What do you study in a Master’s program for Astrophysics?

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There is not a large selection of Master of Science in Astrophysics programs in the United States. Applying for the Astrophysics Specialisation at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia is probably not an option for many students. Another example down-under is the Australian National University that has an M.S. in Astronomy and Astrophysics. Interestingly, the school states that many graduates perform research at American colleges and universities, such as Princeton, Harvard, Cal-Tech, MIT, and the University of California-Berkeley.

Some institutions only offer a Master of Science in Astronomy, but the curriculum mirrors what you’d find in an astrophysics program. If you could put an astrophysics program into an algebraic equation, it might look like this:

A + P + M = AP

In words, the equation consists of Astrophysics courses, plus physics courses, plus mathematics. The proportion of each can vary according to the school’s emphasis on astronomy or physics. For example, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at The University of Iowa offers a 30 semester-hour (s.h.) M.S. in Astronomy. There are nine hours devoted to astrophysics, with titles like High Energy Astrophysics and Stellar Astrophysics. There are also nine hours of astronomy classes, such as Extragalactic Astronomy, Cosmology, and Galactic Astronomy. Students must complete six s.h. of graduate-level physics.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing has master’s and doctorate degrees in various specializations. Examples are accelerator physics, biophysics, chemical physics, elementary particle theory, quantum computing, experimental particle physics, nuclear physics, physics education, condensed matter physics, atomic, molecular, and optical physics, and theoretical astrophysics.

The M.S. in Astrophysics and Astronomy at MSU includes physics courses:

Methods of Theoretical Physics – Methodology used in classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, electrodynamics, and statistical mechanics.

Classical Mechanics – Hamilton’s principle (principle of stationary action formulation), variational methods, and small oscillations.

Quantum Mechanics – Deals with the physical properties of matter at the atomic and subatomic particle levels.

Classical Electrodynamics – Topics include electrostatics, magnetostatics, and time-varying fields.

Statistical Mechanics – Explores equilibrium statistical mechanics and thermodynamics.

Examples of the Astronomy requirements are:

  • Radiation Astrophysics
  • Extragalactic Astronomy
  • Galactic Astronomy
  • Stellar Astronomy
  • Gravitational Astrophysics & Cosmology
  • Observational Astronomy

Both the physics and astronomy examples are a partial list.

Texas A&M University has a Master of Science in Astronomy with specializations in Astrophysics or Astrophysics. Regardless of which you choose, students take six core astronomy courses, with a specific physics prerequisite for most. For example, the Astronomical Observing Techniques and Instrumentation course requires that you first complete Methods of Theoretical Physics and the latter requires you first take three specific Math courses. The prerequisite, Methods of Theoretical Physics, is also needed for the astrophysics specialization, plus another physics course selected from a list of four.

The A&M graduate program requires a minimum of 32 semester hours for the thesis track and 36 hours for the non-thesis. Students opting for the thesis must submit it as a single PDF stating the problem, methods, and results of their original research. The approved proposal needs to show a mastery of the course material and a keen understanding of the coursework.

There might be no better place on earth to study astronomy than the Big Island of Hawaii with the 10-meter Keck I and Keck II telescopes. Home to the Mauna Kea Observatory situated near the summit of a 14,000-foot shield volcano, surrounded by thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean. Students enrolled in the Master of Science in Astronomy at the University of Hawaii (UH) also have access to the Haleakala Observatory.

If your undergraduate degree in astronomy is at the UH Institute of Astronomy, your studies in astrophysics began during this four-year degree. Foundations in Astrophysics I & II require prerequisites in physics and math, as referenced in the study plan. At the graduate level, you’ll continue to study astrophysics and astronomy.

Students taking a master’s degree in physics can avoid astronomy; however, students in astrophysics will find physics classes unavoidable. That’s why it’s called…astrophysics. Astronomy and physics co-mingle. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), considered the father of modern science, wasn’t just an astronomer but also a physicist and mathematician. As an astronomer, he was the first to document, through telescopic observation, the four largest satellites of Jupiter. Galileo used mathematics to map the orbits of the satellites with great accuracy. As a physicist, he studied the motions of bodies by watching a pendulum, and he understood sound frequency.

For almost 500 years, as addressed above, astronomy, physics, and mathematics have been inextricably linked, which is why the study of these three sciences is crucial to understanding astrophysics.

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Additional Resources:

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