MadSci Network: Astronomy

Re: Is major in math and minor in physics good enough prep for grad astronomy?

Date: Tue Jul 13 23:26:49 2010
Posted By: Vladimir Escalante-Ramirez, Faculty
Area of science: Astronomy
ID: 1276301694.As

For the first question: "Is it possible to work as a math teacher while I work on my astronomy Ph.D.?", the answer is yes, but not as a school teacher and probably not in math. Astronomy departments at most American universities offer positions of teaching assistants (TA) to their graduate students in order to waive tuition fees and receive a stipend for support. In some departments being a TA for some semesters is also a requirement towards a degree. Academic departments at American universities need TA's to assist faculty in their teaching duties, and the astronomy department will want you to teach astronomy unless a special arrangement is made with the math department. TA's are expected to lead course sections, have office hours for consultation with students, and grade home assignments in undergraduate and graduate courses at their university. TA's duties are time consuming. There are better options of financial support like fellowships. In any case astronomy graduate students are expected to devote full time to academic activities within the department. Work outside the university is an unlikely situation for an astronomy graduate student.

Let's go with the process of getting a Ph.D. in astronomy at an American university. It all starts with an application to be reviewed by a faculty committee. Most astronomy departments require students to take the GRE general and physics subject tests. The committee will look at your undergraduate grades and GRE scores besides letters of recommendation and statement of intent from you. Basically they want evidence of exceptional achievement in science and your enthusiasm and commitment to a graduate program. Getting involved in research as an undergraduate will earn you strong points too.

A math degree with a physics minor should not be an impediment to get you admitted to an astronomy program. Admissions committees do not take the GRE physics subject score as the defining criterion, but is one of the few ways to find out how much physics you really know. Your academic performance towards a science undergraduate degree is equally important. High grades in your undergraduate courses count a lot. There has been a lot of talk as to what makes a good physics college graduate, and there is no consensus except for one thing: a good college education must teach you how to think critically and independently. It is more important how the student thinks than what the student knows. Read the article on this issue by Wieman and Perkinks in Physics Today, November 2005, p. 36. However you would have to plan how to make up for a possible lack of background in physics. The main physics subjects that you must know upon entering a graduate astronomy program are: classical mechanics, electromagnetism, statistical physics and quantum mechanics. If you take a physics minor, make sure to take at least one course of each of those subjects. Previous knowledge of astronomy is not a prerequisite for admission to an astronomy department. Some astronomy departments will give you the chance to take undergraduate courses to complete a physics background, but do not count on it. I understand your "plan B" of getting a teaching degree along with your math BA in case you cannot get a job in astronomy. Unfortunately I cannot see how this can give you an advantage in an astronomy department, because as I said above, the department most likely will want you to teach astronomy rather than math classes, and then only during two or three semesters.

When you are admitted to an astronomy department, you will be required to take courses during the first two years. The usual load is 2 to 3 courses each semester. During the following two to three years you will devote yourself to conduct cutting-edge astronomy research under the supervision of a faculty member and the overview of other faculty members. That research will constitute your Ph.D. thesis. During the four or five years as a graduate student, you will become an active researcher, attending conferences, going to observatories, giving talks and writing articles to be published on the main professional astronomy journals. By the time you graduate, you will have published several articles in The Astrophysical Journal, which will constitute almost all your thesis, and should give you a good chance to get a postdoctoral position at an astronomy institution.

It sounds more complicated than what it really is. It is mostly hard work, but it is great fun. You will find time to exercise and check the shows of film societies at the university, but graduate studies demand a full-time commitment. Being a graduate student will give you the pleasures of doing science like the pros without worrying about how to get the money . You are going to do research and work as a member of your adviser's research team, while your adviser will be writing grant proposals to funding agencies to keep the whole business going. You will receive a stipend to work as a research assistant in your advisor's team. It has been said that being a graduate student is mostly getting things done. That is because you and your adviser will choose a thesis topic that can be done in two or three years. In Big Science this is a very short time. Therefore a Ph.D. thesis research must involve solvable problems and things that others neglected to do for lack of time or resources. At times this may seem boring, but after a time your creative self will start kicking. You are going to start thinking about doing things in a different way, or start discovering things that others overlooked and that will surprise and please your adviser. In the end you will become the most knowledgeable person on Earth on your thesis topic. That's the fun of it.

I encourage you to seek more opinions on your question.

My best wishes on your college studies,
Vladimir Escalante Ram�rez

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