A day in the lives of astronomy grad students

If you’re an undergraduate student, you know exactly what you’re expected to do every single day: study. As a grad student, expectations are a little different.

The biggest difference is that your time is instead dominated by research, but that’s not all. You may also find yourself sitting in on more seminars and meetings or traveling frequently to conferences and observatories.

As an undergraduate, we hope you can also spend some time on extra-curricular activities, hobbies, and just relaxing, as well. Graduate students try to do a little of that, too.

So, what does a graduate student in astrophysics do all day (during the summer)? To get a cross section of students at many stages of their graduate careers and at many institutions, last week we asked Astrobites contributors to write up a brief description of what they did that day.

(A note on numbering convention: “First year” graduate students have just completed their first academic year in graduate school.)

Warrick Ball
University of Cambridge (Third year)
My own days are quite unexciting outside of undergraduate terms. At the moment, I get in at about 08:30 these days and head out around 18:00. I normally mess around catching up on RSS feeds (including arXiv and astrobites), Facebook, Skype-ing my parents, and whatnot, before getting down to the day’s work, which keeps me occupied until roughly 18:00. In Wednesday’s case, “work” was continuing to draft a new paper (so, writing and creating figures) and refereeing a paper for MNRAS. This was done all from my spacious and generous desk at the Institute of Astronomy with a powerful deparment-supplied computer, with short breaks for department coffee at 11:00 and 15:30, and lunch around 12:45.
Zach Berta
Harvard University (Third year)
Today I wrote some code (while watching the last shuttle launch), went to statistics book club, and helped finish a detailed plan for some upcoming observations with HST. At night, I checked the weather in Arizona to decide whether or not to start-up our robotic telescopes (we didn’t).

Alex Calverley
University of Cambridge (Third year)
Alex recorded a day at the Institute of Astronomy (IoA) at Cambridge as part of the university’s octo-centenary celebration. The video opens with pans around the grounds of IoA, including a closeup of the statue of Fred Hoyle outside the building that now bears his name. Alex then walks us into his (and Warrick’s) office, Hoyle 27. He tours the rest of the buildings including the new Kavli Institute for Cosmology and the Observatory Building, which houses the library. Then comes department coffee, followed by a brief shot of one of the PhD students giving an undergraduate “supervision” (pair tutoring). Then there’s a department lunch (called “bread and cheese”) followed by seminars. Alex and others play football (er, “soccer”) before a public lecture by Martin Rees (officially Baron Rees of Ludlow). Finally, there’s a shot of the public observing night.

Judy Cheng
University of California at Santa Cruz (Fifth year)
I’m at a conference in Potsdam, Germany this week. Have seen some interesting talks that are very relevant to my research. Gave my talk today; I was so nervous! I was told it went well, but it’s hard to remember.
Ian Czekala
Harvard University (First year)
When I’m at the office, I always try to be “on the ball” (see photo). In actuality, my time is split between working on reducing spectroscopic data, reading papers, doing analysis, and going to meetings (such as today). Working on data can be as mundane as fitting a blackbody function to a spectrum, or as complex as using software facilities like IRAF. When I want to take a break, I usually make a cup of coffee and water my office-plant Felix. In addition, my day is pleasantly punctuated by side trips to Formaggio’s for lunch and the afternoon graduate student cookie hour. Occasionally I pester my officemate Nathan with questions about papers on the ArXiv.
Courtney Dressing
Harvard University (First year)
I’m currently at All Souls College in Oxford for a small workshop on exoplanet statistics. I spent the morning learning about the HARPS radial velocity survey and the afternoon discussing the Kepler transit survey. We ended the day by brainstorming about how we could combine the mass information from the radial velocity surveys and the radius information from the transit surveys in order to investigate the correlation between planetary masses and radii.
Dan Gifford
University of Michigan (First year)
Arrived at the office at 9:45, spent 20 minutes reading through arxiv abstracts (found one interesting paper), by 10:30 I was working on a density estimation program I am writing. Lunch from 12:30-1:10 spent talking in the lounge with other grads, back to coding! Took a 20 minute roundtrip walk to see my significant other on campus at 3:00, moved to a nearby cafe to read papers until 4:45, and wrote a couple emails until I left at 5:30. Lounged by the pool for a half hour before dinner, and spent the evening relaxing, working off and on, and baking delicious morsels .
Nathan Goldbaum
University of California at Santa Cruz (Second year)
I’m currently attending a summer school on star and planet formation at Peking University. Today I sat in on a lecture on double-diffusive convection in the Earth’s oceans, giant planets, and stars. In the afternoon, I worked on making plots of radial averages of the density, velocity, and magnetic field in the protostellar disks that form in the simulations I’m running. This evening I’ll be going to downtown Beijing to get dinner and drinks with a group of students in the summer school.
Susanna Kohler
University of Colorado at Boulder (Third year)
This morning I met with my advisor to discuss the paper on AGN jet boundary layers that I’m currently wrapping up. I enjoyed a departmental barbecue lunch in the afternoon, and then I worked on slides for the public talk about black holes that I’m giving next week.
Laura Lopez
University of California at Santa Cruz (Newly minted PhD)
This week, my time each day is divided doing three things: 1) helping two undergrads whom I am advising on their summer projects, 2) reducing and analyzing data for two papers I am writing, and 3) planning what science to do using new observations that will be taken next month.
Ellie Newton
Harvard University (First year)
On Thursday, Katherine and I both started our day around 7am: I went to the gym and she paid a visit to the CfA. At 10am, we met up in Harvard Square, took the T into Boston and spent the morning at the Chihuly glass exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. We made it back to our office by early afternoon – in time for my meeting with my advisor – and stayed until around 10pm. I continued to develop code to analyze my spectra and Katherine worked on her protoplanetary disk model. Not a typical day, but a fun (and full) one!
Adele Plunkett
Yale University (Second year)
Today (Friday) I reduced my data… again. Someone once told me that’s why we call it RE-search. In the afternoon I started several scripts running, and in the meantime I went for a bike ride. It’s great to have the computer do all the hard work for a while.
Nathan Sanders
Harvard University (First year)
I’m working on writing a paper, and I spent today trying to address red ink from my adviser. This meant searching through ADS, going back through all my code in python/matplotlib, struggling with latex compile errors, and being thankful for my new computer. I also saw great talks by my classmates Bekki Dawson and Kushal Mehta!

Thanks to everyone who contributed!

About Nathan Sanders

I am one of the members of the team that founded Astrobites in 2010 and a co-founder of ComSciCon, the Communicating Science Workshop for graduate students. I earned my Ph.D. in astronomy at Harvard University in 2014, focusing on observations of supernovae and their host galaxies; investigating how massive stars explode and enrich the interstellar medium. I did my undergraduate work at Michigan State University.

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