1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Astrophysics: Picking the right college

  1. Jun 18, 2009 #1
    Hello Everyone,

    I will be starting my senior year in high school this upcoming academic year, and I am currently looking into which colleges I would like to apply to. I am very interested in Astrophysics and I had a few questions as to which colleges would be the best to apply to. Now when I say "best" I don't mean "hardest to get into" or "most well known", I mean which colleges will give me the best foundation for pursuing a Master's Degree and even a PhD. I don't think I am a Harvard, Princeton, Caltech, MIT, or Cornell candidate, so please don't list those. Currently on my list are the following: Rice (No. 1 choice), Berkeley, UCSD, UCLA, Georgia Tech, Michigan, and University of Chicago. (I'm not sure if Georgia Tech and Michigan have astrophysics programs, but my counselor put them on my list)

    What are your opinions about my listed schools? What schools would you suggest adding/deleting? Any suggestions for continuing my hunt?

    Thank you so much, your help is greatly appreciated!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 18, 2009 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    Undergrad astrophysics programs are NOT a requirement for a phd/research into astrophysics, in fact they may be disadvantage.
    An undergrad astrophysics course is a physics degree with one or two final year astrophysics options, the reason for calling it an astrophysics degree is that it is cool sounding and attracts students. This might suggest to the more cynical that the physics course is having difficulty attracting students otherwise and so might not be the greatest place on earth
    (no personal experience of any of the institutions named).

    To do a Phd you need a good solid physics (or maths) undergrad degree - that's all.
  4. Jun 18, 2009 #3
    mgb_phys, thank you for that information, I did not know that. "This might suggest to the more cynical that the physics course is having difficulty attracting students otherwise and so might not be the greatest place on earth." <--Would you be a cynical person who may think this?

    I guess I should rephrase my question then:

    What colleges off solid physics foundations with strong astrophysics programs for my last two years of college?

    Note: I am more interested in theoretical physics than practical physics.

    Thank you
  5. Jun 18, 2009 #4


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    I'm not trying to be difficult but....
    I haven't taught in the US but my understanding is that the ugrad institute matters a lot less. People go to local or state colleges for ugrad for financial reasons and the courses and grades are much more standardized across these. People I know who have Phds/work at, top institutes have ugrad degrees from everywhere.

    Don't judge a college purely on availability of a few courses, you don't know if these will still be offered in 3-4 years when you reach your senior year.

    A much more important factor in ugrad degree success is that you are happy with your surroundings. If you are from the coast/northern US and don't like heat then Georgia tech (great research ratings aside) may not be for you, similairly UC Santa Cruz isn't ideal if you like big city nightlife.
    It's obviously more difficult/expensive to visit prospective colleges in the US (it's a big place), but do some online research on things like housing, surroundings, clubs+societies - not just on course titles or research rankings.

    And good luck !
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2009
  6. Jun 18, 2009 #5
    I agree with Mgb_phys, an undergrad degree in astrophysics is not necessary to do a PhD in astrophysics. In fact, I would say that a physics BS is probably a much better idea. My physics department is a combined physics and astronomy department, and we have a single physics PhD qualifier for all the grad students (the qualifier is an exam grad students need to take before being allowed to work on their PhD research). A lot of astronomy students fail out because they didn't have the necessary physics background. It's a lot easier to pick up the astronomy knowledge you need for your research while in grad school than it is to fill gaps in your physics education. My personal experience: I do particle astrophysics, which is sort of an overlap between high energy physics and astronomy, and I did my BS degree in physics. My lack of an undergrad education in astronomy has never hurt me, and my physics education has always been an asset.

    As has been said, the school you choose for your undergrad isn't terribly important. From what I know based on friends I have who attend some of the schools you mentioned, Rice, Michigan, and Georgia Tech would all give you a good physics education. Even though it's not on your list, I'd also recommend University of Minnesota, where I did my BS. Really what's important is not where you go, but what you do (just don't go to some school with a substandard physics department). Definitely try to take as many advanced undergrad classes as you can without harming your GPA, and see if you can do research work for a professor.
  7. Jun 18, 2009 #6
    Georgia Tech doesn't have an astrophysics degree, but they did just hire something like 5 new astrophysicists and started a center for relativistic astrophysics.
  8. Jun 18, 2009 #7


    User Avatar

    Any of those schools would be excellent choices - for your physics degree, as others have pointed out. Other schools to add to the list would UT Austin, U Washington, U Wisconsin, and UNC Chapel Hill - if you're looking for more. Don't worry about the theory side of it yet - you won't be doing that until grad school. But take a lot of math if you think that's what you're interested in. I thought I was interested in theory until I used my first big telescope; now I'm hooked on observational astrophysics. And plan to spend your summers working with professors, either at your university or in REU programs - this is great preparation for grad school.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook