Astronomy  Program Description


Insider Info

dotYou might be surprised to learn that the main focus of an astronomy program is physics.

"An astronomy degree is a physics degree with some astronomy courses added on," says David Clarke, a professor of astronomy. "Therefore, if you have a strong interest in astronomy, but have little love for physics and math, then a professional astronomy degree is not your future."

Many students will choose to pursue a master's or PhD degree in astronomy, while others will look for work after finishing their bachelor's, says Jon Hakkila. He is an astronomy professor at the College of Charleston.

"Astronomy students who do not choose to go on to graduate school are often hired as computer programmers and analysts," he says. However, since astronomers need a PhD to work in their field, the primary goal is to get students adequately prepared for graduate programs in astronomy.

"It typically takes four years of college and five or more years of graduate school to get a PhD -- which is the astronomer's 'license to practice'," says Hakkila. "Despite this, astronomy is a tremendously rewarding discipline."

Students majoring in astronomy can expect to take courses in things like telescope operations, photometry (measuring the intensity of light), and astrometry (measurement of celestial bodies).

Students also get involved in research projects. This has included working with orbital satellites such as the Burst and Transient Source Experiment on NASA's Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory, says Hakkila.

To enter the astronomy program, the student is expected to start calculus in the fall semester of the freshman year, says Hakkila. "If the student has not been satisfactorily prepared in mathematics, then they will need to correct any deficiencies before starting physics and astronomy classes," he says.

A good start would be to take all the advanced math and physics you can in high school. Good writing, communication and computer skills are also important.

To enter the program, a B average in Grade 12 math and physics is the minimum. "However, it is best if the student takes as many math courses and sciences courses as the high school offers and can fit into their program, and get straight A's in them all," Clarke says.

Clarke also recommends that aspiring astronomy students read magazines such as Scientific American and Astronomy Magazine. "And take the time to gaze at the stars," he says.

Besides tuition, astronomy students face other costs, such as textbooks, lab books and other stationery.

"Imagine getting paid for learning about, teaching and making discoveries about things such as black holes, the structure of the universe, gamma-ray bursts, new planets, pulsars and quasars," says Hakkila. "I cannot imagine anything that I would rather be doing. Astronomy is fun!"


National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
The space agency's home page

Astronomy Magazine
An online publication

Astronomy Cafe
For the astronomically disadvantaged

Just the Facts

Want a quick overview of what this program is about? Check out Just the Facts for a simple description.