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Programs Astronomy-related PhD without Astronomy Undergrad

  1. Oct 21, 2011 #1
    Hi All,

    Just some quick background that may be relevent before my question: I am 29 years old and am back in school after not knowing what I wanted to after high school. Originally, I did well some terms and not so well other terms starting out, and I ended up taking a ~5year break. In my most recent year or so of 'cleanup' at a local CC has resulted in A-grades in Calc III, DiffEq, and a few other General Requirements (with 1 B+ in a Humanities class). I applied to the local Big State university for Physics and just signed up for classes for the Spring term (early admission transfers get to register before seniors). My ultimate educational goal is to obtain a PhD in Physics with a focus in Astronomy (or whatever it may be called at the particular graduate school) to research, teach, or be involved at whatever level I can or is available. I realize with my educational background I will not be in competition for a top program, but with a strong last few years and a good GRE/pGRE I hope I can be a good candidate for a moderate/good program. There seems to be a lot of Undergrad research that is done in other Physics and associated fields here, so I plan to make the most of those opportunities as well. I don't want to overstate my accomplishments to this point, and I know that I have a long road ahead still - but I do have confidence and a plan.

    However, there's now a snag.

    Originally, in my planning last year with an advisor at the local Big State U, there was a small Astronomy department and they had 4 upper-level undergraduate astronomy courses offered on rotation over a 2 year period to facilitate an Astronomy-track Physics BS. I found out today (and it's a revelation to my advisor since I met with her this time last year) that several of the Astronomy professors have left/retired/vanished/whatever, and it's unlikely they are going to offer these courses any longer. She said that details were still in the works, but they have even removed the Astro-track degree from the UG Bulletin (damn me for using a '10-11 paper-copy for planning!). Currently, I am on a non-specific Physics BS track - and this has me a bit worried. The upper-level courses I would take are: Mechanics, Thermal Physics, 2 semesters of E-mag, 2 semesters of Quantum, 3 semesters of an advanced lab, and a selection from some application-based classes.

    My question is this: what are my options to persue a PhD in Astronomy without having Astronomy-specific undergraduate classes?

    I am discussing this with my advisor still and for at least the spring I will be attending local Big State U, but I want to see if there are any other opinions out there. I could identify three different scenarios:

    1) This lack of Astronomy-specific courses will not be a deal breaker to get into a (moderate) PhD Program and I could continue undergrad without significant PhD-app penalty at this university.
    2) This lack of Astro-specific courses will be a huge dealbreaker and if I do wish to persue a PhD I should transfer to (yet) another school to finish a Physics BS that offers undergraduate Astronomy courses.
    3) I could persue a MS after this undergrad as a stepping stone to a PhD. (I know it's not neccessary, but it could be an easier way to accomplish the Astro course work en route to a PhD)

    Thanks for your time, and I look forward to any opinions ya'll may have on this.


  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 22, 2011 #2

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    Well, it's not a deal breaker, but it will certainly look odd. "I want to get a PhD in astronomy but I have never taken an astronomy course" will raise eyebrows.
  4. Oct 22, 2011 #3


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    Plan to apply to departments that offer a physics PhD and include astronomy as part of the physics program. That way, you'll have a good shot at getting in, can then decide to study astronomy if you want to, and you'll graduate with a PhD in physics, which leaves you perfectly capable of getting a job as an astronomer but also capable of getting a job that requires physics (you'll be a lot more employable that way). Also, getting at least one summer research experience in astronomy would help a lot.
  5. Oct 22, 2011 #4

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    But in the application it will ask "what subfield are you interested in?" What should he say?
  6. Oct 22, 2011 #5


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    Astronomy is fine, if they ask. I attended several grad programs (started in one, transferred to another) where many incoming students had no astronomy background but wanted to do astronomy research, and they all were given the opportunity. It's not all that strange, although it would certainly help if he can take a class or two (most programs offer them) or do research at another school. Or he can just lie, say another field, and then change after getting into grad school. They don't lock you into working with a specific adviser; you can move around and find someone you like.
  7. Oct 22, 2011 #6
    Not necessarily... there is often a lot of exposure to astronomy in physics courses, and there's always the opportunity to do some independent research. Some astronomy grad schools are at universities that don't have an astronomy undergrad degree at all. Johns Hopkins makes a special note of this on their website, where they state that the best preparation for an astronomy graduate degree is a general physics undergraduate degree.


    Bolding mine.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2017
  8. Oct 23, 2011 #7
    It's not a deal breaker or even strong negative. Just make sure you have a strong undergraduate physics curriculum and you shouldn't have any problems.

    It's actually difficult, because schools like to control their own curriculum and its hard to transfer in with a MS in astrophysics.
  9. Oct 23, 2011 #8
    I don't think it will at all, since his situation is quite common. A lot of smaller schools don't have astronomy courses, so not having astronomy courses because they don't exist in your university is a pretty common situation. Something you can do to work around it is to make some arrangement for supervised research/learning either formally or informally with one of your profs, so that whatever isn't in the transcript gets into the recommendation letters.

    FYI, I got my degree in physics (because my undergraduate didn't have an astronomy major). I took one course in observational astronomy from the planetary science department and one course in astrophysics, and I don't think having those two courses were critical in my application.
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2011
  10. Oct 23, 2011 #9
    I don't think that's essential. Provided the rest of the application is decent, this won't be a major negative. It is worth mentioning in the statement of purpose and the recommendation letters (i.e. I planned to take astronomy courses but I couldn't so instead, I did .....)

    This is another topic, but I don't get the sense that people that graduate with astronomy Ph.D.'s (either theory or observational) or less employable than people that graduate with physics Ph.D.'s.
  11. Oct 23, 2011 #10


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    While my PhD is in physics, my dissertation was in astrophysics, and so was my postdoc work. When applying to visiting prof positions, I was told by several physics departments they were skeptical about me because I was an astronomer, not a physicist. I have since emphasized in my cover letter that my PhD is in physics, not astronomy - if you want to teach, like many people do, they assume a physicist can teach astronomy but usually don't assume an astronomer can teach physics. The physics PhD (once they understand I have it) makes me a better candidate for a wider range of jobs.
  12. Oct 23, 2011 #11
    Thank you all for the replies. All of your perspectives have helped and make me more confident in staying with my current program. I was a little put off by that news initially, so I went into damage control. I had been trying hard to 'clean up' my academic history that I am being very critical of how I am percieved.

    I do have at least 2 summers before graduation - something I didn't indicate in my original post is that I do intend to apply for some Summer or break REUs. I see that as being doubly important now.

    Again, I appreciate the variety of perspectives.
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