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Prospective Student FAQ

Answers for Prospectives from Fellow Grads

The Department
How big is the department? How many faculty? How many grads?

The department has about 19 faculty members, around 30 grad students, and about 12 research and support staff members.

What research groups are here?

The department boasts several research groups. You can find more information on them here.

What research facilities do we have and use?

The department has access to a wide array of facilities, from observatories to supercomputers. You can find more information on them here.

The Program
What are the requirements for a PhD?

The official degree requirements can be found here.

What are classes like?

Graduate level astronomy classes are not "Stars for Studs", but neither has anyone ever been institutionalized as a result of the curriculum ;-). You will work hard in the core courses, but you will learn a lot too. Beyond the core courses, the department offers several "seminar" courses each year, where the faculty teach topics in their specialty. Its a great opportunity to learn cutting-edge astronomy!

What about the proficiency exams?

A proficency exam is offered every year, over two days at the beginning of the fall semester. Don't stress out about the exam! The department doesn't use it to actively "weed-out" some percentage of every class. The purpose is to test your proficiency in core areas of advanced undergraduate (i.e. upper division) astronomy/astrophysics. If you don't pass one section of the exam, you will be advised to take a course in that subject area. Click the link for information about the Proficiency Exam.

What are my responsibilities if I'm a TA?

It depends on the class. Some TAs just grade papers, some run discussion sections for a large lecture class. Most of the TAs at the freshman level also have to do observing sessions (nighttime and daytime) at the Campus Observatory. Also, all astronomy classes are taught by professors; no TA ever has complete responsibility for a class.

How soon do I get to do research?

All grad students are guaranteed funding for their first summer and are required to do a research project. However, if you want to get started early, talk to faculty members -- or even fellow grad students (who can help point you in the right direction). Also, the first summer research project does *not* have to lead to a thesis. Use it to explore a part of astronomy you've never done before! If you're into theory, do an observing project! If you're an observer, do some modeling!

How long does it take to complete a PhD?

The average time is about 6 years to complete a PhD (for a grad student entering with a Bachelor's degree). In recent history, it has taken from 4 years to 10 years.

What funding opportunities are available for graduate students?

The department usually has a number of TA positions available, and most professors have grant money to fund RA positions. In addition, the University Research Board offers funds for RAs (limited funding, so proposals are required). The University also keeps a list of fellowships you can apply for.

What is the typical graduate assistant stipend?

For the 2015-16 academic year, an astronomy TA or RA is given a stipend of about $18,701.55 for the 9-month academic year. A summer stipend covers an additional 2 months, normally at the same rate (about $4,155.90 for the summer). Its a quirk of the University, but RAs don't get paid in August. Oddly enough, if you have a TA in the summer, you get paid in July and August, but not in June (same amount of money as an RA, but distributed differently).

What does it cost to live in Champaign-Urbana?

Everyone is different, so we can't tell you it will cost you X dollars per year to live here - too many variables. We can tell you that rents are reasonable: $400 and up for a one-bedroom apartment (Note: rents are higher closer to campus). Overall, Champaign-Urbana has a cost of living below the national average. So, astronomy grads can do all right on TA/RA stipend since a dollar goes farther in Champaign-Urbana than at other top schools. Using the on-line cost of living calculator, a $22,857.45 stipend at UIUC (a full 11 months of support) is worth:

  • a $25,164 stipend at Univ. of Texas at Austin,
  • a $22,244 stipend at Univ. of Arizona, Tucson,
  • a $24,629 stipend at Cornell,
  • a $30,801 stipend at Princeton,
  • a $27,471 stipend at University of Chicago,
  • a $30,120 stipend at UC Santa Cruz,
  • a $29,652 stipend at UC Berkeley,
  • a $28,213 stipend at Harvard or MIT, or
  • a $28,641 stipend at CalTech.
Exactly where is Champaign-Urbana?

Champaign-Urbana is a college town in rural Illinois; it is 135 miles south of Chicago, 120 miles west of Indianapolis, and 180 miles east-northeast of St. Louis.

How do you get to Champaign-Urbana?

Willard Airport is the local airport. (Air Force One once got stuck in the mud there). America Airlines has daily flights to Champaign-Urbana. Champaign-Urbana is also at the junction of three interstates: I-57, I-72, and I-74 (See the map below). In addition, Champaign-Urbana has daily inter-city bus and train service.

Interstate Map of Champaign-Urbana
How easy is it to find housing in Champaign-Urbana?

Its not difficult at all to find good, reasonably-priced housing in Champaign-Urbana. However, it can be difficult to find something if you want to live within a couple blocks of campus. Housing in this area (referred to as "Campustown") is geared to undergrads and is usually rented out well before summer begins. Away from campus, housing is cheaper, quieter, and usually in better shape. Don't have a car? Don't worry -- Champaign-Urbana has a great bus system! (See the next question :-)

An important resource to know about for new grad students is the Tenant Union. They have information on all the leasing companies and will even look over your lease for you before you sign it.

Does Champaign-Urbana have a public transportation system?

Yes, and a very good one. The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (MTD) is an award-winning public transportation system offering services 24 hrs a day (of course, the services are limited late at night). The MTD has a deal with the University that makes your student ID a bus pass. All students pay a fee each semester that gives them unlimited access to MTD services. The MTD has complete on-line schedules and route maps available.

What is the weather like?

We have a saying in the Midwest, "If you don't like the weather, wait a minute." ;-) Weather in Champaign-Urbana is very seasonal. We have hot and humid summers, quickly cooling autumns, cold and windy winters, and stormy springs. Bring your shorts and your heavy coat!

What is there to do in Champaign-Urbana besides take classes, teach, and do research?

What do you like to do? Of course, Champaign-Urbana as all the usual amenities for a college town: nightclubs, movie theaters, restaurants, coffee houses, shopping. The University boasts a world-class performing arts scene in the Krannert Center (and student tickets are quite inexpensive), art and natural history museums, wellness facilities, its own on-campus bowling alley and billiard hall, as well as a pair of golf courses (again, inexpensive for students). The area has several large parks for hiking, nature walks, or just relaxing in the outdoors. Also, whatever your interests, there is sure to be a student organization for you to join. Check out the University's Community page for more info!

For more information about graduate student life at the University of Illinois, check out the Graduate College's Guide to Graduate Life at Illinois!