What to Expect
Astronomy students need to be prepared to put a great deal of effort into
"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
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.
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,"
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."