Admission to graduate school in astronomy is a highly competitive and selective process. Only the best students across the US are likely to be admitted. Students planning to attend graduate school must carefully prepare for the process. Three factors with major influence on admission to graduate school are:
Your GPA, especially in Physics and Astronomy, is a major part of your application to graduate school. To some extent, the GRE and your GPA can compensate for one another. However, if they are both mediocre, this will severely limit the chances of getting into graduate school. You should never blow off a Physics or Astronomy course!
Letters & Research Experience
Letters of recommendation from faculty and other professionals, particularly those you have done research with, are the third major component in the application. Choose people who will be able to write in detail about your strengths and their experiences working with you. It is critical that at least one of the faculty writing a letter of recommendation for you has supervised you in some research. This could be anything from an Undergraduate Research Opportunity, your Senior Thesis, or employment as a research assistant. Letters from professors who have taught you in a 5000 level course, particularly courses with considerable work beyond traditional exams, are also beneficial. Letters from professionals outside the School of Physics and Astronomy are acceptable, provided there is good representation from the School as well. The best letters to seek from outside the School are from those you have worked with during the summer, either in industry or as a participant in a summer research program. Experience as a TA for the Department is also a positive when seeking letters of recommendation. Letters from persons who can speak on your character, but not on your potential as a research astronomer, are of limited benefit. Research experience and potential as a research scientist are the key components in letters of recommendation.
The Graduate Record Exam in Physics is required by many graduate programs in Astronomy and Astrophysics. One benefit of achieving a high GRE score is that it can often compensate for a somewhat weak grade point average.
The Physics GRE is difficult, and adequate preparation is critical for a good performance. Feedback from former students is quite clear on the GRE: form a study group and go over as many example exams as you can. Schedule regular study sessions and stick to them. Physics course work alone is not sufficient preparation for the Physics GRE. It is also recommended to take the general (verbal and analytical) exams ahead of the physics exam on a separate date. This can relieve some of the fatigue you will experience in taking the exams.
When to take the GRE? At the absolute latest, take the GRE by the October exam date during the Fall semester of your Senior year. If you take it any later, your GRE scores may not make it to the graduate schools you are applying to in time. Many former students recommend taking the GREs in the Spring of your Junior year. Then, if you are not satisfied with your score, you can retake the exam the following Fall. If you can bear the extra expense, consider taking the general exams in the Fall of your Junior year, the Physics exam in the Spring, and the Physics exam again in the Fall of your Senior year.
Another component in the application will be a personal statement. If you do not have some particular field of astronomy that you want to work in, do not worry. Graduate schools recognize that most students eventually choose their Ph.D. thesis topic based on a wide variety of influences. Your letter should sound enthusiastic, and draw attention to your unique strengths and experiences. Avoid making excuses for your shortcomings unless you have good corroborating evidence or compensating strengths. A personal statement should clearly state your professional and career goals. Graduate schools are reluctant to accept students who appear to be fishing for something to do.
Aim your sights primarily at graduate schools commensurate with your performance as an Astrophysics major. It is not a good idea to only apply to top schools. A good recommendation is to apply to one top school you are really interested in and to always have a lower-ranked school that will almost surely accept you on your list as well. Fill in the middle ground with schools that you feel you have a good chance of getting into. Talk to the faculty and the Director of Undergraduate Studies about your plans for graduate school. They are in the best position to give you advice about what schools to aim for.
Check out the University of Minnesota's Graduate Program for further information and an idea of what to expect when applying to the Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics and other graduate programs.
The number of different paths a student can take when leaving the University and entering the job market directly is almost equal to the number of majors that have graduated. It is unlikely you will find jobs advertised specifically for people with a Bachelor's Degree in Astrophysics, although this has happened. A few tips picked up from former students who are now in industry are:
- Present yourself to industry as an Astrophysicist, not as an Astronomer. Although there is no real distinction between these titles among professional astronomers, that is not the case out in the 'real world'. Astrophysicist sounds much more technical and impressive.
- Use the CSE placement office in Lind Hall, but with some level of savvy. Do not go over there and ask “Any interviews for Astronomers?” Ask for assistance in finding a job as a general purpose physicist, laboratory scientist, programmer, data analyst, etc., depending on your area of emphasis in the Astrophysics major. Do not be deterred by the fact that you are not an engineering major.
- Try to find a summer job in industry, either through a University sponsored program or by some other means. An astonishing number of hires are made from a company's pool of summer program students. Also, other companies will look favorably on your job experience, even if it is not with that specific company. Some sort of experience in the 'real world' is very beneficial to your job prospects.
- All the usual advice about going for a job interview applies as well. Use your Astrophysics degree as an indication that you can work on more ill defined problems than may be found in most engineering programs. Be interested in what the company does and ask them what their needs are.
A job as a junior or senior high school teacher in the physical sciences will require entering a secondary education program at either the University of Minnesota or some other accredited university or college. By the beginning of the Junior year you should visit the Education Department at the U and find out the requirements for entering their program upon completion of your Astrophysics degree. These requirements are possibly more stringent than those for similar programs at other institutions, so it is a safe bet that if you meet the U's requirements, you can meet most others.
It is vital that you have all of your preparatory work completed as an undergraduate. Of particular importance is in-class experience. This should be completed by the Fall of your Senior year, preferably earlier if possible. Job prospects outside of the Twin Cities Metro area for secondary teachers in the physical sciences are very good. Within the Metro, the market is much tighter. You may have a slight advantage with a Bachelor's in Astrophysics as opposed to Physics because high school supervisors know students are very interested in Astronomy. The Department usually hires several upper division majors to work as teaching assistants in our introductory courses. This work falls into several areas.
The ROTC program here at the University of Minnesota maintains intense scrutiny of your academic program. Their basic demand (as far as the Astronomy program is concerned) is that you meet the requirements for a Bachelor's Degree in Astrophysics. Beyond that, most of the requirements will be made clear by the ROTC program officer for your individual branch of service. If you complete the Astrophysics degree program and meet all of the requirements of the ROTC program, your prospects for a military career are excellent.