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Since 1985, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) Pre-doctoral Program has welcomed graduate students from universities around the world interested in carrying out all or part of their research under the guidance of SAO Scientists.

The Center for Astrophysics|Harvard & Smithsonian creates a rich environment for collaborations among future colleagues by bringing together over 300 SAO scientists across a broad spectrum of scientific endeavors in nearly all areas related to astronomy, including: atomic and molecular physics, geophysics and atmospheric physics, the solar system, solar physics, exoplanets, planetary systems, the interstellar medium, stars and star formation, supernovae, compact objects, galaxies, extragalactic astronomy and cosmology.

Facilities include the MMT Observatory, Magellan, and other optical and infrared telescopes; radio telescopes, especially the Submillimeter Array on Mauna Kea, Hawaii; a large computational cluster and network of workstations; a number of specialized laboratories; an outstanding library system; and access to data from a wide range of space missions, especially the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Applications from graduate students pursuing thesis research in astrophysics or related fields. Applicants in theory, observation, instrument development, or laboratory experiments at a university or college are welcomed.

Online applications are accepted on a rolling basis although all application materials must be submitted at least 6 WEEKS BEFORE THE INTENDED APPOINTMENT START DATE. For application instructions and a login to the application, please contact a potential advisor in your respective field for an applicaton link. Only applications that receive the endorsement of an SAO scientist will be considered.



Requirements: The SAO Predoctoral Program is designed for graduate students wishing to carry out all or part of their thesis research at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Therefore, applicants must have completed preliminary coursework and examinations prior to the start of the SAO Predoctoral Program. Applicants must gain approval of the Department Head of their particular university as their degrees will be granted by their home institutions. For application instructions, please click the "Apply" tab.

Selecting an Advisor: All applications to the Fellowship Program require an endorsement (form) from the SAO scientist who has agreed to serve as an academic advisor and potential financial sponsor. Applicants must directly contact an SAO scientist in their particular research area. Program applications are initiated by an SAO scientist through an endorsement (form) uploaded to the application and a shared link to the applicant.


Length of the Award: The SAO Predoctoral Fellowship is awarded for a period of six months or more dependent on the project. It is possible to renew or extend a SAO Predoctoral Fellowship Award based on the availability of funding, satisfactory progress, and the agreement of both the home institution advisor and the SAO advisor.

Start Date: The Program accepts applications through a rolling admissins process. Once a start date is established with the SAO Advisor, the applicant must submit application material 6 weeks before he/she intends to begin their appointment.

Compensation: Stipends for the current academic year are $38,916. In 2022, the annual stipend will be $39,000. Funds may also be available for relocation, travel, and other expenses.

Predoc Research Review Committee: In order to support and evaluate the research work of each predoctoral candidate while in residence at SAO, a Predoctoral Research Review Committee (PRRC) is established for each SAO predoc consisting of three members. Each predoctoral candidate presents their work annually to their committee for review and discussion.


Online admissions materials are due 6 weeks before the proposed start date of appointment:

    • Endorsement Form by an SAO Advisor
    • Department Head Approval Letter
    • Summary of Previous and Current Research
    • Curriculum Vitae
    • Research Proposal
    • Transcript of Grades (must be sent from your Registrar's Office directly to SAO by email or snail mail)
    • Three Reference Letters

    Note: We are unable to upload reference letters to applications. Consequently, it is critical that applicants list the names and contact information for each reference writer in the application before contacting your references.

    Application Instructions Application materials are due 6 weeks before the intended start date of your fellowship award. Application materials, including those not submitted online, must be received 6 weeks before the start date of your award for full consideration. Incomplete applications -- and/or applications received less then 6 weeks prior an applicant's intended start date -- will only be considered if a new start date is established. We strongly suggest that applicants begin the online application process early so all questions and issues that arise from this process are resolved before final submission of application materials. All questions, including technical questions related to our online program, may be directed to

    Application Procedure Applicants should complete the entire application (with the exception of the Transcript of Grades and recommendation letters), including the uploading of files listed below. If you are unable to apply online, contact

    The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) Advisor triggers the application process by uploading an endorsement form to the SAO Predoctoral Application. This step further allows the SAO Advisor to share the application link with the applicant. Similarly, the applicant's initial registration requires an email address and a self-generated password. After the password is verified, the applicant can select "Edit Application" to enter their Personal Data, File Uploads, and References. The applicant can submit the application when it is complete and ready for review.

    Uploaded Files Required All uploaded files must be in 12-point font

    • Curriculum Vitae
    • Summary of previous and current research (limited to three pages including references and figures).
    • Research proposal (limited to three pages including references and figures). 
    • Transcript of Grades 
    • An official transcript of your courses and grades must be mailed by the Registrar or equivalent authority at your university to the Fellowship Program Coordinator (see address listed under "Letters of Reference"). If records are not in English, original records must be submitted with certified English translations. All translations must be literal and complete versions of the original records.
    • Letters of Reference 
    • Each applicant should arrange for letters of reference to be submitted by three individuals ("referees") familiar with her or his scientific abilities. One referee must be the applicant's primary advisor at their home institution. If English is not the first language of the applicant, we recommend that the applicant convey to the reference writers that an assessment of their English proficiency be included in their letter.
    • These letters must be received by the application deadline and should be emailed directly to the Fellowship Program Coordinator at as Word or pdf attachments. Plain text is also acceptable. Applicants should emphasize to their referees that the letters must be received at CfA at least 6 weeks before the start date of your fellowship award to enable the Director of the Predoctoral Program to review the complete application.
    1. If an applicant's referee is unable to upload a copy of a reference letter online, he/she may send it to:, Attn: Fellowship Program Coordinator.

    2. SAO Advisor 
      All applicants must obtain the endorsement and application link from their potential SAO Advisor. Through an endorsement, an SAO Advisor indicates to the reviewers that he/she has agreed to supervise and provide research funding for the applicant. Once this endorsement form has been uploaded to the application, the applicant will see the word "Done" written in the "View Status" section of the application. NOTE: A list of current openings is available in the left navigation bar of the SAO Predoc Program web page.

    3. Approval from Department Head of Home Institution 
      In order to be eligible for an SAO Predoctoral Fellowship, applicants must be enrolled in a Ph.D. program. The applicant is also responsible for communicating to the Department Head of her/his home institution that a SAO Predoctoral Research Review Committee (which includes the SAO Advisor) will monitor and support his/her research activities. An email confirmation must be sent by his/her Department Head to the Fellowship Program Director, Dr. James Babb, at The message should include the following:

      • a statement that the student is enrolled as a full time graduate student
      • approval of the student's plan to pursue doctoral research at SAO

    4. Requests for Information 
      Requests for additional information on application procedures and supporting documents should be addressed to:


    How do I apply?
    Applications are accepted online through a rolling admissions process. In order to apply online, applicants will need a computer with an internet connection and a supported web browser. Applicants can gain access to the online application through a link shared by a potential SAO Advisor who has endorsed your candidacy for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) Predoctoral Program.

    Can I upload my transcript(s) to the application? 
    No, the Registrar's Office of the applicant's respective university must send your transcript by email or snail mail to the Fellowship Program Coordinator at SAO. The Fellowship Program Coordinator can be contacted at or with the following address:

    Fellowship Program Coordinator
    60 Garden Street, MS-67 
    Cambridge, MA 02138

    Can I print the application form and mail it? 
    If you are unable to use the online application, contact for more information. 

    Will funding be awarded for my fellowship if my application is accepted? 
    All applicants must either have funding from their home institution or obtain funding directly from their SAO Advisor.

    When is the deadline? 
    Applications are accepted throughout the year. It is the applicant's responsibility to ensure that all materials, including letters of recommendation, are received. Incomplete applications -- and/or applications received less than six weeks before the intended start date -- will not be considered. 

    What type of visa am I eligible for as a fellowship recipient at SAO? 
    The SAO issues only J-1 visas to fellowship recipients. SAO cannot issue any other type of visa including tourist or employment visas to fellowship recipients at the time of their award or during their tenure if their J-1 visa eligibility expires. Please contact us at if you have further questions about visa eligibility. 

    When will I know if I have been accepted into the SAO Predoctoral Fellowships? 
    Acceptances will be issued by email shortly after receipt of required application materials. If you are not selected, you will also be notified via email. 

    Are there any requirements I must meet in order to apply? 
    All applicants must be currently enrolled in a full-time Ph.D. degree program. Additionally, applicants must have completed preliminary coursework and examinations and be ready to begin dissertation research at the time of the award. Most important, the candidate must secure the endorsement (form) and sponsorship of an SAO advisor. Finally, permission of her/his university's department head is also required in order to be given full consideration by the Director of the SAO Predoctoral Program. 

    Where are the Application Instructions? 
    They can be found by clicking the Apply tab.

    How should letters of recommendation be submitted? 
    Letters of reference should be submitted by three "referees" familiar with your scientific abilities. One of these referees is required to be the applicant's primary advisor at their home institution. A reference letter can be uploaded directly to the application by the reference writer. However, if a writer has problems uploading their letter to the application, he/she may email as Word attachments, PDF, or plain text their letter directly to the Fellowship Program Coordinator at Applicants are responsible for ensuring that letters of reference have been received before submitting their application. Use the "View Status" feature to check if receipt of a letter of reference has been recorded. 

    What format is required for uploading files? 
    Files should be in pdf format. If this is not possible, Word documents or plain text are acceptable. 

    Can I edit my application online? 
    Yes, applicants can access the application as many times as you want until final submission. Applicants can enter more information or edit existing information each time. You can upload new files to replace existing ones until you hit the submission button. 

    If my password does not work, what should I do? 
    On the "Fellowship Application: Login" page select "Reset Password" and a new password will be emailed to you if you have already successfully registered. 

    How will I know if all my application materials have been received? 
    After logging in to the application, applicants can select "View Status" to check what remains incomplete in any part of their applications. In addition, when applicants view their application online, they can check previously uploaded files by clicking on the link provided. Applicants will be prompted for a username and password -- enter the email address and username you used to register. 

    What should I do if I notice an error in my application after I submit it? 
    Until the application is submitted, applicants can access the application to make corrections, including uploading new versions of the pdf files. 

    What if I decide to withdraw my application? 
    If an applicant wants to withdraw their application, an email can be sent to stating your full name and which fellowship application you wish to withdraw. 

    What if I have other questions? 
    Please send an email inquiry to us at


    Application Questions: Please email us at

    Research Questions: A CfA scientist is available online to answer your inquiries related to proposed research projects as well as current CfA programs at:

    The SAO Predoctoral Fellowship enables students to leverage their completed Ph.D. academic work into an in-residence collaboration with a Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory researcher. These external advisors guide student projects that complement or augment their proposed thesis research. Join a group of enthusiastic participants, expand your exposure to astrophysical topics, and build a bridge between your home institution and the Center for Astrophysics.
    - James Babb, Director of SAO Predoctoral Program