While an astronomy major isn’t a requirement to get into a master’s degree in astronomy program, your major does matter. If you’re not going to major in astronomy, physics is generally your next best option as a future astronomer. Prospective graduate students in astronomy might also major in another branch of physical and natural science, like chemistry, or in mathematics. However, you should expect to take considerable physics coursework – at least enough to qualify for a physics minor – if you want to be prepared for a master’s in astronomy degree.
Astronomy and physics are closely related fields of science. While astronomy emphasizes the scientific study of the stars, planets and galaxies, this discipline – like physics – deals with the properties and natural laws pertaining to matter, energy, space and time. Many of the tools used in the study of astronomy were created by physicists or make use of physics knowledge.
Physics is a popular undergraduate major choice for students who go on to study astronomy in graduate school because a physics background provides the strong foundation in physical and natural sciences that astronomers need. If you major in physics, you should be able to meet the prerequisites of most master’s degree programs in astronomy without needing to complete additional coursework prior to enrolling in a graduate program.
In a bachelor’s degree program in physics, students should plan to start with college-level calculus-based laboratory courses like Physics I and Physics II. Further laboratory coursework includes intermediate and advanced physics lab classes. Most programs include classes dedicated to mechanics, quantum mechanics, electricity, magnetism, thermal physics, modern physics and oscillations, waves and optics. Physics students who make an effort to be involved in research at their school are likely to be well prepared for graduate school, regardless of whether they end up seeking a master’s in physics or a master’s in astronomy.
Some undergraduate programs in physics allow students to build an area of concentration in a content area such as astronomy. The coursework that makes up an astronomy track in an undergraduate physics program might include general relativity, astronomy for physicists, astrophysics and observational astronomy. Having at least one or two introductory astronomy courses under your belt by the time you apply for graduate school in astronomy can help you be prepared for your master’s-level coursework.
Many astronomy degree programs are offered through physics departments or through combined physic and astronomy departments.
Physics is a math-heavy branch of science, and so, by extension, is astronomy. Sir Isaac Newton, the scientist credited with discovering the laws of gravity and motion, invented the branch of mathematics known as calculus for the purposes of calculating and mathematically describing the motion of matter. It should come as no surprise, then, that having a background in mathematics, including calculus, would be beneficial if you want to use math to study the stars as an astronomer.
Studying mathematics as an undergraduate means you will have an even more extensive math background than required for the field of astronomy. Prerequisites in a master’s in astronomy program often include differential equations and other areas of calculus. A math major will usually take numerous courses pertaining to algebra, number theory and combinatorics. However, other aspects of the curriculum may revolve around analysis, logic and foundations, applied mathematics coursework and geometry and topology. Often, mathematics majors choose whether to focus their education on applied math or abstract math.
Some undergraduate mathematics curricula include one or more required courses in computer science or computer programming.
On the surface, chemistry – the scientific study of chemical properties, processes and reactions – isn’t quite as closely related to astronomy as physics is. However, chemistry and physics overlap in areas like thermodynamics, as well as in their interests of studying reactions between matter. The big difference is that chemistry tends to focus on interactions between elements, while physics focuses more on interactions between forces. Knowing a great deal about both of these sciences can help you better understand astronomy. There is even an area of focus within astronomy, called astrochemistry, that combines the concepts and practices of astronomy and chemistry for purposes like developing models of the chemical reactions that take place in space and using molecular signatures to seek planets with characteristics similar to Earth.
Students pursuing a bachelor’s in chemistry degree will likely take a sequence of challenging general chemistry courses intended for chemistry majors. Often, students will also complete a sequence of courses in organic chemistry, as well as a course in inorganic chemistry and physical chemistry. Classes in chemical information retrieval and thermodynamics are useful for chemistry majors, as are studies in quantitative analysis and the use of software programs employed in chemical research.
If you’re interested in the field of astrobiology, it might make sense to major in biology, the study of living organisms, but you should still take plenty of physics coursework to meet your graduate school prerequisites.