How Much Math Is Involved in a Masters in Astronomy?

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Math is a big part of a career in astronomy, both in graduate education in the field and in professional research. If you don’t like math, astronomy is a career path you should probably steer clear of, because you will use high-level math on a regular basis. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Math in a Master’s in Astronomy Curriculum

One fact that may stand out to you as a prospective graduate student exploring program options is that there typically aren’t any direct math courses in a master’s in astronomy curriculum. Some courses, like statistical mechanics in physics, have an apparent or implied math component to them.

However, graduate coursework in astronomy tends to be too specialized to encompass courses offered directly through mathematics departments. Instead, the math involved in a master’s in astronomy program – most commonly, calculus – is integrated into physics equations and physics and astronomy coursework.

Certain areas of specialization in astronomy, such as computational astrophysics, may put a stronger emphasis on math through coursework in numerical analysis, scientific computing and mathematical physics.

Mathematical Requirements for Getting Into Graduate School

If you don’t study math directly as a graduate student, then your math background has to come from your undergraduate coursework. Incoming students are typically expected to have a background in calculus and calculus-based physics. In particular, knowledge of differential equations is a common prerequisite for graduate students of astronomy.

Many master’s in astronomy programs focus the specifics of their prerequisites not directly on math but instead on physics coursework. Without a strong command of calculus, you’re unlikely to grasp the calculus-based physics coursework you need to earn a bachelor’s degree in physics or astronomy or to qualify for admission into a master’s in astronomy program.

Looking at the curriculum of a bachelor’s in astronomy degree program, you will notice that math is likely to be a big component of your coursework. You can expect to devote almost as much of your studies to math courses specifically as you will to basic science courses or to intermediate and advanced coursework in your major. Calculus I, II and III are common requirements to earn an undergraduate degree in astronomy, as are courses in linear methods and applications, differential equations and complex variables.

Your math-related coursework doesn’t end with the classes offered out of a math department. Throughout your physics coursework requirements, you will use math to calculate forces, properties of matter and the production of energy.

Learning More From Math Courses Than Math Skills

When you’re busy solving equations and performing complicated calculations, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture of what you learn from math. Studying mathematics at the college level provides you with the technical skills to calculate changes over time, such as motion in physics, but it also accomplishes so much more. Math coursework develops your broader quantitative reasoning and analytical thinking skills.

Through studying math, you learn to manipulate data and, by extension, other types of intricate and precise ideas, even when those ideas aren’t numerical in nature. Math is closely tied with critical thinking and logical reasoning, two skills that are highly valued in scientific study. You need to be able to put together logical arguments as you plan and conduct research in astronomy and interpret your findings, but you also need to be able to pick apart and expose illogical arguments and claims.

There’s a reason the terminology used in even basic math involves “solving” the “problems” posed to you. Learning math strengthens students’ problem-solving skills, both when dealing with quantitative data and in general.

Mathematics courses can also improve students’ skills in independence and time management and, in the case of group work, assist in developing communication and teamwork abilities.

How Astronomers Use Math

Some of the main ways astronomers use mathematics are for observing astronomical phenomena with a telescope and coming up with theories about how the laws of physics apply to space. If you think using a telescope is as simple as putting your eye to the eyepiece to see what’s on the other side of the lens, you have a lot to learn about research-grade telescopes in astronomy.

The space telescopes that modern astronomers use are more high-tech, using a camera to record numbers that pertain, for example, to the amount and type of light that the space objects you’re viewing emit. Much of what an observational astronomer does when they’re not actively looking through telescopes – a task they typically do just 10 to 30 nights per year, according to the American Astronomical Society – is use math and statistics to analyze and interpret this numerical data.

Just as you use math in the physics calculations you do in the classroom, you will also rely on mathematical calculations when your work as a professional astronomer involves physics. How do the laws of physics as we know them on Earth apply to or change when studying objects in space? To develop theories and test them, you need to run physics calculations with complex, real-world data.

Math is needed even for basic work in astronomy, like converting measurements between different units, such as kilometers per second to miles per hour, according to NASA.

Related Resources: 

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Other Than Astronomy, What Are Majors That Will Help Prepare Me for a Master’s in Astronomy Program?

What Kind of Job Title Should I Be Looking for at NASA With a Master’s in Astronomy?

What Degree Do You Need to Be an Astrophysicist?

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