Astronomy and Astrophysics

Overview of Astronomy and Astrophysics Program as a College Major

If you saw the movie “Contact,” then you know about SETI: Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Or maybe you are familiar with NASA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration. While these are only a small sampling of what goes on in the field of astronomy, for many it is their only knowledge of what astronomers do.

For anyone not yet familiar with this degree program, astronomy is the scientific study of celestial objects (such as stars, planets, comets, nebulae, star clusters and galaxies) in the universe beyond the earth’s atmosphere. And astrophysics is a primary branch of astronomy, focusing specifically on the physical properties of the universe, including luminosity, density, temperature and chemical composition.

As you consider astronomy and astrophysics degree programs, keep in mind the importance of having access to the resources and technical assistance available at your chosen school. You’ll want learning tools such as telescopes and instrumentation labs along with an on-campus observatory and/or a planetarium.

Astronomy and Astrophysics Program Curriculum

According to government figures there are about 75 universities which grant degrees in astronomy and about half of all astronomy departments are combined with physics departments. That means there are a lot of different curriculums available. However, while the actual course titles may differ from school to school, you will likely find yourself taking courses such as:

  • Physics
  • Mathematics (i.e. algebra, geometry, calculus)
  • Chemistry
  • Cosmic origins of the universe
  • Archeoastronomy and world cosmology
  • Observational astronomy
  • Astrophysics
  • Star formation
  • Cosmology and extragalactic astrophysics
  • Stellar structure and evolution

Education Levels Available for an Astronomy and Astrophysics Degree

Yes, you can get an Associate's degree in astronomy. However, it is merely a stepping stone to higher-level educational programs. In fact, even a Bachelor's degree in astronomy and astrophysics or in physics with an astronomy or astrophysics option – which are the most common degree programs for students interested in astronomy and astrophysics – is generally considered only a precursor to further education.

According to Tim Kallman, astrophysicist with the Goddard Space Flight Center, “if you are interested in a career in astronomy, you will probably want to attend graduate school after college and get a PhD. If so, then the choice of graduate school is more important to your future career than is the choice of college. In fact, many students in graduate schools in astronomy have undergraduate degrees in fields other than astronomy, such as physics or mathematics.”

Keep in mind that that are only about 40 PhD programs in astronomy and astrophysics. Some are available at such prestigious graduate schools as Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Penn State, University of Massachusetts (Amherst), California Institute of Technology, Cornell and Dartmouth.

Skills Developed through Astronomy and Astrophysics Degree Program

Just because you understand the stars doesn’t mean you’ll automatically shine. It is important that in addition to learning the technical details about astronomy and astrophysics that you develop skills that will enable you to be a well-rounded scientist. The skills you’ll need include:

  • Analytical thinking and logic
  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • An inquisitive mind and imagination
  • Working knowledge of computers and a variety of computer programs
  • Ability to present ideas both in writing and orally
  • Desire and ability to explore and identify basic principles and laws governing the motion, energy, structure, and interactions of matter beyond the earth’s atmosphere
  • Ability to use sophisticated equipment such as photometers, spectrometers, CCD cameras, star charts and space-based or ground-based telescopes
Where to Obtain an Astronomy and Astrophysics Degree

If you’re considering a career as an astronomer or astrophysicist, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that this field should show a faster than average job growth rate – somewhere around 16% over the next few years.

There are colleges and universities throughout the country that offer a wide array of astronomy and astronomy-related classes and degree programs at all education levels.  Online college degree programs and courses are a little more difficult to come by.

However, Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia and the University of Western Sydney (also Australia) offer an online Master’s degree program while the University of North Dakota offers an MS in space studies. In addition, some schools, such as the University of Phoenix, offer online astronomy courses.

Career Opportunities for Astronomy and Astrophysics Majors

While a large percentage of astronomers work in scientific research and development or for the federal government (more than 50%), you can also find them working in education and industry.

It is important to keep in mind as you choose your astronomy degree program that most jobs in basic research usually require a Doctoral degree. And while a Master’s may land you a job in applied research and development, typically an undergraduate degree will only qualify you for a research assistant or technician position.

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