The University of Washington is committed to promoting respect for the rights and privileges of others, understanding and appreciation of human differences, and the constructive expression of ideas.

A Message from the Chair

The faculty, postdocs, and students of the Astronomy Department are committed to creating an academic environment that reflects the rich diversity of the Pacific Northwest and our nation as a whole. As the fraction of minorities and women in our total graduate student and faculty population has (slowly) increased over the years, the broadened spectrum of learning styles and research strategies has had a beneficial influence on almost every facet of our research, education, and outreach activities. This has certainly affected the ways in which faculty and students develop and interact. It has also enhanced our commitment to diversify our outreach efforts throughout the regional community, as outlined in our department’s diversity report. The University has provided strong encouragement and support to this end.

Our department members are also active on diversity issues in the national astronomical community. Faculty, postdocs, grads and undergrads participate in the American Astronomical Society’s Committees on the Status of Women and on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy, which are devoted to improving the status and representation of women and minorities at all levels in the field. We encourage and have achieved significant attendance at the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans (SACNAS) national meetings.

Faculty Recruitment & Retention

The Astronomy faculty ranks well above the national and U.W. averages for physical sciences in percentage of women faculty, with 33% of the tenured faculty being female. Recruitment and retention of these faculty members has been aided by the UW ADVANCE program, which has provided mentoring and leadership training opportunities, as well as short term funding to assist in leave situations involving childbirth and elder care. Recruitment of minority faculty has proven even more difficult than recruiting underrepresented graduate students, due to the very small number of applicants. In collaboration with the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity (OMAD) and through our participation in national and regional conferences, e.g. NSBP and SACNAS, we are working to improve our ability to attract minority faculty candidates. The small numbers of minority candidates for faculty positions has, however, made us realize that more work needs to be done on recruitment and retention in the earlier stages of the pipeline.

The Graduate Program

The goal of our graduate program is to train a diverse set of students for a rewarding career in professional astronomy and related fields (such as teaching and computational methods). In addition to achievement, the admissions process is designed to recognize potential for success since applicants have diverse backgrounds, varied undergraduate programs, and many types of life experiences and opportunities before entering a graduate program. We aim for a healthy mix of incoming graduate students of all academic backgrounds (small and large schools), ethnicity, and genders.

Everyone learns and progresses in their own way. Hence our program offers a full range of observational and theoretical work that span all of modern astrophysics. We stress a very close-knit learning community of students, postdocs, and faculty in which learning has elements of individual and team experiences. All of our graduate students receive training as teachers and mentors as well as meaningful opportunities for public service. The University also promotes cross-disciplinary studies that build rich and rewarding careers. Our students are encouraged to take advantage of the UW’s many opportunities in physics, biology, Earth sciences, oceanography, applied mathematics, education, and the arts and humanities. Many of our students participate in the Astrobiology program, earning Graduate Certificates and collaborating with faculty and students from other participating departments in astrobiology research.

Our admissions committee continues to work closely with the Office of Graduate Student Equity and Excellence (GSEE), The UW’s Women’s Center (one of the first in the country), and the campus chapter of Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) to improve our recruitment and retention strategies for underrepresented students. As a relatively small department, our admission numbers in a given year are not large, but we are committed to increasing the overall number of graduate women and minorities working toward Astronomy Ph.D.s here at the UW. 

Below is a look at how the Astronomy Department’s graduate student population has evolved over the past few decades. Note that all the information is self-reported; statistics for foreign students were not kept before the mid-90s.

Year 1965-1969 1970-1979 1980-1989 1990-1999 2000-2009 2010 to date
All Entering
16 33 41 38 50 14
Male 16 31 34 31 28 8
Female 0 2 7 7 22 6
0 3 6 7 5 2
International       1 5 0
Number of PhDs awarded per decade
Average duration of PhD for student entering that decade
5.54 years
6.16 years
6.42 years
6.43 years
6.03 years
19 (to date)
6.37 years

In addition, we have begun compiling statistics about our applicant pool. The following is based on self-reported information:

Male 63%
Female 37%
International 18%
Roughly 30% of applicants wait 1-2 years after
obtaining their undergraduate degree before
applying; roughly 10% waited >3 years. About
10-15% of applicants had or were finishing a
master’s degree.

The Undergraduate Major

In the UW Department of Astronomy, we aim to create an exciting science major as well as a welcoming and supportive environment for all of our undergraduates. To accomplish this, we focus on providing pre-majors and majors with a mixture of research exposure, mentoring, and skills development. Recognizing that one of the biggest leaks in the science pipeline is the transition from high school to college, we have used the President’s Diversity Appraisal Implementation Fund, the National Science Foundation, and the NASA Astrobiology Institute to fund the Pre-Major in Astronomy Program (Pre-MAP), which recruits motivated women and minorities interested in a science career and helps them adjust to college through astronomy skills seminars, mentoring, research experience, field trips and cohort-building activities in their freshman year at the U.W. Each year many Pre-MAP students continue to participate in research projects with faculty, postdocs, and graduate students in the department, and they have become an active part of our community. 

Community Outreach

In an effort to reach local students, our department offers free planetarium shows every Friday, which are typically booked weeks ahead of time by local high school and middle school classes. These shows, given by astronomy grads, undergrads and staff, are an opportunity to excite young people about science and turn them on to astronomy in particular. In a similar vein, the Department of Astronomy hosts an annual open house which attracts hundreds of local families to see countless workshops and participate in hands-on-activities. As part of our commitment to encouraging young people, especially those from underrepresented groups, to participate in science, various members of our department independently seek out ways to engage the next generation of scientists by volunteering with groups such as Making Connections, GEAR-UP, and Upward Bound. Since Fall of 2005, Pre-MAP has introduced more than 300 first-year college students from traditionally underrepresented groups to astronomy research, and provided mentoring as those students begin their college careers. 

Related Resources

American Astronomical Society