Astronomy FAQ

Who can I contact for more information?

Please feel free to contact one of our academic advisors or faculty members!

How do I apply to GMU

You can apply online at admissions.gmu.edu.

Is this a good time to embark on an astronomy education/career?

Yes! Progress in astronomy is driven by observations. Whenever new observational capabilities become available, dramatic discoveries follow. Recent examples include: Upgrades to the Hubble Space Telescope enabled the detection of supernovae in very distant galaxies. These observations showed that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. High-resolution spectrometers on ground-based telescopes have been used to search for extrasolar planets, i.e. planets orbiting stars other than the Sun. The first extrasolar planet was discovered in 1992. Now, nearly 600 are known. We’re currently in the midst of a golden era in astronomy. Several powerful observatories have come on-line recently, more will see first light in the next several years, and still more are planned for the next couple decades. The largest of the current generation of ground-based optical telescopes have diameters of 10.4 meters; within the next decade we expect to have telescopes nearly 3 times as big (which means 9 times as powerful). The James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is scheduled for launch in 2014, and will give us a view of the formation of the first galaxies in the history of the universe. There are many more examples of major upgrades on the horizon, from radio telescopes to gamma-ray telescopes. Consequently, there will be an explosion of data in astronomy over the next couple decades. This yields new discoveries as well as jobs for astronomers.

If I want to study astronomy in college, what should I do in high school to prepare?

Most importantly, take math each year and work hard at it. Take calculus if you have the opportunity. In college, you need to master Calculus I through III and Physics I through III before you can study astronomy at a high level. All of these math and physics courses are cumulative; later courses build on the material from earlier courses. You need a strong foundation to build upon. Also take physics in high school. Make sure to do a lot of practice problems in your math and physics courses. Your teacher will only assign a fraction of the problems in the textbook for homework. Extra practice gained by solving more of these problems will pay off handsomely in future courses.

Where do professional astronomers work?

In the US, 55% are faculty members at colleges and universities, or are affiliated with colleges and universities through observatories and laboratories. These positions involve a mix of scientific research and teaching. 33% perform research at federally supported national observatories and laboratories (e.g. NASA facilities). Both of these research-oriented positions require a PhD, typically in astronomy or physics. 10% work in business or private industry (e.g., aerospace, remote sensing, military contractors). For some of these positions, a bachelors degree is sufficient; others require a PhD. Other positions, for which a PhD is not needed, include secondary school teaching and public outreach at planetariums and science museums.

Where can I find additional information on astronomy careers?

The American Astronomical Society has a lot of useful information on their web pages (http://aas.org). Click the links for Career Services and Education Services on the main menu panel. What degree programs does Mason offer undergraduate astronomy students? We offer both a BS and a BA in astronomy and a BS in physics. The BS degrees in astronomy and physics are very similar. Both include a core curriculum of basic math and physics and essential junior-level physics courses. The BS in physics requires additional advanced physics courses while the BS in astronomy requires an introductory astronomy course and several advanced astronomy courses. Both degrees have a significant component consisting of electives drawn largely from advanced physics and astronomy. The BS degrees are suitable for students interested in pursuing graduate study or scientific/technical careers. The BA in astronomy is intended for students who do not want a rigorous math/physics component. The BA does not prepare students for graduate school. Rather, it is intended for those who are interested in public outreach, science writing, and science policy.

How many undergraduate astronomy students are there at Mason?

Currently, there are 27 astronomy majors. The major is experiencing fairly rapid growth. There are typically 60 to 80 physics majors; a significant fraction of these are interested in astronomy.

Who are the advisors for physics and astronomy students?

See advisors.

Should I major in astronomy or physics?

If you’re sure you want to do astronomy after graduation, then major in astronomy. If you’re uncertain, then physics is a better choice. Both degrees provide excellent preparation for graduate school in astronomy. Physics majors are not at a disadvantage relative to astronomy majors when applying. However, if you decide not to pursue astronomy, then the physics degree is usually more desirable to employers. A couple of important notes: The physics and astronomy degrees are so similar that you can switch from one to the other in your sophomore or junior year. No need to sweat the decision early on. Also, if you’re interested in astronomy and decide to major in physics, meet regularly with both the physics and astronomy advisors. The astronomy advisor will point you to important opportunities for astronomy students.

What astronomy courses are available?

A wide selection, including specialized courses in astrobiology, relativity and cosmology, planets, stars, galaxies, the interstellar medium, and observational techniques. It’s not uncommon for undergraduate astronomy students to take one or more graduate astronomy courses. A complete listing of Mason courses is available here.

What research and internship opportunities are available?

There are 13 faculty members active in astronomy research and teaching plus 7 research-only faculty members in Mason’s School of Physics, Astronomy, and Computational Sciences. The faculty are happy to take on undergraduate research students. The fields represented include: Galactic astronomy, extragalactic astronomy, solar physics and space weather, planetary science, astroparticle physics, and astronomy education. Types of activity include observation, theory, and computation. Nearly all astronomy students do at least one research project; some do two or more. There are also numerous opportunities for internships in the DC area. Nearby institutes include NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the US Naval Observatory, the Naval Research Lab, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington. There are major benefits to doing research as an undergraduate, and it is wise to get involved as early as possible. Research experiences are quite different from class experiences. Only by working on a real research project can you decide whether or not you truly enjoy doing science. Of course, you also develop research-specific skills while working on projects. Research experience can help a lot with graduate school applications. Professors can write better letters of recommendation when they have worked closely with you on a research project. Finally, graduate admissions committees are impressed with students who have already co-authored a research article.

Are there other opportunities at Mason to enhance my astronomy education?

Yes! We have two journal clubs, one in astronomy and astrophysics and the other in space weather. These bring together professors, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students, and undergraduates to discuss current advances in the field. This is a great opportunity to learn about the hottest discoveries and develop skill at reading research articles. You also get the chance to interact informally with faculty members. We also have a campus observatory, where students can get hands-on experience working with optical and radio telescopes.