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The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) Predoctoral Program enables qualified graduate students from external universities to carry out doctoral thesis research under the guidance of SAO scientists at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. Students remain under the supervision of their home institution thesis advisors.

The Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA) is a joint institution connecting the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) and the Harvard College Observatory (HCO). The CfA is a diverse astrophysical institution at which more than 800 staff and students are engaged in a broad program of research and education in astronomy, astrophysics, and earth and space sciences. The CfA is at the forefront, internationally, of the scientific exploration of the universe. Our research covers theoretical astrophysics, observational ground and space-based astronomy, engineering and technology development, and education. The research objectives of the CfA are carried out primarily with the support of government, Smithsonian Institution, and Harvard funds, with additional philanthropic support. At the CfA, the next generation of scientific leaders are being trained and mentored through a broad range of undergraduate and graduate student programs, postdoctoral positions and fellowships.

The SAO Predoctoral Program accepts applications twice a year (May 1 and November 1) for start dates within the following year.


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 their home university department head.

Selecting an Advisor

Applicants should initiate a discussion about the suitability of a predoctoral sponsorship with an SAO scientist.  A representative list of current projects can be found at this link.  Feel free to contact these scientists, or other SAO scientists, directly to inquire about these opportunities and to reach out to any other SAO scientist as appropriate. An application requires an endorsement from the SAO scientist who has agreed to serve as a predoctoral advisor. Thus, program applications are initiated by the potential SAO advisor. Once the endorsement is accepted a link to the application form is sent 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. Appointments of longer than three years (total) are unusual and are granted only under exceptional circumstances.

A remote component for up to three months may be granted for extenuating circumstances and must comply with policies set by the Smithsonian Institution.  Please contact the Predoctoral program directly for guidance.

Start Date

The applicant must submit application material three months before he/she intends to begin their appointment to ensure sufficient time for processing. Applications are accepted twice a year (May 1 and November 1) for a planned start-date within the following year.


Stipends for the current academic year are $42,588 annually or $3,549 per month. Effective July 1, 2024, the annual stipend will be $49,000 annually. Funds may also be available for relocation, travel, and other expenses. Predoctoral Fellows are required to have health insurance and are eligible for the SAO group plan (currently Harvard Pilgrim Health Care) if their funding comes through SAO. Fellows who are self-funded may not be eligible. If the awardee has private insurance the sponsoring SAO advisor can fund a reimbursement up to the current HPHC rates. Some conditions apply. Outside dental plans cannot be reimbursed.

Application Procedure

Open to all qualified applicants who are English-speaking citizens of all nations.

The Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian Fellowships do not discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, gender stereotyping, pregnancy, and sexual orientation), national origin, age, disability, genetic information, parental status, or marital status of any applicant.

Once the potential SAO advisor has endorsed the application, the applicant will receive a link providing access to the application form. The following items are required for a complete application:

  • 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 mail)
  • Three Reference Letters (each letter writer will receive a link for their confidential submission)

Application Details

Application materials are due 3 months before the intended start date of your fellowship award. Application materials, including those not submitted online, must be received 3 months before the start date of your award for full consideration. Incomplete applications -- and/or applications received less then 3 months 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

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 initiates 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.

1. Endorsement Form by an 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.

2. Department Head Approval Letter
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 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
  • Sample (Word)
  • Sample (PDF)

3. Summary of previous and current research (limited to three pages including references and figures).

4. Curriculum Vitae

5. Research proposal (limited to three pages including references and figures).

6. Transcript of Grades
An official transcript of your courses and grades must be sent by the Registrar or equivalent authority at your university to the SAO Predoctoral Program Director by email at or by mail at the address:

Dr. James F. Babb
SAO Predoctoral Program Director
60 Garden Street, MS-14
Cambridge, MA 02138

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.

7. Reference Letters
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. Applicants should emphasize to their referees that the letters must be received at CfA at least 3 months before the start date of your fellowship award to enable the Director of the Predoctoral Program to review the complete application.

Requests for Information

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


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