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The Breakdown

It’s easy to get lost staring up at the sky and begin to wax poetic. Inevitably, we start pondering the “big” questions. Where did we come from? How did the universe form? Is there really life beyond Earth, playing out in distant galaxies? Astronomers have the privilege of taking these questions into the laboratory, striving to explain the cosmos and our place within it. Not a bad way to spend a day at the office, eh?

Essentially, astronomy is the application of physics to celestial objects. Therefore, undergrads take a combination of “pure” astronomy courses in conjunction with physics and math (and the occasional computer science class to boot). More specifically, you’ll study everything from the evolution of stars and star clusters, quasars, and dark matter to particles and waves, multivariable calculus and the Big Bang Theory. Additionally, a handful of schools maintain observatories thus allowing their undergrads to conduct their own scientific observations. It should be noted that many departments offer the option to major in either astronomy or astrophysics. Often, astronomy is less rigorous than astrophysics in terms of science requirements. It is recommended that students intent on attending graduate programs in astronomy actually major in astrophysics.

To excel in astronomy, you’ll require a facility for quantitative reasoning and analysis. Additionally, critical thinking and computer skills (esp. programming) are also paramount for success. And perhaps on a more emotional and philosophical level, you should have a thorough appreciation for the mystery of the unknown.

Nuts and Bolts

Astronomy majors typically enroll in such fascinating and heady courses as: Stars: From Suns to Black Holes, Particles and Waves, The Milky Way Galaxy and the Universe Beyond, Introduction to Cosmology, The Nature of Discovery in Astronomy, Electricity and Magnetism, Stellar and Galactic Astronomy, Observational Techniques, Vector Analysis and Theoretical Mechanics.

Decisions, Decisions

Intrigued by the laws and make-up of the universe (and the tools which help us understand said laws and make-up), astronomy majors are also drawn to physics, chemistry, astrophysics, biochemistry, mathematics, computer science, aerospace engineering, geology, oceanography, hydrology, computer engineering, nuclear engineering, biology, micro biology or atmospheric science.

What's Next

Astronomy majors intent on having a business card that reads “astronomer” take heed – you’ll likely have to have to attend graduate school. While a number of observatories and NASA centers hire recent grads with a BA/BS for support work, nearly all researchers (and professors) hold PhDs. Those that do ultimately earn their doctorate often work either as theoreticians or analyze data collected by the aforementioned observatories and satellites. Teaching is another popular avenue, be it within the traditional confines of a classroom, science museum or planetarium. And, of course, graduates find employment within a number of private industries ranging from engineering to science journalism.


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Don Munce