|Preparation for a Career in Astronomy|
Extracted from "Understanding the Universe," prepared by the
American Astronomical Society and reprinted with permission.
You may have heard somewhere that astronomy is "hard" or difficult to grasp. This may seem to be the case because astronomers don't have laboratories like chemists, biologists, or paleontologists; they can't put stars in test tubes or galaxies in a centrifuge. Their "fossils" lie millions and even billions of light-years away. Most of the time, astronomers derive information from an analysis of the light or the motions of celestial bodies, a process that, to the uninitiated, may seem more like sorcery than science.
In fact, astronomy is a challenging science, but not because the universe is inaccessible in the conventional sense. Rather, astronomers must apply equal measures of analytic thinking and imagination, logic and intuition, to answer the most fundamental questions about the cosmos: What are stars and planets? How did they evolve? Why does the night sky look the way it does? Does life exist among the stars? How did the universe get here? How will it end? If astronomy seems a rigorous science, it's because the objective of astronomers is nothing less than to understand the nature of the universe. It takes a special person to pursue this objective; one who likes to challenge and be challenged.
Decisions made in high school can have a big effect on a science career. Generally, students who take mathematics or science courses after the tenth grade have the best chance of successfully pursuing a science or engineering career. Although most colleges require at least one year of high school science and two years of high school mathematics, this minimum background is insufficient for students planning to major in science. A better approach is to complete math through pre-calculus in high school. This gives students who plan to major in astronomy or physics the necessary grounding in mathematics needed to start their science courses as soon as they begin college. Both chemistry and physics courses are also strongly recommended in high school as adequate preparation for the first year of college. Many entering students have taken advanced placement calculus and/or physics, though these courses are not required.
Students are also encouraged to get involved in high school science groups, state junior academies of science, and local amateur astronomy clubs. There are literally thousands of such organizations in the United States.
College undergraduates planning careers in astronomy must obtain a solid foundation in physics and mathematics. An astronomy major with a strong background in physics, or a physics major with some astronomy coursework, should have a sufficient foundation in physics and math to seek a graduate program in astronomy. Specifically, a student planning to go on to graduate school in astronomy should have had physics courses covering electricity and magnetism, atomic and nuclear physics, thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and quantum theory. For some astronomy specialties, however, studies in geology or chemistry may be more appropriate.
Computer science, too, permeates all facets of astronomy today. In recent years, supercomputers have allowed astronomers to simulate processes that before were nearly impossible to study. A good grounding in computer science, therefore, will benefit prospective astronomers, especially those considering a specialty in theoretical astronomy.
In addition, a good scientist must also have the ability to read and write clearly and to communicate well with people, often across cultural boundaries. Do not neglect college courses in writing, the humanities, and the social sciences.
Most astronomy positions require a Ph.D. degree, which can take five or six years of graduate work. This path enables the astronomer to do much independent work, which is what makes astronomy enjoyable: finding a problem and finding a way to solve it. Admission to graduate schools generally requires completing an undergraduate physics or astronomy/physics major with a B average or better and satisfactory performance on the Graduate Record Exam. Once admitted, the astronomy graduate students take advanced courses in astronomy and astrophysics while beginning to undertake some research. The specific courses depend on the requirements of the department and on the student's research interests. After the first two years of course work, the graduate program generally requires research projects to be conducted under the supervision of faculty members, culminating in a Ph.D. dissertation.
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