Applying to grad school in the US: a timeline

I find that thinking about major undertakings and not knowing where to start can be extremely stressful. How am I supposed to know to be on top of something if I don’t even know I’m supposed to do it? In my experience, and maybe in yours as well, applying to grad school can be like that. This timeline is supposed to be a general outline for applying to astronomy graduate schools in the US generally from the perspective of a US-based student. Astrobites has a lot of other resources about graduate school as well. Check out our glossary on the application process or, if you’re interested in applying to PhDs in Europe, check out Yvette’s post on applying as a US undergraduate student. For full disclosure, in writing this I did not consult with any faculty who had served on an admissions committee, nor have I done so myself. Ask us questions or offer your own thoughts on Twitter or Facebook.

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Wikimedia commons/ James Watkins //


Now: Sort out your tests.

  • The physics GRE subject test is required for most, but not all, physics and astronomy graduate schools. Register for the physics GREs if you haven’t done so already. The late registration deadline for the September test is 8/16/2019 and the deadline for the October test is 9/27/2019. Note that if you choose to take the GREs multiple times, you will not be able to review your scores for the September test before sitting the October test. Both tests should get you your scores in time for your applications.
    (UPDATE: As of 2019, there are a number of physics and astronomy graduate programs that do not require the physics GRE. You can find a list of all physics and astronomy grad schools here sorted by whether they require the physics GRE.)
  • You will also need to take the regular GREs at some point. These are easier to schedule because the tests are computerized. There are many more locations and times available than for the subject GREs.
  • If you did your undergraduate degree at a non-English speaking institution, you may be required to demonstrate English proficiency with the TOEFL. Dates and locations vary by country.
  • Note that some departments impose a lower threshold on GRE scores, and say that they are unlikely to seriously consider those with scores below save for exceptional cases. You’re probably a bad judge of whether or not you are an exceptional applicant, so apply anyways. Do take the tests seriously, but don’t stress about about getting a perfect score. Check out these Astrobites for some thoughts on the verbal GRE and the physics GRE.

Soon: Ask yourself serious questions.

  • Do you want to go graduate school? What’s your purpose in going to grad school? Sometimes, graduate school can be viewed as a default option, but grad school is long and hard and there are no promises at the end, so make your decision thoughtfully.
  • Where do you want to apply? Among other things, you might consider where you want to live, what research interests you, and the resources available at different schools. Consider resources such as telescope access and conference funding, but you also might want think about a university’s alumni network and non-academic career services.
  • What is the financial cost of graduate school for you? Most science PhD programs cover your tuition and pay you $20-30k per year as part of a typical teaching and research fellowship; question any that don’t. Especially relative to other jobs that an undergraduate science degree may qualify you for, your stipend may not afford you much extra room in your budget. Remember that graduate applications can also be very expensive, at the cost of $50-$100 per application, but that most schools will pay for you to come visit if they accept you.

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Wikimedia commons/user chensiyuan


September: Letters of recommendation.

  • Ask for letters of recommendation from those who know you well; you want people who can write in support of your application and whose letters will be meaningful to admissions committees. Past research supervisors are ideal people to ask; you might also consider asking your academic advisor or a professor you got to know particularly well. I bet they’ll be happy to do it. One tip for getting good letters of reference is to explicitly ask someone if they can write you a “strong” letter of recommendation (even if that feels awkward). You will probably need three letters.
  • Once you’ve decided where to apply, send your letter writers information: the list of places to which you need them to send letters, links providing information about what the letter should contain, and the application deadlines. Keep the list updated. They may also ask you to provide extra information.
  • Send your transcripts for fellowships. Fellowships and graduate schools both typically require transcripts with your application. Depending on your university, it can take a long time to get transcripts sent; get started in advance and avoid getting stuck with rush charges.
  • If you have the opportunity and research to present, consider attending the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). Some REUs support attending AAS, but you can also talk to your research advisor about presenting your work at AAS. Attending AAS can be rewarding, and as someone applying to graduate school you will get a chance to network with graduate students and professors. Going to AAS is definitely not required (I didn’t go), but departments do keep an eye out for potential applicants at AAS. Networking could be more important for you if your letter writers are not known by the faculty at the departments to which you are applying. September 25, 2019 is the early registration deadline for AAS.

Early October: Work on your fellowship applications.

  • The deadline to submit an abstract to AAS is October 8th, 2019.
  • Don’t think you’ll get that fellowship? Apply anyways. You might surprise yourself and it’s great practice. Plus, it’ll help with writing your graduate applications. Check out the AstroBetter list of fellowships and see if any might be right for you. The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) is the big opportunity when it comes to astronomy. For more tips from Astrobites on applying for the NSF, check out this post on the program and application and this one for some of our own experiences.
  • Once you’ve got drafts of your personal statements and essays, send your essays to your letter writers so that they can write in support of what you’ve said.
  • Send your transcripts for graduate schools. See above. Note that some graduate applications only require unofficial transcripts at first, and allow you to send the official ones later if you are accepted.

Late October: Apply for fellowships.

  • Get help with your essays. Ask graduate students, post-docs, and/or professors at your university or that you’ve met elsewhere what a good essay looks like. Some might be willing to share their essays with you. Ask them to look over your statement, and get a friend to read for clarity and grammar. It probably goes without saying, but if you want people to read over your essays, you have to give them more than 24 hours to do so.
  • The NSF (see above) application is due October 25th, 2019. Note that the deadlines differ by field.
  • The Hertz Foundation Fellowship is due October 23rd, 2019.
  • Check when the Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship application is due. As of this Astrobite, the deadline wasn’t stated, but the application becomes available in October.

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Wikimedia commons/ Jesse Varner //


November: Work on your graduate school applications.

  • The application for the National Defence Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship is due in December. The date for 2019 has yet to be announced.
  • Make sure your letter writers get your recommendations in! Almost always, you will get a notification when a letter has been submitted on your behalf or you can check on line to see if your application is complete. If they are not in yet, remind your letter writers! They’re busy and probably forgot.
  • Keep an eye out for graduate-school specific fellowships. Some you’ll be automatically considered for, for others you might need to provide extra information.
  • If you choose to, November is a good time to email professors at the schools to which you are applying. This is definitely not necessary (I didn’t do this), but I do acknowledge that this could help your admissions prospects. Getting in contact with faculty could be particularly worthwhile if you don’t have the opportunity to go to AAS and network in person, and if your letter writers are not known by the department’s faculty. Admissions aside, you might personally find it useful to communicate with people. If you are interested in a non-standard graduate path, can it work here? Is Professor X around next year? While you would also have the opportunity to ask these questions if you were accepted and visited, knowing in advance that Professor X is not taking students next year could influence your decision on whether to apply. If you choose to send emails, put some thought into it: ask a good, insightful question that’s specific to person with whom you are corresponding (i.e., not one that you could answer with a quick search), and write back if they respond.
  • The regular registration deadline for AAS in November 13th.

December: Send in your grad school applications.

  • Deadlines for international students may be earlier than for domestic students. The earliest deadline I have found is December 1st.
  • For US students, applications deadlines are early December to mid-January. The earliest I have found is December 6th.
  • Remind your letter writers of upcoming deadlines.
  • The late registration deadline for AAS is December 10th, 2019.

January: Try not to stress out!

  • Some universities have application deadlines in January. The latest I have seen is January 15th.

February-March: Hear back from schools.

  • Some schools will contact you for additional information or for interviews. Skype interviews are not uncommon.
  • Decisions for astronomy graduate schools begin to come in early February, and continue to come throughout February and March.

March-April: School visits.

  • If you are accepted, someone from the University will be in touch about visiting the department. Some schools organize group visits, bringing together many prospective students at once, and others do individual visits.
  • If you are making multiple visits, try stringing a few of them together. It’s tiring but can save you a lot of travel. The schools you visit will be happy to share your costs as well.
  • Check out our tips for visiting graduate programs.

April 15th: Make your decision.

  • If you were not accepted, and especially if you were wait-listed, and receive a prestigious fellowship such as the NSF, you can politely let your contact at that school know you received the fellowship.

About Elisabeth Newton

Elisabeth was a Harvard graduate student and an astrobites and ComSciCon co-founder and is now a professor at Dartmouth College.

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