You might be surprised to learn that the main focus of an astronomy program
"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
An online publication
For the astronomically disadvantaged