Brian W. O'Shea - Astrophysics senior thesis

cv / bio


One of the requirements to obtain a B.S. in astrophysics at Michigan State University is to pursue a senior thesis project with a MSU faculty member on an astrophysics-related topic. This is formalized by 4 credit hours in AST-410, typically spread across the senior year. AST-410 also fulfills the university's Tier-II writing requirement - as a result, the written thesis needs to be of very high quality.

There are two options for a senior thesis: a literature review option, and a research option. The default assumption is that students will pursue a literature review, but particularly motivated students may (after discussion with me) decide to pursue the research option.

Goals of the senior thesis


  1. Meet regularly with thesis advisor and provide progress reports; regularly participate in research group meetings. Come prepared to participate actively in these meetings.
  2. Submit an outline, including an abstract and annotated bibliography, of the thesis by the end of the first semester.
  3. Submit at least two drafts of the final thesis for feedback starting a month before the final deadline.
  4. Give at least two short presentations on the thesis topic at research group meetings.

The final thesis should be 15–20 pages in length; should be written in a professional style; and should conform in language, mathematics, and graphics to the standards of The Astrophysical Journal or The Physical Review.


To receive a 3.0, you must... the above requirements; in addition your thesis must, at a minimum, apply astrophysical concepts learned in the undergraduate courses to explain the motivation and execution of the selected paper(s).
To receive a 3.5, you must... the above requirements; in addition your thesis must survey the selected papers and not only apply concepts to explain their motivation and execution, but also compare the papers and differentiate their motivation, scope, and findings.
To receive a 4.0, you must...
...exceed the above requirements; your thesis must not only differentiate the motivation, scope, and execution of the selected papers, but also analyze them and critically appraise their context and scientific merit.

Typical AST 410 timeline

The following 30 week timeline describes a typical fall (1 credit) and spring (3 credit) sequence for AST 410.

  1. Week 1–2: Consult with adviser and decide on topic. Fill out enrollment form (obtainable from Kim Crosslan) and draft reading list.
  2. Week 2–12: Read through papers, background material; discuss them with advisor at weekly meetings.
  3. Week 12–15: Formulate outline of thesis, with abstract and bibliography, and submit it for grading. (Before the end of the fall semester.)
  4. Week 16–24: Draft sections of paper and submit for review as they are finished. Give two short presentations at group meetings.
  5. Week 26: Submit first draft of paper.
  6. Week 28: Submit second draft of paper, which incorporates feedback from the first draft.
  7. Week 30: Submit final draft of paper .

Research option

There is an option to do original research for AST 410. To qualify for this option, you must meet the following requirements by the middle of the first semester.

Note: thanks to Professor Ed Brown for drafting a set of requirements for AST-410. This page has been copied from his senior thesis page (with some modifications) with his permission.