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Studying Astronomy in Grad School (Not a Homework Question)

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I'm not sure if this particular part of the forum is the best spot to ask this question, but seeing as it is a question about studying the science of astronomy it seemed somewhat appropriate. At any rate on to the question:

I'm a few weeks away from finishing my B.S. in psychology with a concentration in nueroscience, and I have been applying to tons of neuroscience grad programs over the past several months. However I'm also very interested in astronomy and have been considering applying to a few astronomy/astrophysics programs as well, I am especially drawn to astronomy because I believe that there is not enough interest in the field and I would like to do my part to advance the research.

My only concern is whether or not I will be able to transition into an astronomy masters program given my current academic credentials; having a science degree I figure I'll be pretty confortable with the work load, writing style and the format of classes, however I'm a bit concerned about falling behind in math. I have taken several statistics classes in the last few years, but it has been around three years since my last calculus class, and while I am compotent mathmatically (80th percentile on the GRE's) I'm certainly not gifted.

All of that being said my question is what sort of mathmatical ability is needed to do well? And if I were to apply to a program what sort of work could I do in the mean time to prepare myself for the challenge, for example would taking a summer course in calculus be advisable?

Any input from those of you in the know would be appreciated, and sorry for being a little bit long winded.

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Well, I took AP physics and AP caluclus in highschool, however more recently I have taken two research and statistics classes for pscyholgy, which focus on t-tests, analysis of convariance, linear regressions, chi-squares etc. I've also taken college algrebra (this was required and easier than AP calculus), and a course called "methods of calculus" which covered applied differentiation and intergration. As far as physics, I've taken Physics I, which at my university went beyond what I covered in my AP Physics course in highschool, but not by a whole lot.

I had planned to take more but needed needed to focus more heavily on biology etc. for my degree. I'm now thinking regardless of whether or not I apply to an astronomy program I will take at least one physics course this summer just for the sake of it.

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The standard route to an M.Sc. in astronomy is a B.Sc. in physics. The fundamentals (beyond first-year physics and math) in a Canadian B.Sc. in physics include (topic followed by standard text) the following.

Mathematics: "Mathematical Methods in the Physical Sciences" by Boas

Thermal Physics: "Thermal Physics" by Schroeder

Classical Mechanics: "Classical Dynamics of Particles and Systems" by Marion and Thornton.

Electromagnetism: "Introduction to Electrodynamics" by Griffiths

Quantum physics: "Quantum Mechanics" by Griffiths

The mathematics alone would take at least three or four one-semester courses to cover.

Sometimes students are admitted into M.Sc. that haven't covered all of these topics, e.g., because their degree are in math, chemistry, or engineering. These students often first have to complete an extra qualifying year studying undergraduate courses.

My advice is that you contact universities that offer M.Sc. degrees in astronomy. Contact more than one university, because different universities might have very different requirements with respect to how much undergraduate course work has to be made up.

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Thanks George, I'm actually American (just living in BC right now) so I'll probably be looking at school back in the US, but I'm sure the standard texts etc. are much the same. I'm planning to contact a few universities over the next week or so and see what sort of work I would need to do in order to upgrade for a masters program. Most of the schools I've looked at say on their admissions pages that they will take students from a variety of undergraduate disciplines, though I suspect that I will need to take at least an additional year of courses before I'm ready.

Thanks again for the advice and insight, I think with the right program and a bunch of prerequisite work I can make this work, just wish I had given this course of study a bit more thought earlier on.

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Most universities offer astronomy courses for non-science majors. The largely non-mathematical texts used for these courses are often quite good. You might want to see if you can pick up a used copy at your university's bookstore.

Some universities, but certainly not all, offer undergraduate astrophysics courses for physics majors. A nice text used for some of these undergraduate course is "Foundations of Astrophysics" by Ryden and Peterson. From its Preface

The reader of this book, like the students of this course, is assumed to have studied a year of calculus (including differential and integral calculus, basic vector calculus, and a smattering of simple differential equations), as well as a year of calculus-based general physics. We assume that the reader has only a remote acquaintance, if any, with quantum physics, special relativity, or linear algebra.

You have some of the prerequisites; you might to see if you can get this from book from your library, possible through intralibrary loan.

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I'll go take a look at that book in the next day or two, it sounds like it shouild give me a pretty good idea of what I am up against. Hopefully I'll nbe hereing back for a few programs as well and we'll see what sort of upgrade work, I can do. Thanks agin for all of your help!

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A lot of graduate astronomy/astrophysics programs require you to have a strong foundation of quantum mechanics. Grad courses in astronomy are usually very specialized in dynamics (requiring you to have a few courses in Langrangian Mechanics and partial differential equations), astronomical measurements ( you should have a sound understanding of electromagnetism) and a few courses will require you to know general relativity or statistical mechanics.

However even if you do have sufficient course work completed you should have some research experience. I was admitted into grad school because of my research experience and skills in astronomical data reduction.

A great read for undergraduate astronomy is http://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Modern-Astrophysics-Bradley-Carroll/dp/0805304029 courses I TA use this book and the students seem to enjoy it. I still use it as the basic bible for introductory astronomy.

Best of Luck!

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  • 2 weeks later...

I've acquired both of the books that have been mentioned, and been contacting tons of schools, and the news seems to be in my favor. I seem to be relatively up to speed on my math (at least for a beginner and according to the calc needed by the two books in question), and the representatives from the schools I've contacted have been informative and encouraging , so hopefully it will all sort itself out nicely in the end. Thanks again for all the good advice and for pointing me in the right direction.

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I'm an astrophysics grad and I'd recommend steering clear of an astrophysics post-grad unless you're going to do some serious prep work. Without a strong grounding in quantum physics, general relativity and particle physics I'd guess you'd be in at the very very deep end. Also if you are looking into astrophysics have a good detailed look at the syllabus to make sure it's what you're looking for. In my BSc Astrophysics at Edinburgh I recon I spent a grand total of four weeks hands on with a telescope. Everything else was either working on data taken from a telescope a while ago on the other side of the world or working on the physics of a given object.

I'm not trying to put you off though - go for it. The work I did on my BSc was a lot of fun and I dream of one day going back and doing something more. If you're already into the subject matter you'll love it.

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