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10 Colleges for the Budding Astronomer

Jamie Kirby April 08, 2024

10 colleges

Are you intrigued by the night sky? Do you dream of studying and researching astronomical events? Then we have a great list of options for you! Whether you choose to pursue a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science in Astronomy, or opt for a Bachelor of Science in Astrophysics, each of the colleges on this list offers exceptional resources and a commitment to advancing the field of astronomy. 

Launching a list of 10 colleges for budding astronomers in 3...2...1!

1: Boston University

Boston University’s Astronomy Department is associated with two research centers: the Institute for Astrophysical Research and the Center for Space Physics. Topics of research include the Sun’s effects on space weather, black holes, magnetic fields in the Milky Way, how Mars lost its water, planets orbiting nearby and distant stars, finding the edge of the solar system, and the evolution of the largest structures in the universe. Facilities include the Perkins Telescope Observatory, the Lowell Discovery Telescope, the telescope at McDonald Observatory, the Tim Liu Astronomical Observing Center, and the Optics Calibration Facility.

BU offers several astronomy degree options. The BA in Astronomy includes a varied curriculum focusing on astronomical principles, the nature of stars, galaxies, and broad astronomical topics such as matter-light interactions and physical evolution. The BA in Astronomy and Physics is a program conducted jointly through the two departments and concentrates on foundational principles of astronomy and physics. Students study planets in the solar system, galaxies and cosmology, the nature of the interstellar medium, stars and star formation, classical mechanics, statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, electricity and magnetism, and mathematical methods of physics. BU also offers a BA/MA Program in Astrophysics & Space Physics, designed for students who wish to add a fifth year of intensive study in astrophysics & space physics to earn a Master’s degree. Opportunities are available for undergraduates to participate in research under the guidance of a faculty member.

2: California Institute of Technology

California Institute of Technology is one of the world’s top centers of astronomical research. Caltech scientists and students are involved in a huge variety of research topics using theory, observations, numerical simulation, laboratory astrophysics, advanced data analysis, and detector development. Research centers include the Caltech Optical Observatories, Caltech Radio Astronomy Laboratory, Observational Cosmology, Space Astrophysics Lab, Space Radiation Lab, and Theoretical AstroPhysics Including Relativity. A number of observatories are also connected to Caltech: ground-based observatories are the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, Palomar Observatory, Keck Observatory, and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, space-based missions in the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array and SPHEREx, and solar system missions in the Space Radiation Lab.

The Caltech Astronomy Department is part of the Division of Physics, Math, and Astronomy and offers students a BS in Astrophysics. Courses include a range of physics, mathematics and astrophysics courses, and additional courses are tailored to individual student plans in computational methods, mathematical methods, planetary science, or engineering. Students are invited to participate in research with faculty in the Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. In fact, Caltech’s astrophysics program has a special emphasis on research; nearly all students undertake multiple research projects and a major program goal is to equip students with the tools necessary for a successful research career.

3: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI) brings several academic departments together via joint appointments for faculty in the Astrophysics Division of Physics, the Planetary Division of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), and the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. MKI also hosts weekly Astrophysics colloquia, journal clubs, and seminars. MIT helped to build, and currently operates or collaborates in, a number of observatories, including The Magellan Telescopes, The Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory, The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, The Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array, The Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer, The Chandra X-ray Observatory, The George R. Wallace Observatory, and the Haystack Observatory

Undergraduates at MIT who are interested in astronomy can major in either Physics or EAPS. Each path offers multiple courses in astronomy, including the undergraduate observing lab. A popular option among students is the astronomy focus as part of the Physics flexible major option. An astronomy minor certificate is available to students who complete required astronomy courses. Research opportunities are available to students through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and allows undergraduates to have positions with faculty and in research labs.

4: Michigan State University

Michigan State University has one of the largest undergraduate astronomy programs in the United States! Campus resources include an observatory and the Abrams Planetarium. At the undergraduate level, MSU offers a BS in Astrophysics and also has an active Astronomy Club

The Astrophysics major at MSU includes courses in physics, stellar astrophysics, galactic evolution and cosmology, and observational techniques. Students will also learn computing skills, data analysis, and scientific communication. Opportunities for individual research projects are available.

5: Montana State University - Bozeman

Astronomy at Montana State University is located within the Department of Physics, where research groups include topics in Astrophysics, Condensed Matter Physics, Solar Physics, Lasers and Optics, Relativity, Physics Education, Gravitation and Cosmology, and Space Sciences. The Astronomy and Astrophysics Group specifically is active in observations and theory of supermassive black holes and accretion dynamics, stellar-mass black holes, and neutron stars. NASA’s Montana Space Grant Consortium provides students with unique, hands-on research opportunities as well as faculty research and education grants. 

To major in astronomy, students choose the Astronomy and Astrophysics Option within the BS in Physics. Suggested paths are available for students who want to emphasize either experimental studies or theoretical studies and also includes fundamentals of physics, mathematics, astronomy, and astrophysics. Physics with the Astronomy and Astrophysics option added will prepare students for graduate work in astrophysics or astronomy and will also prepare students well for a career in astrophysics, astronomy, or space science. 

6: New Mexico State University

The Department of Astronomy at New Mexico State University conducts both observational and theoretical research in a variety of areas, including solar physics, planetary science, variable stars, interstellar medium, and extragalactic and cosmological studies. The NMSU astronomy department operates the Apache Point Observatory on behalf of the Astrophysical Research Consortium and the Dunn Solar Telescope and Visitor Center at the Sunspot Solar Observatory. The NASA Planetary Data System Atmosphere Node is also hosted by the department.

While NMSU does not have a specific astronomy major, three tracks of astronomy minors (a regular astronomy minor, an education emphasis, and an engineering emphasis) are available that students could combine with a major of their choice. The regular astronomy major is designed to prepare students for graduate work in astronomy or astrophysics, while the education and engineering emphasis programs are designed to meet the needs and interests of students from those colleges. All three tracks are open to any student, and undergraduate astronomical research opportunities are available in each of them.

7: The Ohio State University

The Ohio State University has a variety of opportunities in both academic courses and extracurricular involvement for students interested in astronomy. Facilities include the Arne Slettebak Planetarium, a rooftop observation deck and the Imaging Sciences Laboratory. Ohio State students can participate and engage with others interested in astronomy outside of the classroom through the daily morning Astro Coffee, weekly Astronomy Colloquium, a weekly Center for Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics (CCAPP) seminar, and activities organized by the undergraduate Astronomical Society.

Ohio State offers a BS in Astronomy and Astrophysics. Students will study physics, applied mathematics, programming, data analysis, and modern astrophysics. The program is designed to prepare students for graduate study in astronomy and astrophysics as well as preparation for students who prefer to pursue other graduate and professional programs. Undergraduate research is available within the astronomy and astrophysics department, as well as in related departments such as physics, chemistry, or mathematics. 

8: University of Chicago

The University of Chicago’s Department of Astronomy categorizes their research into three areas: The Universe Beyond our Milky Way Galaxy, The Extreme Universe, and The Universe Where We Live. Strong inter-departmental connections are forged through the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, the Enrico Fermi Institute, and partnerships with Departments of Physics and Geophysical Sciences. The Astronomy department also has a relationship with Adler Planetarium in Chicago. Facilities on campus include the Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility and a ISO Class 5 cleanroom. The University of Chicago is a leader in cosmic ray detection at the Auger Observatory, and is also a founding member of the Giant Magellan Telescope, which is now under construction in the Chilean Andes and is the world's largest optical telescope. 

Students can choose either a BA or BA in Astrophysics. The major includes broad knowledge of the nuclear to cosmological laws and skills in computational methods and statistical data analysis. Students will also gain research experience through participation in faculty-led research projects. The Paris Astronomy Program occurs each spring; the University of Chicago Center in Paris hosts students as they complete courses that can satisfy the general education requirement or count towards a Minor in the Astronomy and Astrophysics program.

9: University of Colorado - Boulder

The University of Colorado - Boulder combines astrophysics and planetary science into one department, which provides a comprehensive view of solar and space sciences, stellar and galactic astronomy, planetary systems, and cosmology. Faculty members in the APS department are conducting a wide range of research projects, including theoretical cosmology, finding planets around other stars, and more. Campus resources include the Sommers-Bausch Observatory and Fiske Planetarium

CU Boulder offers a BA in Astronomy, with an optional astrophysics/physics addition. The Astronomy degree includes astronomy, physics, mathematics, and computational and instrumental technology and allows students to also explore a second major or minor in another area. The astrophysics/physics addition includes the same foundation as the astronomy major, but then includes more advanced work in each area at the upper levels in conjunction with the Department of Physics. Students can choose their track at the beginning, or take the foundation courses and then decide which path to follow. Research opportunities in astronomy are available to undergraduates, including research-based courses, student positions supporting ongoing research, and individual research projects with faculty; students can also apply for funding for research projects from the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

10: University of Hawai’i - Manoa

The University of Hawai’i Manoa focuses on astronomy as a major research mission and is home to the Institute for Astronomy (IfA). Founded in 1967, the IfA partners with the University of Hawai’i Manoa Department of Physics and Astronomy for both their undergraduate and graduate programs, in addition to conducting research projects and managing the Haleakalā Observatories on Maui and the Mauna Kea Observatories on the Big Island.

UH Manoa offers two paths to an astronomy degree. The BA in Astronomy is designed for students who are interested in astronomy but have a wide range of ultimate career goals, while the BS in Astrophysics is for students who will likely be pursuing graduate school in astronomy, physics, or astrophysics. Both programs offer a strong foundation in physics and classes in partnership with the College of Natural Sciences and offer research opportunities with scientists at the IfA.

The journey to becoming an astronomer is exciting, and choosing a college program aligned with your interests and goals can make all the difference. So, take your time, research programs further, and find the college that will help launch your dreams into orbit!

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Tagged: college search, majors, careers, unique majors, STEM, major focus, Jamie Kirby

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