mountain profile Institute for Astronomy University of Hawaii

MS in Astronomy

Maintained by LG

This page describes the options available to students who enter with a Bachelors degree and wish to get just a Master's degree in astronomy (a "terminal" Master's). Students planning to continue toward a doctorate should see the page on the PhD in Astronomy.

As part of the MS degree, our program emphasizes:

Our program offers both Plan A (thesis) and Plan B (non-thesis) MS degrees. Historically, students who entered the program with the goal of obtaining a terminal MS degree have generally preferred Plan A since it can be completed in four semesters.

Students must satisfy the formal requirements laid down by both the University and the Astronomy program. Most students have comfortably exceeded the minimum course requirements.

Formal requirements: Plan A


  • A minimum of 30 credits, including:
    • 18 or more of course work
    • 12 or more of graduate courses
    • 6 to 12 of thesis research
  • At least one graduate seminar
  • A Master's thesis
  • Registration in ASTR 700 the semester of graduation
  • Cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher
  • Official Plan A Master's requirements


  • Take 30 credits of grad-level astronomy (or equivalent – see below), including:
    • ASTR 633 (Astrophysical Techniques)
    • At least 3 credits of ASTR 7XX
    • No more than 12 credits of ASTR 699 or ASTR 700 counting toward this total

Formal requirements: Plan B


  • A minimum of 30 credits, including:
    • 18 or more of graduate courses
    • At most 9 credits of ASTR 699
  • At least one graduate seminar
  • All of the 30 credits counted to the degree must be taken for a grade (except for ASTR 699 which may optionally be taken CR/NC)
  • Cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher
  • Offical Plan B Master's requirements


  • Take 30 credits of grad-level astronomy (or equivalent – see below), including:
    • ASTR 633 (Astrophysical Techniques)
    • At least 3 credits of ASTR 7XX
    • No more than 9 credits of ASTR 699 counting toward this total
  • Satisfactorily complete at least one directed research project
  • Pass Final Exam (grade "P") by end of 5th semester


The core of the graduate astronomy curriculum is a series of "600-level" three-credit courses that provide a broad base to which specialized knowledge can later be added. PhD students entering with a Bachelor's degree typically take at least six of these courses, including ASTR 633 (Astrophysical Techniques). Most courses are taught on a two-year cycle, but ASTR 633 and ASTR 635 are currently offered each Fall.

In addition, there are a number of "700-level" courses, most consisting of short, specialized seminars on topics closely related to ongoing research at the Institute. These are usually given for one credit. Most courses change from year to year and some are taught by visiting scientists; two 700-level seminars, ASTR 740 and ASTR 777, are presently offered on a regular basis. Students need to take at least three credits of 700-level seminar courses.

Normally students take all their courses within the astronomy program. However, a student may ask the graduate chair for permission to substitute a course from another program, such as physics, mathematics, or planetary geosciences, so long as the substitution forms part of a coherent plan of study.

Directed reading and research

There's no substitute for real astronomical research experience early in one's graduate career. The IfA graduate program puts considerable emphasis on research, even during the first two years when students are also taking formal courses. This research is normally done in collaboration with a faculty advisor as Directed Research (ASTR 699).

During their first semester, most students take ASTR 699DR, a directed reading course surveying ongoing research at the IfA. During their second, third and fourth semesters students normally carry out two substantial pieces of research, usually with two different faculty advisors. An independent oversight committee (the GROG) assists in the selection of research topics, and offers advice and feedback throughout the pre-thesis research period. The GROG is also responsible for evaluating papers and presentations.

Note that the minimum Plan B research requirement can be satisfied by a single piece of research. Plan A students are not required to do an ASTR 699 project since they must research and write a thesis.

PhD students entering with a Bachelor's degree are generally expected to complete two ASTR 699 projects, although in some cases a single expanded project may be accepted instead. Students entering with a Master's degree may submit research done at other institutions; if this is accepted they are excused from the directed research requirement.

Thesis (Plan A)

Students who want to complete their studies by the end of the fourth semester, or who decide that they do not wish to continue to a PhD, may opt for the Plan A Master's program, which involves writing and being examined on a thesis based on a research project. The thesis committee must be constituted following the guidelines set out by the University. A student may switch from Plan B to Plan A at any time before the beginning of the fourth semester. The thesis project can be an extension of the topic chosen by the student for his/her ASTR 699 project.

Final examination (Plan B)

Students registered for the Plan B Master's degree must pass the final exam that is offered early each Fall semester. The exam is commonly referred to as the "qual" since it is also part of the qualifying process for the PhD degree. The standards required for a Master's pass (sometimes referred to as a "P") are lower than those for a PhD pass (sometimes referred to as a "P*"); students planning to continue to a PhD should review the PhD-level requirements for the qual exam, as well as the MS-level requirements. The qualifying exam is described in more detail in the webpage about the PhD degree. Students are allowed two attempts at the exam.

Receiving the MS degree

Students apply to graduate division to receive the MS degree. Application should be made early in the semester during which the student expects to satisfy all requirements; the deadline for the degree application is only about 10 days after the start of the semester. Students who miss the deadline should apply for their degrees the following semester.

Note two important graduate division regulations concerning the MS degree: