Astronomy  Interviews


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dotWhat to Expect

Astronomy students need to be prepared to put a great deal of effort into their studies.

"The only way to successfully meet the challenges of this program is to be a genius -- which most of us, including me, are not -- or to exhibit high degrees of motivation, patience, persistence and competence," says Jeffrey Burkett. He took a bachelor's degree at Minnesota State University at Mankato.

Burkett would sometimes have seven hours of class one day and no classes on another day. He spent an average of 50 to 60 hours a week attending classes, working on homework and studying.

He also worked as a teaching assistant at an observatory. There, he set up and maintained the telescopes for first-year students.

Astronomy programs tend to be small. This is partly because many students drop out of the program as they advance through the classes. "Serious study of astronomy is generally quite difficult, and requires knowledge of subjects that many students shy away from," Burkett says.

"A high level of competency in mathematics is absolutely essential. Additionally, knowledge of calculus-based physics and computer programming are necessary, and a basic knowledge of chemistry doesn't hurt."

Former astronomy student Marianne Graham says that she most enjoyed the upper-level physics courses, including electrodynamics and quantum physics. Her favorite astronomy courses were cosmology and solar system astronomy.

She also liked the lab time, and the group spirit found in a small department.

Survival Tips

Graham says that the workload is heavy in astronomy. During her academic career, she learned not to waste any time, and that studying five minutes here and 10 minutes there really does add up.

Getting involved in a sport or any regular activity helps alleviate stress from studying, Graham says. "The work is hard, but it's very satisfying," she says.

How to Prepare

Burkett advises high school students to take all the math and physics classes they can. "Try to get some chemistry, and above all, don't run away from calculus," which will be required extensively in college, he says.

"As far as extracurricular activities go, try to do something that will exercise your mind," Burkett says. "I especially recommend taking up a musical instrument or acting. Not only are they intellectually stimulating, but they offer a break from the heavy math. Above all, do something you enjoy. Don't waste your youth taking everything too seriously."