual data presentation skills to effectively communicate science at the appropriate level of sophistication for the relevant target audience (e.g., instructors, students, scientists, public-at-large, policy-makers).
  6. Develop the social and communication skills to effectively participate in diverse scientific teams, including those that are multidisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary, and appreciate that the pursuit of science is a human endeavor and that progress is best made when the full spectrum of humanity is encouraged to participate and share their perspectives, passions, and skills.
  7. Engage local, state, national & global communities to address current and emerging scientific and technological challenges in equitable and environmentally sustainable ways.

Physics (M.S.): Concentration in Astronomy — 30 units

Group I: Core Courses (12 units)

ASTR 722Radiative Processes in Astrophysics3
ASTR 742Galaxies and Cosmology3
ASTR 770Observational Techniques in Astronomy Research3
PHYS 701Classical Mechanics3

Group II: Graduate Physics and Astronomy Electives (9 units)

Elective graduate physics or astronomy courses with numbers in the range of PHYS 700–790 and ASTR 700–798 (Note: PHYS 800–899 do not count in this category).

The following are recommended:
ASTR 700Stellar Astrophysics3
ASTR 798Astronomy Research Literature2
PHYS 712Physics of Plasmas3
PHYS 725Special and General Relativity3
PHYS 740Computational Physics4
PHYS 775Statistical Mechanics3
PHYS 785Theoretical Physics3

Group III: General Electives (6–9 units)

Elective advanced upper division (numbered 400 or above) or graduate courses in physics, astronomy, or appropriately related subjects, selected on advisement and with approval of graduate coordinator (note that PHYS 800–PHYS 899 count in this category). *Note: Students who choose PHYS 896EXM (0 units) will take nine units of General Electives; students who choose PSY 898 (3 units) will take six units of General Electives.

Group IV: Thesis and/or Oral Examination  (0–3 units)

PHYS 896EXMCulminating Experience Examination0
PHYS 898Master's Thesis3
and Oral Defense of Thesis

Note: Degree total must include at least 15 units from courses numbered 700–899, but no more than 6 units of PHYS 800–PHYS 899 together, nor more than four units of PHYS 730.