Stanford and Observational Astrophysics

Cosmos1
Posts: 10
Joined: Wed Aug 27, 2014 4:52 pm

Stanford and Observational Astrophysics

Postby Cosmos1 » Wed Aug 27, 2014 4:55 pm

I'm interested in observational astrophysics, more specifically cosmology, and was wondering if Stanford would be a good school for this. I haven't been able to find much information about their astrophysics program (if they have one). Does anyone have information on this?

Thanks!

blackmass
Posts: 61
Joined: Thu Jul 17, 2014 2:01 pm

Re: Stanford and Observational Astrophysics

Postby blackmass » Wed Aug 27, 2014 5:11 pm

Here you go: https://physics.stanford.edu/research/experimental-observational-astrophysics-and-cosmology

I can't tell you anything about it personally, but hope that helps.

Cosmos1
Posts: 10
Joined: Wed Aug 27, 2014 4:52 pm

Re: Stanford and Observational Astrophysics

Postby Cosmos1 » Wed Aug 27, 2014 5:18 pm

What I found strange, is that very few prospective students interested in astrophysics that are applying to top 10/20 schools apply to Stanford. This is just my observation looking through the posts on the forum, but it makes me think that Stanford may not be the best for astrophysics, at least observational.

TakeruK
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Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Stanford and Observational Astrophysics

Postby TakeruK » Wed Aug 27, 2014 5:53 pm

It is my opinion only, but I feel that Stanford does not have as strong of an astronomy program as other California schools. For example, when I think of "top California astronomy programs", UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and Caltech come to mind first. I get the sense that Stanford's top ranking in Physics/Astro programs is more due to their Physics program than their Astronomy program.

However, that was all opinion/speculation. When I try to look up Stanford's astronomy department, it seems like they don't really have one (http://web.stanford.edu/dept/astro/). This webpage makes it seem like there is no actual astro department, but instead, it is just a research area that Physics, Applied Physics and Electrical Engineering departments pursue.

I feel that this signals to me that Astronomy is not a serious priority for Stanford. Although many schools do not have a separate Astro department, most astronomy programs are at least housed in a "Physics and Astronomy" department. However, at Stanford it seems like Astronomy is "just" a subfield of Physics. And from their Physics page, it does seem like Stanford does not cover the whole gamut of astronomy fields, but instead seems to mostly focus on Astrophysics. When I check the courses available to Physics PhD students, I get the same sense.

Finally, as far as I know, Stanford does not operate or have time on 10m class telescopes (e.g. Keck). I think they do operate some instruments/telescopes that are useful for particle astrophysics and/or cosmology research but not necessarily useful for the rest of astronomy. Thus, this might explain the small number of astronomer profiles you see here applying to Stanford.

In summary--I think Stanford gets less mentions here because unlike other California astro programs, it is more specialized and only covers a small number of research interests, so naturally, the number of people interested in Stanford is smaller! Personally, I did not apply to Stanford because Stanford's specialities and resources do not overlap with what I wanted! A good example, I think, of how it's important to consider research fit as well as department ranking!

Cosmos1
Posts: 10
Joined: Wed Aug 27, 2014 4:52 pm

Re: Stanford and Observational Astrophysics

Postby Cosmos1 » Wed Aug 27, 2014 6:13 pm

Thanks for your opinion! Interestingly, when I was looking through 2014 Graduate Programs in Physics, Astronomy, and Related Fields, I found that 11/35 of the physics professors have some kind (theoretical/observational/experimental) of research interest in astrophysics and cosmology. This seems like a very high number for a university with a small astrophysics program (if what you said is true).

Stanford has the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (http://kipac.stanford.edu/kipac/), but it says the laboratory is independent of the university. Do graduate students have access to this? Is anyone a current graduate student at Stanford studying astrophysics that can talk about the program? That would be very helpful to me :)

TakeruK
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Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Stanford and Observational Astrophysics

Postby TakeruK » Thu Aug 28, 2014 11:49 am

In my opinion, there is a huge difference between working in a physics department where 11/35 of the profs have "some" interest in astrophysics than working in an astronomy department where 8/8 profs (or any number where the fraction is closer to 1) have full interest in astrophysics.

However, this is also preference. In Canada (where I did my BSc and MSc), only one school has an independent astronomy department--most schools have astronomy as part of their Physics department (at least it's titled "Physics and Astronomy" usually though). My experience with these programs is that you are trained as a physicist that happens to do astronomy research. For many astronomy grad students, we prefer to be trained as astronomers first. So, I personally avoided Physics departments because I did not want to have to take any more Physics courses (my undergrad phys/astro department requires all its grad students, no matter their focus to take Quantum Field Theory, something I have no interest in taking!). I also wanted all of my grad courses to be Astronomy and/or Astrophysics--I didn't want to have to be required to take random physics courses (or have to take them because the department focuses on physics courses so that astronomy courses are not offered enough to only take astro courses). Finally, I wanted to be in a community where astronomy is the main bread and butter research, not part of a huge department of which astronomy is just a small component. When astronomy is the main focus, then things like department seminars will be more interesting, there would hopefully be less politics/drama amongst the profs between funding for astronomy vs. other physics etc.

Again, not saying that Stanford is not a great place for astrophysics but I think their focus is on students who want to study the "physics side" of astronomy, which is great and everything. However, since astronomy is a wide field, any subfield (whether it's cosmology/astrophysics or exoplanets etc.) is going to just be a small fraction and since Stanford only caters to a small fraction, it's not surprising that few people who list interests in astronomy will apply to Stanford when compared to other schools that offer research programs in more aspects of astronomy!

I also don't really trust "on paper" interests because they might change faster than these things are updated. Before applying, I emailed all the profs I was interested in to check that they are still working on things I want to work on.

Cosmos1
Posts: 10
Joined: Wed Aug 27, 2014 4:52 pm

Re: Stanford and Observational Astrophysics

Postby Cosmos1 » Thu Aug 28, 2014 5:19 pm

I think I'll email one of the professors at Stanford and ask them about their program. I'll probably get the most reliable information that way. Thanks for your response!

bfollinprm
Posts: 1197
Joined: Sat Nov 07, 2009 11:44 am

Re: Stanford and Observational Astrophysics

Postby bfollinprm » Fri Aug 29, 2014 4:43 pm

KIPAC is seperate from the university, but is mostly staffed by university faculty. You're right that this means Stanford has a strong presence in theoretical and phenomenological astrophysics. They definitely have their fair share of experimenters as well, but from my impression not a lot of observers. By that I just mean people who apply for telescope time. This makes sense--Stanford is the one big school in California without guaranteed Keck time, and with TMT going up on the same site without Stanford funding, this disadvantage is set to continue. There are people who take observational data, but they tend to be with Stanford-based (or partially Stanford-based) experiments--a recently well-known example being the BICEP folks. Mostly what this means is the the type of observation done is more limited than you would expect for a school of the size and stature of Stanford--what they do have is top notch, obviously, but some things they just don't do.

As an aside, I think observational astronomy has a completely different historical set of top universities than physics, so checking the US News rankings is especially misleading in this particular subfield of degrees-which-sometimes-need-a-PGRE-score. Schools in the Southwest where the big observatories are (plus Hawaii and California b/c of Keck access), plus places near historically important observatories like Palomar and Lick in CA (and Green Bank in WV) are better in this subfield than they are in general physics.




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