What Courses or Topics Are Usually Covered in a Master’s in Astronomy?

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The advanced coursework found in a master’s in astronomy program isn’t for the faint of heart. If you have the strong science and math background needed to undertake this curriculum, you should expect to study topics in astrophysics, observational and theoretical astronomy and specialized areas of the field, such as cosmology and stellar astronomy.

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The Curriculum of a Master’s in Astronomy Program

Some master’s in astronomy degree programs have minimal required courses, instead requiring only a certain number of graduate-level courses or credits. Other programs list specific required courses and core courses. In programs with more flexibility, students don’t just haphazardly choose courses on a whim. Instead, students should plan to work with their advisor and faculty to develop a customized degree plan to follow that addresses their interests and research concentrations.

Most master’s in astronomy programs give students some opportunity to choose courses that meet their specific interests in the field. This opportunity may be through elective courses or through options and alternatives for core courses. For example, students might be required to select one (or more) courses from a list to meet program graduation requirements. Often, thesis-related coursework also counts toward your credits for graduation, and the research and writing involved in your thesis are specific to your interests in astronomy.

Not all master’s in astronomy programs require students to write a thesis, a lengthy academic text based on original research. Some graduate programs allow students to pass a comprehensive exam and take additional coursework to qualify for graduation.  

Astrophysics Courses

Don’t be surprised if a master’s degree program in astronomy includes at least one or two courses on astrophysics. Astrophysics refers to the use of physics theories and laws in the study of the physical nature of astronomical bodies like stars, planets and galaxies. A graduate-level Astrophysics I course may start with applying physics laws to topics like stellar evolution, element synthesis, solar physics and the end states of dying stars. Subsequent studies in astrophysics might cover the Milky Way and other active galaxies and galaxy clusters, as well as the Big Bang theorized by Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaître in 1931.

Students may also take advanced and specialized astrophysics courses. High-energy astrophysics may encompass black holes, neutron stars and magnetic, nuclear, accretion and spindown energy power sources. In a course that focuses on the astrophysics of gaseous nebulae and active galactic nuclei, your studies might emphasize the physical conditions found in planetary nebulae, remnants of supernovas and interstellar matter composed of ionized hydrogen atoms.

If you enjoy your studies in astrophysics, you may end up pursuing a career as an astrophysicist. This branch of astronomy is continuing to expand, advancing not only theoretical knowledge of studying space but also possibilities for space exploration.

Classes in Observational and Theoretical Astronomy

Unlike scientists in other disciplines, astronomers can’t easily run hands-on experiments on their subject of study. Astronomical bodies are too large and too distant to examine firsthand in most cases, and astronomers can’t easily create control groups of whole galaxies and universes the way they do in other areas of scientific research. Instead, much of the research done in astronomy is observational. In classes on observational astronomy, students learn the techniques of planning research and using a research-grade space telescope to make their own observations.

Not all work in astronomy is observational. Some astronomers focus on theoretical research, which often revolves around the use of supercomputers to analyze and interpret data. Classes in theoretical astronomy and physics might emphasize fundamental physical laws and principles and the scientific phenomena, like star and galaxy structure, that arise from those principles.

Despite the importance of actual observation, observational astronomers often spend just 10 to 30 nights a year using telescopes to gather data, the American Astronomical Society reported. The rest of their work consists of data analysis, usually using software programs.

Coursework in Specialized Areas of Astronomy

Astronomy is a surprisingly broad topic. Although this science focuses on the celestial bodies, there is so much to study in outer space, from planets to stars and even the entirety of the universe. In their pursuit of a graduate degree in astronomy, students are likely to take courses that concentrate on one type of celestial body. A class in cosmology examines the universe as a whole, including its formation and chronology. Topics that might be covered in a cosmology course include observational techniques in cosmology, the formation and evolution of galaxies and the properties of matter in the universe.

Students with an interest in stars should sign up for astronomy courses in star formation, stellar interiors and evolution, radiative transfer in stellar atmospheres and the interstellar medium. Coursework in the interstellar medium often covers the physics of matter and radiation that appears in the space between distinct star systems. Besides studying astrochemistry, thermal equilibrium, cosmic rays and atomic and molecular physics, you will examine the physical, chemical and thermal state of gases in space.

An individual astronomy student may take courses in different specializations or multiple courses in one topic of interest.

Additional Resources

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Will I Be Considered for a Masters in Astronomy If My Undergraduate Wasn’t in Astronomy?

Am I Better Off Considering a Ph.D. in Astronomy at the Same School I Got My Masters?

What Degree Do You Need to Be an Astrophysicist?