PhD Program

This page describes many of the details about the Planetary Sciences Track within our department’s Physics PhD program. Visit the MS page for information on our Master’s program. Note that we may refer to the track as the “PhD program” but this should not cause confusion. Our PhD track emphasizes research from the first semester, since writing a paper (and submitting it to a journal) is a candidacy requirement, and one can only formally start dissertation research once one has passed candidacy. (Note — technically the candidacy paper can’t just be ‘submittable;’ the requirement is that the paper be submitted. This corrects a misunderstanding in the candidacy requirements [May 2019].)

A very good source of information about the program is our Planetary Sciences Graduate Track Handbook. The most recent version is v2.1.3, promulgated on August 16, 2019. More info can be found at the Graduate Catalog webpage about our track and the department’s webpage the whole graduate program (not just our track).

Applying to the Program

For information on general UCF graduate admissions requirements that apply to all prospective students, please visit the Admissions and Registration section of the Graduate Catalog and the Physics Master’s/Doctoral Handbook. Applicants must apply online.

Information about admission to the Planetary Sciences track itself can be found in the Graduate Catalog’s pages about the Ph.D. and M.S. programs. There is information also on the Physics Department website.

All requested materials must be submitted by the established deadline(s). In addition to the general UCF graduate admission requirements, applicants to this program must provide:

  • One official transcript (in a sealed envelope) from each college/university attended. (Note that UCF now accepts scanned copies of official transcripts as part of the application materials you upload. After you’ve been offered admission, you will then be required to submit the official transcripts on paper.)
  • Official, competitive general GRE score taken within the last five years.
  • Three letters of recommendation.
  • Statement of goals (a.k.a. application essay).
  • CV or Résumé

The statement of goals is particularly important. Applicants should identify one or more projects/areas they would be interested in pursuing as a potential dissertation topic, and discuss their specific project interests in their applications. It helps to also have contacted beforehand faculty or researchers who might advise them. Students can always change projects once in the program, provided that another project is available. More advice and suggestions about applying to our program can be found on our Jobs page. In particular, applicants should closely follow the application essay instructions on that page!  We need detail about an applicant’s research experiences to fully evaluate your application.  We will want to know: what did YOU do, what problems did you face, and how did you handle them?  Applicants with no research experience in planetary science, geophysics, astronomy, or astrophysics are rarely, if ever, accepted.

Note that students must be specifically admitted to the Graduate Planetary Sciences track. External applications and petitions to switch from the existing Physics graduate program are considered by the Planetary Graduate Committee.

Admission to the track requires a Bachelor of Science or equivalent, typically in physics, astronomy, geology, geophysics, geochemistry, atmospheric sciences, biology, mathematics, or planetary sciences. Those without full academic preparation in relevant natural sciences may be required to complete specified coursework in addition to the core program, as determined by the Planetary Graduate Committee at the time of admission or their Supervisory Committee at a later date. Petitions to switch from the existing Physics graduate program shall be in the form of a letter to the Planetary Sciences Graduate Committee addressed to the track’s Graduate Coordinator. The letter should include the request to join the Planetary Sciences Track, the student’s degree goal (Master’s or Ph.D.), the name of the student’s planetary sciences advisor, and a brief description of their expected area of research.

Note that just meeting minimum UCF admissions criteria does not guarantee program admission. Admission is based on the applicant’s abilities, past performance, recommendations, match of this program and our faculty’s expertise to the applicant’s career/academic goals, the applicant’s potential for completing the degree, available positions, and other factors.

The application deadlines are as follows:

Admission semester: Fall Priority Fall Spring
Domestic applicants January 15 June 15 November 1
International applicants January 15 January 15 July 1
International Transfer applicants January 15 March 1 September 1

Applications received by January 15 will receive full consideration for funding, and fellowships are unlikely for applications received after this date. We evaluate applications in January, February, and March each year and make most admissions decisions and funding commitments (GRAs and GTAs) then. Officially, we can admit as late as June for Fall enrollment, and we can admit for Spring enrollment, but such cases are atypical. Since June is UCF’s official cutoff for Fall, that is listed as the application deadline, but those seeking financial support should apply by January 15.

Graduate students may receive financial assistance through fellowships, assistantships, tuition support, or loans. For more information, see Financing Grad School, which describes the types of financial assistance available at UCF and provides general guidance in planning your graduate finances. The Financial Information section of the Graduate Catalog is another key resource.

Note that UCF does have a policy regarding parental leave for GTAs and GRAs; paid leave is provided for up to six weeks.

About the Program

Curious about what it’s like to be in our graduate program? Read the interviews with some of our current grad students!

Courses in the Program

Currently we offer the following courses with the indicated frequency. Some courses are offered once per year, others only once per biennium. Other electives are added as teaching schedules permit. The Graduate Catalog also has info about some of these courses.

*We are in the process of swapping out the required PHY 5524 Statistical Physics for a new class, AST 5xxx Physics of Planetary Processes. PHY 5524 is the requirement until the change is official, but once it is, students will be allowed to elect either the catalog they were admitted under or the new one.  We hope and expect for the change to be official by the time PPP is offered in Spring 2019.

Course Title When Notes
Core courses
AST 5154 Advanced Planetary Geophysics Odd Spring Required
AST 5165 Planetary Atmospheres Even Spring Required
AST 5263 Advanced Observational Astronomy Even Spring Required
AST 5765 Advanced Astronomical Data Analysis Fall Required
AST 5xxx Physics of Planetary Processes Fall Required
PHY 6246 Classical Mechanics Fall Required
Strongly-recommended electives
AST 5145 Advanced Asteroids Comets Meteorites Even fall Elective, VERY STRONGLY recommended
AST 6112 Origin and Evolution of Planetary Systems Varies Elective, VERY STRONGLY recommended
Other electives
PHY 5524 Statistical Physics Spring Elective
AST 5xxx Astrobiology Occasional Elective
AST 5334 Extrasolar Planets and Brown Dwarfs Occasional Elective
AST 5937 Special Topics Occasional Elective
AST 6156 Current Topics in Planetary Science Occasional Elective (and can be repeated for credit)
AST 6938 Special Topics: Planetary Seminar Occasional Elective (and can be repeated for credit)
PHZ 5156 Computational Physics Occasional Potential alternate to AST 5765 (w/advisor approval)
MAP 6469 Bayesian Analysis & Approximation Theory Even Spring Elective


Example course sequences for graduate students

Here are some example course sequences that allow entering students to get through the coursework by the end of the second year in the program. In theory, this allows the student to take the candidacy exam in the summer of the second year. Full-time, pre-candidacy students must take 9 credits in Fall, 9 credits in Spring, and 6 credits in Summer.  PhD candidates must take at least 3 credits in Fall, Spring, and Summer (typically these are Dissertation credits), and may register for more, such as electives, with advisor approval. Note that some GRAs and Fellowships do not cover more than the minimum tuition.

In the parlance of UCF, 9 credits of courses — even if some of those credits are research credit — is considered a half load. The other half is research (which you might be paid for, if you’re a Graduate Research Assistant [GRA], or might not be paid for, if you’re a Graduate Teaching Assistant [GTA]). This research that you do is the research that leads to a submitted manuscript in time for your candidacy exam. See the Graduate Track Handbook for discussion of the candidacy paper’s presentation and the oral defense.

If entering in Fall of 2019:

Fall 2019 Spring 2020 Summer 2020 Fall 2020 Spring 2021
PHY 6246 (3cr) Classical Mech. AST 5263 (3cr) Obsv. Research (6cr) AST 5145 (3cr) ACM AST 5154 (3cr) Geoph.
AST 5765 (3cr) Data Analysis AST 5165 (3cr) Atmo. Research or elective (3cr) AST 6112 (3cr) Origins
AST 5xxx (3cr) PPP AST 6156 (3cr) Seminar Research or elective (3cr) Research or elective (3cr)


If entering in Fall of 2020:

Fall 2020 Spring 2021 Summer 2021 Fall 2021 Spring 2022
PHY 6246 (3cr) Classical Mech. AST 5154 (3cr) Geoph. Research (6cr) AST 5xxx (3cr) PPP AST 5263 (3cr) Obsv.
AST 5765 (3cr) Data Analysis Research or elective (3cr) Research or elective (3cr) AST 5165 (3cr) Atmo.
AST 5145 (3cr) ACM Research or elective (3cr) Research or elective (3cr) Research or elective (3cr)

The above schedule describes 42 credits total. Generally, for the summer of the second year, the student takes 6 more credits of research, even if the candidacy exam happens during the summer. That makes 48. The student is required to have 72 credits total to earn the PhD degree, so the remaining 24 credits (72 minus 48) are usually earned from formal coursework (electives), research credit (usually AST or PHY 6918), and dissertation credit (AST or PHY 7980). At least 15 of those remaining 24 credits must be the dissertation credit. If all of the ‘research or elective’ credit in the table above was taken as research credit, then at least 3 of those remaining 24 credits must come from formal coursework electives, since a student must have 27 credits total of formal coursework and the 8 courses listed in the table make up only 24. Electives must be approved by the student’s supervisory committee but can in principle include courses from any department.  Courses in mathematics, optics, computer science, engineering, chemistry, or biology may be relevant, depending on the student’s dissertation and career interests.