Prospective Students

Why Join UCLA ESP?

We use near-Earth space as a pristine plasma physics laboratory. We advance our knowledge of plasma interactions in Earth’s ionosphere, magnetosphere and the solar wind by designing and building highly specialized space experiments that address basic plasma physics questions in a geophysical context. Through close interaction between scientists and engineers and by advancing the cutting edge in sensor and satellite technologies at ESP we make scientific breakthroughs on critical questions in the field. With a small team size and short-duration projects (rockets, CubeSats, participation in Explorer-size missions) we offer students a wide-range of project experiences, end-to-end project visibility and a first rate physics education applied towards space exploration.

Graduate students are encouraged to design and perform their own investigations with the computational tools, data analysis, theoretical and laboratory devices and personnel resources available in the group and affiliate groups. Undergraduates can obtain real-world experience in a team-environment where they can hone their critical thinking and problem-solving skills and become better prepared for academic research or industry.

Past and present high impact space missions worked on by ESP are: ISEE, AMPTE/IRM, POLAR, Cluster, FAST, Van Allen Probes, THEMIS/ARTEMIS (continued funding through 2017) and soon MMS. ESP is the PI institution for THEMIS/ARTEMIS and currently conducts science operations processing, mission design and data analysis for these 3+2 satellite missions.

Space Physics at UCLA is conducted across multiple departments (including Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and the Dept. of Physics and Astronomy) offering critical mass and diversity. Cross-pollination of ideas is encouraged through joint seminars, cross-listing of courses, co-advising of students and joint group meetings. ESP graduate students are mentored by EPSS faculty who have contributed to the intellectual growth of the space physics discipline and have participated in dozens of NASA and international missions with space instrumentation, theory or analysis. EPSS and outside faculty commonly co-advise, teach and/or participate in Ph.D. thesis formulation of ESP students.

ESP benefits also from significant cross-fertilization in areas of spacecraft design and mission development with the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and other departments in the School of Engineering, as well the Aerospace Corporation, NASA and others in the local aerospace industry. The most recent ESP project that has been selected for flight is the Electron Losses and Fields Investigation (ELFIN), a CubeSat that will study Earth’s radiation belts from an ionospheric vantage point (more here).

Software and hardware resources, including a thermal vacuum chamber, clean-benches for flight hardware assembly, a prototyping-lab for milling and CNC machining parts, a 3D printer, and a group of a dozen staff members experienced in space hardware allow curiosity-driven science questions to mature into efficiently executed, highly rewarding end-to-end space projects.

Graduate Admissions

Application Deadline: January 1, 2017

Admission requirements for the Geophysics and Space Physics graduate degree program at the UCLA Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences can be found here.

General info regarding the UCLA graduate program and academic policies can be found here.

Additionally, applicants will be evaluated on the following:

Required: Base level physics coursework, GPA >3.3 in prerequisite courses, GRE score, transcripts.

Encouraged: Physics Subject GRE, Plasma Physics coursework, programming ability (Fortran/C++, IDL, Matlab), some research experience and/or publications.


It is never too early to start volunteering. If your interests lie in space and your career path is in engineering, computer programming, math, or experimental physical sciences we would be glad to have you apply to our ELFIN Cubesat program. Currently open positions and an application are available here:

The standard path is after volunteering and proving yourself, you are asked to participate in an independent study course with one of the professors affiliated with the program for a few quarters. Upon satisfactory progress, a paid position may be available thereafter. Students from all fields of science and engineering are welcome to apply – we also welcome humanities students with interest in space exploration.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a Space Physics MS and a PhD?

An MS degree entails coursework and either a masters thesis or an oral defense. The thesis is composed of original research while the oral is two short research plan proposals plus an oral examination on basic space plasma physics concepts in a geophysical setting. The PhD degree entails passing the MS requirements at a Ph.D. level followed by advanced, in-depth research in an area of the candidate’s choosing as approved by the thesis committee in a candidacy examination, to be followed by thesis delivery and an optional oral defense.

How long does it take to graduate?

From admission to degree, an MS is 2 years. From admission to oral defense, a PhD is 5 years.

What is a typical week like?

Graduate students attend required degree courses while conducting their independent research. All students present a short weekly progress report at group meetings, review recent publications in the space physics journal club, and attend Friday guest seminars featuring mission scientists and researchers from all over the world. Additionally students can attend relevant (plasma physics) departmental colloquia, lunch seminars and visiting researchers’ talks at other active plasma physics groups on campus. Students are required to make a longer, 30min, presentation of their research quarterly at joint group meetings and are encouraged to participate in national schools, workshops and national and international meetings, depending on their year of study.

Our group organizes several social events every year, and the department has an active graduate student association and many department social events (including Friday Liquidus) so you can meet and get to know fellow students from other disciplines.

Are there opportunities to present my data or get published?

All our students are encouraged to present and receive informal training during regular presentations at science working group meetings in a relaxed, friendly setting. Students are encouraged to attend science conferences and workshops, and to write multiple first author papers in leading journals such as Geophysical Research Letters, and Journal of Geophysical Research, Space Physics. Student co-authorship in the past has included publications in Science and Nature Physics.

What are current students working on?

See Personnel Pages for more information.

How do I pick a research topic?

By reading research papers and by asking questions during classes or group meetings you form your own research questions. You will be encouraged to follow your own direction. But you will also be given optional topics and science leads by mentors that address cutting edge questions in the field, based on your perceived interests and your questioning.

How do I get into instrumentation or space hardware?

We encourage students to work closely with a technical team in the context of an on-going experimental project to get hands-on experience. We also encourage them to grow scientifically and define critical questions that can be reachable with a new technology or full-up experiment. We then help them apply their skills to proposals or actual hardware projects.