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 v3.0, promulgated on June 8, 2020. 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). There is a page with UCF’s application requirements. Requirements for our program in particular are in the Graduate Catalog. Note that we no longer require a GRE score. Our admissions committee recognizes the limitations in the ability of the GRE test to predict success in graduate school. (Background info about this topic is here and here.)

Note that 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 Summer
Domestic applicants December 1 July 1 December 1 NA
International applicants December 1 January 1 July 1 NA

We prefer to receive complete applications by December 1, so please do not wait until January 1 (international) or July 1 (domestic) to complete your application. We of course look at all applications that are submitted by the deadline, but even a great application may be rejected if it is submitted so late in the process that we simply do not have any more open slots for new students.

Applications received by January 1 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 July 1 is UCF’s official cutoff for Fall, that is listed as the application deadline, but those seeking financial support should apply by January 1.

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.

Course Title When Notes
Core courses
AST 5154 Advanced Planetary Geophysics Odd Spring Required
AST 5263 Advanced Observational Astronomy Even Spring Required
AST 5765 Advanced Astronomical Data Analysis Fall Required
AST 5151 Physics of Planetary Processes Odd Fall Required
AST 6165 Planetary Atmospheres Even Spring Required
PHY 6246 Classical Mechanics Fall Required
Very strongly-recommended electives
AST 5145 Advanced Asteroids Comets Meteorites Even fall Elective
AST 6112 Origin and Evolution of Planetary Systems Varies Elective
Other electives
PHY 5524 Statistical Physics Spring Elective
AST 5038 Astrobiology Occasional Elective
AST 5334 Extrasolar Planets and Brown Dwarfs Occasional Elective
AST 6156 Current Topics in Planetary Science Occasional Elective (and can be repeated for credit)
AST 6938 Special Topics 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 and ostensibly takes up 20 hours per week of a 40-hour work week. The other half, the other 20 hours of a work week, is typically taken up by the job you are paid for: i.e., a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) or Graduate Research Assistant (GRA). As a “full-time” GTA, you are paid for 20 hours per week as a teaching assistant. As a “full-time” GRA, you are paid for 20 hours per week on research.

The research that you do in your first two years is supposed to be 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.

Students entering in the program in Fall 2023:

Fall 2023 Spring 2024 Summer 2024 Fall 2024 Spring 2025
PHY 6246 (3cr) Classical Mech. AST 6165 (3cr) Atmo. Research (6cr) AST 5145 (3cr) ACM AST 6112 (3cr) Origins
AST 5151 (3cr) PPP AST 5263 (3cr) Obsv. Research or elective (3cr) AST 5154 (3cr) Geophys.
AST 5765 (3cr) Data Research or elective (3cr) Research or elective (3cr) Research or elective (3cr)

Students entering in the program in Fall 2024:

Fall 2024 Spring 2025 Summer 2025 Fall 2025 Spring 2026
PHY 6246 (3cr) Classical Mech. AST 6112 (3cr) Origins Research (6cr) AST 5151 (3cr) PPP AST 6165 (3cr) Atmo.
AST 5145 (3cr) ACM AST 5154 (3cr) Geophysics Research or elective (3cr) AST 5263 (3cr) Obsv.
AST 5765 (3cr) Data 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. We frequently offer AST 5038, AST 5334, AST 6156, and AST 6938 from time to time for exactly that reason. Electives must be approved by the student’s supervisory committee, and they don’t have to be AST courses. E.g. courses in mathematics, optics, computer science, engineering, chemistry, or biology may be relevant, depending on the student’s dissertation and career interests.