Advice for High School Students Interested in Majoring in Astronomy in College

January 3rd, 2011

I made some strategic errors in my career, mostly because I split my energy between engineering and astronomy double majoring when it would have been better to commit to one or the other early.   By most measures, I’ve done fine, now being a tenured professor at the University of Wyoming, with a salary, research, and teaching expectations that are quite acceptable.   I didn’t exploit my options as well as I could have, however, and here’s some advice to help you do better.

First, college has gotten ridiculously expensive at a lot of schools.   It’s possible to make a decent living in astronomy, but it isn’t the kind of career worth taking on $100,000 plus of loans.   Don’t go to an expensive private college unless it’s a some kind of lifelong dream, or you get a free ride due to a great scholarship or rich parents.

There’s another reason not to go to an exclusive Ivy League school.   They don’t all have great or large astronomy departments, and even for the ones that do, there’s more competition from other students to be the best in the class or work with the top professors.   At the undergraduate stage it’s probably better to be top dog at a less prestigious undergraduate institution and set yourself up to get into the graduate program of your choice for the PhD.   Graduate admissions committees seeing Harvard or Princeton on an application do take that into account, but it’s a lot harder to stand out at places like that, and if you can get into them, you can be a star someplace else.

Understand also that there’s not a lot of difference at the undergraduate level between an astronomy major and a physics major, so don’t let details of the astronomy major be a big deal in selecting a college.   The physics GRE (a college version of the ACT) will have a potentially big effect on grad school applications, and there isn’t an astronomy GRE test.   A minor in computer science is a good idea as astronomy is getting more and more data intensive, with larger and larger data sets to analyze.

So here’s what I recommend.   Pick an affordable public university with a large and superior astronomy department that will provide a lot of opportunities to get involved in research and make your grad school application spectacular.   Work your ass off to be a star.   Do summer programs and/or do research with more than one professor in the department.   Ideally, have your name on some papers and line up some great letters of recommendation before you graduate.   Don’t plan on becoming an astronomer with only a BA or BS degree, but realize you should expect to complete a PhD and college is just a step in that journey.

There are quite a few public universities with large and superior astronomy departments I recommend.   Tuition varies among them, especially in-state vs. out-of-state, so be careful making comparisons.   In no particular order, and realizing I may be omitting some good options, here’s my list: University of California (Berkeley, Santa Cruz, LA), University of Arizona, University of Wisconsin, University of Texas, University of Colorado, University of Florida, Penn State, Ohio State, University of Washington, and the University of Hawaii.   There may be some other smaller or more specialized programs that are good choices, especially if you can get in-state tuition or like their faculty/specialty.

If you want another source of rankings of graduate programs (which is a good surrogate for program quality and opportunities especially if you search on larger programs) try this webpage.   Here’s another list of programs with links.


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