mountain profile Institute for Astronomy University of Hawaii

Astronomy 699: Directed Reading and Research

Maintained by LG

ASTR 699 is a directed reading and research course. In principle it can be taken by any graduate student at any stage of their career. However, this course plays a very specific role in the Astronomy degree program, and incoming students are expected to take a sequence of ASTR 699 courses. The purpose of these courses is to introduce students to the practice of astronomical research, to encourage the acquisition of a variety of research tools, and to give students an opportunity to discover their abilities and potential as research astronomers.

The ASTR 699 course sequence

Students entering the Astronomy program with a Bachelor's degree normally complete two ASTR 699 research projects, each taking about 8 months. The time-line for these projects is shown here:


ASTR 699 timeline for years 1 and 2


During the first semester, students take ASTR 699DR. This is a pass/fail (CR/NC) course, taken for 2 credits. At the end of the semester, students select advisors for their first ASTR 699 research projects, define research topics, and draft brief project proposals.

The first research project begins at the start of the spring semester and concludes at the start of the following fall semester. To receive the appropriate academic credit for this research, students register for 2 credits of letter-graded ASTR 699 in the spring and 1 credit in the fall. In December, project proposals are reviewed by the Graduate Research and Oversight Group (hereafter known as the GROG) and approved before research officially begins. A brief progress report is due at the end of the spring semester, and a final paper, presentation, and interview of the first research project are due at the start of the fall semester.

The second research project spans the fall and spring semesters of the second year. Students must select an advisor by the start of the fall semester, and register for 2 credits of letter-graded ASTR 699 each semester. Proposals for the second project are due shortly after the presentation of the first project and will be reviewed by the GROG roughly one month into the semester. A brief progress report is due at the start of the spring semester. The second project concludes with a final paper, presentation, and interview at the end of the spring semester.

The GROG will aim to adhere to the following schedule and will meet at other times only in extraordinary circumstances. Note that students should not make any travel plans in the relevant Sept 1-15 and May 15-31 windows until the presentation dates are finalized.

699-1 milestones

  1. Project descriptions [due on last day of classes for Fall semester]
  2. GROG feedback on projects [mid-December]
  3. Midterm report [May 1]
    • any anticipated changes to project outcomes should be raised with the GROG at this time
    • dates finalized for talks + interviews
  4. Final reports due [first day of classes for Fall semester]
  5. Oral presentations and interviews [Sept 1-15]

699-2 milestones

  1. Project descriptions [October 1]
  2. GROG feedback on projects [mid-October]
  3. Midterm report [February 1]
    • any anticipated changes to project outcomes should be raised with the GROG at this time
    • dates finalized for talks + interviews
  4. Final reports due [last day of classes for Spring semester]
  5. Oral presentations and interviews [May 15-31]

Credits and grades

Students entering with a BA and working toward a PhD take 9 credits of ASTR 699: 2 credits of ASTR 699DR during their first semester, 2 credits during their second semester, 3 credits during their third semester (1 credit for the first project, 2 credits for the second), and 2 credits during their fourth semester. The first project thus receives a total of 3 credits, while the second project receives 4.

During the first semester, ASTR 699DR is taken credit/no credit. In the second, third, and fouth semesters, ASTR 699 must be taken for a letter grade. These grades are awarded by the student's research advisor on the basis of work actually performed; they are independent of the GROG's evaluation of the project.

Students with MS degrees

Students entering with a Master's degree or equivalent in Astronomy or a related field may have extensive research experience and often take the Qualifying Exam before their third year. For such students, an abbreviated sequence of ASTR 699 courses is appropriate; specifics should be worked out on an individual basis with the Chairs of the GROG and the graduate program. One possible approach is to propose a project at the start of the fall semester and complete it at the end of the spring semester. This provides a decent interval of time before the Qualifying Exam, but requires an incoming student to select an ASTR 699 advisor and project rather promptly. An alternative follows the normal sequence for other first year students, proposing a project at the end of the first semester and completing it at the start of the third.

Project guidelines

The following guidelines are highly recommended for ASTR 699 research projects. The GROG recognize that innovative research sometimes entails unusual approaches which may not follow these guidelines. However, anyone proposing such a project must be prepared to provide compelling reasons for the choices made.

A list of past projects and advisors is available here.

Research advisor

All IfA faculty (tenure-track and non-tenure-track) are eligible to be research advisors for 699 projects.

Advisors and students should meet on a regular schedule for at least one hour per week. In addition, advisors should plan on being available to their students for at least another hour per week.

Research topic

ASTR 699 projects may be drawn from any field of research conducted at the IfA and can be observational, theoretical, and/or instrumental in nature. The selection of a research topic is the responsibility of the student. The student should discuss potential projects with several faculty members and is also encouraged to talk with GROG members and the Graduate Chair. The The key word is "discuss." The selection of a research topic should be an interactive, iterative learning process. Some guidelines for successful research projects include:

Project proposal

The 699 proposal should be no more than two pages of text (11 point font or larger; 12 point font if using New Times Roman), with no more than two additional pages with figures and tables. The proposal must include at least three components:

  1. Context: Introduce the problem to be solved. Provide background information for the proposed work. Describe what has been done before. Explain why will the proposed work be scientifically interesting.
  2. Method: Describe the techniques used to solve the problem. Identify the source of the data. Place special emphasis on what you will do and describe what is expected of the advisor or any other collaborators.
  3. Timeline: Outline a schedule for your project, at a time resolution of about 1-2 months. Describe major milestones and their dependences on each other, incoming data, etc. Again, the rule of thumb is that research always takes longer than anticipated, so it would be a good idea to have some contingency in your schedule.

A proposal should also include references to any work cited in the text, though these do not count towards the page limits. Proposals which do not meet these basic requirements will be returned for revision.

Alternatives and variations

The Graduate Chair may allow prior research (e.g., MS research done elsewhere or summer work done at another institution) to be presented.

A student wishing to expand their first project into a larger project that lasts three semesters may petition the GROG to allow this. The student would need to provide evidence that they are gaining breadth of research experience in other ways, such as by working on a rewarding RA, or by having had significant and varied research experience at their previous university.


Not all ASTR 699 research projects "succeed" as judged by the objectives of the original proposal. Some failures are necessary or even valuable. Some projects may prove unproductive or fruitless or they may not prove to be feasible. Such an outcome does not necessarily reflect badly on the student (provided that the student has made a substantial effort to make the project succeed) or on the supervisor. They should be recognized as a normal part of scientific research.

If it becomes clear either to the student or to the supervisor that the project should be abandoned, this should immediately be brought to the attention of the GROG. The GROG will then meet with the student and supervisor and decide how to proceed. If the GROG agrees that the project should be abandoned and a new project substituted, it will be the responsibility of the student to find a new project and to present it to the GROG for its blessing as quickly as is possible.

Presentation and Evaluation of Astronomy 699 Research

Research must be written up and presented to be of any lasting value, and the ASTR 699 research experience emphasizes these aspects as well as the process of discovery itself. At the conclusion of each project, the student will be evaluated on 3 components presenting their research:

  1. Research paper: the student will write a paper describing the objectives, methods, results and conclusions of their research. This paper should be written in a professional style appropriate for submission to a major journal (e.g., Astrophysical Journal or Proceedings of the SPIE), including an abstract and complete references. Students should seek detailed feedback from their advisors while writing these papers. You are strongly encouraged to use LaTeX with the AASTeX style file as these are the standard tools used in astronomy. In addition, the paper should contain a brief "Who Did What" appendix to help the GROG better understand the in's and out's of the research effort — some examples are given here.
  2. Science talk: Shortly after submitting their papers, students will give brief (∼15 minute) talks on their research to the IfA community. These talks should cover the same material as the research papers, and students should be prepared to answer questions on the details of their work.
  3. Oral interview: Following these talks, the students will meet individually with the GROG to discuss both the papers and talks.

Astronomy 699 research projects are formally evaluated by the GROG, which reviews the 3 components as well as written assessments provided by the advisors. The GROG takes into account the scientific content, the presentation of the completed work, the depth of understanding, the level of difficulty, and amount of guidance provided by the faculty advisor. The GROG uses the following voting scale, with 3 being a passing score:

     1 = Fail
     2 = Incomplete, needs revision
     3 = Pass
     4 = Exceptional

At the conclusion, the GROG will give each student a written evaluation of their project, addressing the strengths and limitations of the submitted papers and presentations. The GROG may require students to revise papers which display serious weaknesses in the research or are not written in a style suitable for a professional journal.

The Graduate Research Oversight Group (GROG)

The GROG, composed of five or more astronomy faculty and one graduate student, will offer assistance and advice in the selection of Astronomy 699 research topics and will work with the student and research advisor as necessary during the course of the project. The GROG meets formally with each student to approve their project, review progress half-way through, and evaluate the final product. Its members are also available to discuss research informally at other times. The graduate student and the GROG are encouraged to call upon the knowledge of other astronomers at the IfA.

Faculty GROG members are appointed by the Graduate Chair for a term of three years and choose one of its members to be GROG Chair. The graduate student member is elected by all the graduate students and must have already successfully completed two 699 projects. The student fully participates in the meetings but does not vote.

To ensure the best possible review of 699 projects, GROG meetings are conducted with the usual expectations of academic confidentiality. Once the committee has finalized its discussions, feedback will be provided to the students and advisors. Details are available here.