Best Astronomy Undergraduate Programs?

by Kelle on February 16, 2011

I have recently been in contact with a high school student who wants to pursue Astronomy and he’s got me thinking: What are the best undergraduate programs for budding astronomers? Sure, any place that offers a physics major will suffice. And the places with top-notch PhD programs are probably also gonna have top-notch undergrad programs. But some of those top-notch departments don’t actually offer very many astro courses at the undergraduate level. What are the places that actually have really outstanding undergrad programs? Northern Arizona University, Villanova, and Swarthmore come to my mind. None have PhD programs, but they do a lot of astro and clearly put an emphasis on undergraduate education.

Thomas Arny put together a compilation of all the undergrad programs, but that page hasn’t been updated since 2001 and I’m more interested to know which programs you think are notable.

What are the institutions you know of that offer both research opportunities for undergrads and an array of astro courses at the undergrad level? (Self-promotion is welcome as long as it’s substantiated!)

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 mihos February 16, 2011 at 8:04 am

OK, I’ll happily self-promote (with substantiation): Case Western Reserve University. We’re small (4 faculty + 1 permanent research scientist), but we’re a self-standing Astronomy Dept, and as part of our undergrad program we offer:

- six full phys/calc-based astro courses:
1 & 2) a two semester intro sequence from planets to cosmology
3) Stellar Physics
4) Astronomical Techniques (data reduction, observing, data mining, computational modeling)
5) The Local Universe (essentially the Galaxy and galaxies at low-z)
6) Cosmology and Large Scale Structure (cosmology, structure formation, galaxy formation)

- all students do a senior research thesis, and summer and academic year research positions are commonly available.

- we also offer ample opportunities for general research exposure: biweekly colloquiua (between us and the astroparticle group in Physics), an active visitors program, a private observatory (the Burrell Schmidt at KPNO), membership in SDSS, a weekly department journal club, funds for students to travel to meetings and observatories, etc, etc….

I will extract a section of an external review of the department from a few years back (by two astronomers well-versed in both research and education):

“The review team believes that, per capita unit resource, this [undergraduate] program may well be the best in the country. Even in absolute terms, the curriculum rivals that of the University of [redacted] or [redacted]’s undergraduate astronomy programs’ which are carried out by a faculty of 10-12. The Department’s devotion and enthusiasm for their undergraduate majors program is enviable and each faculty member is clearly strongly committed to this program. Moreover, the department’s track record on sending undergrads to graduate school and eventually into the astrophysics profession is very impressive given its small size. In many ways, the CWRU astronomy major is a model that other universities should follow.”

We average about 2-3 graduating seniors a year, so the program is small, but a lot of our graduates are active in the field. Maybe some of them are reading this and can corroborate my gratuitous self-promotion….

We’re at http://astronomy.case.edu

OK, thanks for the opportunity to advertise!

–Chris

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2 Cameron February 16, 2011 at 3:32 pm

I just want to second Chris’s suggestion of CWRU. Let me start with my bias: I am a product of this department and am now a postdoc in astronomy. I still maintain contact with most of the faculty, and even collaborate a little. While the department has only a few faculty, which provides natural limitations, they devote a serious amount of effort and time into undergraduate experience.

As Chris pointed out, there were only a few of us graduating over the years but I routinely see fellow classmates at conferences, AAS, or on visits to other research institutions — so it really is a high fraction who remain in the field!

I’d like to emphasize the excellence of the research experience the CWRU faculty provide to undergrads. At the time, I thought it was great — but I didn’t appreciate how superb until later. I feel I had a good idea of what real astronomy research was, what was required, and what it entailed on a day-to-day basis. I didn’t realize that many graduate students entering PhD programs didn’t have this perspective or had serious misconceptions about what research was like. Naturally, the path of astronomy research is not for everyone, and several undergraduate classmates chose alternative paths. However, regardless of the direction we chose I think we all felt (1) generally happy with our experiences and (2) well informed about what next step we should take. I’m pretty sure most of us still feel that way today.

And for those that might want some alternatives, or additional classes outside of astro (as I did): there are also good research departments in both Physics and Chemistry at CWRU. This can help broaden the students views or local opporunties outside of just the astronomy faculty.

3 Becky February 16, 2011 at 6:35 pm

I came to this post to mention CWRU, and saw that both Mihos and Cameron beat me to it!

As a CWRU undergrad alum, I second (third?) everything they said. In addition, I want to note that when I entered graduate school, I felt that I had a much stronger computational and programming background than most of my grad school classmates.

4 Mark February 16, 2011 at 9:12 am

I’ll add the University of Washington, which also has a stand alone Astronomy Department which offers undergraduate degrees separate from the Physics department (though you can get joint degrees as well). They have 4 levels of undergraduate instruction, and undergraduates can (iirc) also take graduate courses if agreed to by the profs. Access to small optical observatory in central washington, as well as the 3.5-m APO telescope. Involved with several large projects including Fermi, LSST, Stardust mission PI is faculty. It is a big school (~31K undergrads) which has it’s plusses and minuses, and some people might have difficulty with that. On the department itself is not huge, so you get to know the faculty well if you have some initiative. I am a sincerely happy undergraduate astronomy alum (graduated in 1990), so perhaps too much rah rah, but I thought it was really quite good for undergraduate study.

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5 anon February 16, 2011 at 9:42 pm

I’ll add that UW also has the great Pre-MAP (pre-majors in astronomy) program ( http://www.astro.washington.edu/users/premap/ ). It helps traditionally underrepresented students (in terms of race, gender, income, etc.) get involved with actual research their freshman year (with a good amount of guidance). The grad students are the major force behind Pre-MAP, but the faculty are very much involved as well.

6 Luke Dones February 16, 2011 at 10:01 am

When I was an undergrad considering a major in astronomy, a professor of astronomy strongly advised me to major in physics and go to grad school in physics. That’s what I did, and it seemed to work out.

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7 anon February 16, 2011 at 9:53 pm

I’d second the former, but not the latter (although I did both too). I actually picked my undergrad institution in part because they offered an astro degree – and then while there I didn’t take a single astro course, taking an insane amount of math and physics instead :) (I did do astro research there, though.) But in physics grad school, I mostly defected to the astro department (which fortunately shared the same building), and found their courses much more useful. Core physics grad courses cover everything we learned from 1687 to about 1960. The astro courses covered the necessary background, but we also read recent papers, and studied things in class that we saw in the colloquium a week later. We wrote practice telescope proposals, and learned how TACs work. Very useful stuff, and way more relevant to most of astronomy than learning QFT.

8 DAstronomer February 16, 2011 at 10:59 am

I’d like to add the University of Colorado at Boulder to the list. The stand-alone Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences Department (www.aps.colorado.edu) has ~150 undergraduates (as well as a cadre of graduate students). I graduated in the spring of 2010, and after taking nearly every class the department offered, I can safely say that my education had me well-prepared for grad school.

Research opportunity in nearly every field abounds. Many students double up with a physics major as well. Collaboration with JILA/NIST scientists are welcomed, and space instrumentation & planetary science research with LASP (Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics) is available for those who are interested. CASA (Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy) focuses on the bigger things: Stars, Black Holes, Clusters, Galaxies and Cosmology, to name a few.

CUB is also a member of ARC (the Astronomy Research Consortium) and has time available on the APO 3.5 meter telescope. The two-semester-long observation course actually travels down to APO so that students get a first-hand observation opportunity (the trip also stops at the VLA for a few days – walking around IN one of the dishes is a major plus!). A 24-inch telescope on campus makes for long and weary observation nights as well.

Students also have the opportunity to learn statistical analysis and more importantly how to use IDL in their data reduction in a semester-long class that has been nicknamed by the faculty “Gateway to Employment.” Outreach is not neglected; Fiske Planetarium, the largest dome between LA and Chicago, is right on campus and is always eager to have young astronomy majors pitch in with outreach events. The inflatable, portable planetarium visits each elementary and middle school in the Boulder Valley School District at least once during the school year. Students can also work as show presenters and learn valuable (although somewhat arcane) skills such as slide projector repair and maintenance. Plus, laser show operators are always in short supply.

All told, the APS department offers a myriad of opportunity for the driven (or even not so driven) student.

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9 Lisa February 16, 2011 at 11:29 am

I definitely recommend my alma mater, Villanova University. The Villanova program in Astronomy/Astrophysics is extremely intensive. There are typically two core astronomy courses every semester for four years, along with the required physics courses (the equivalent of a minor in physics, it is so intensive it is impossible to double major without overloading by 21+ credits/7+ courses multiple semesters). Since there are no graduate students in the department, the undergrad majors get more opportunities for research. In fact, the department requires presentation of a research poster and pays for students to attend an AAS meeting. The department is small and has a “family feel” that you don’t get at a large research university. I couldn’t recommend it any higher!

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10 Ryan Hamilton February 17, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Since everyone is seconding things, I’ll go ahead and toss in another vote for Villanova. They do a great job of making students get themselves out there with poster presentations at AAS and even writing a paper or two before they graduate. They’re also extremely welcoming and make students feel at home, important when you’re carrying a full load your entire undergraduate career.

They’ve now got a stake in a 1.3m telescope at Kitt Peak (not sure of the % or how much time) as well as some remote robotic photometric telescopes in AZ if that’s your thing. They do a lot with space based assets as well, and taught me to appreciate the cave of wonders that is MAST.

The campus is beautiful, and the town itself is really nice. Downtown Philly is just a short and easy train ride away as well. I can’t recommend it enough!

11 Aniruddha Joshi July 9, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Lisa
I’ve read and heard a lot that one should not take astro courses at the undergrad but should take a physics course of four year and then should go for any astro course . As I want to pursue cosmology as my career so what should I prefer ? Kindly help me solving the enigma .

12 Adam February 16, 2011 at 11:36 am

I’d like to recommend Columbia University (note: I recently graduated from Columbia). It’s a separate department from the physics department, though they share the same building. An undergrad can major in astronomy or astrophysics (I did the latter). The astrophysics major is almost identical to the physics major (which I view as A Good Thing) except only one quantum class is required, advanced mechanics is not required, nor are the three physics labs required. Instead the astrophysics undergrad takes astro classes with faculty who really value the undergrads.

For the most part the faculty is on the younger side, but the faculty are great regardless of age. There are many faculty members whose involvement with undergrads is very prominent. Some of the faculty are real characters: the head of the department propositioned Steve Carrell on the Daily Show once, another used to design the jokey chalkboard doodles in Futurama, one occasionally judges a bad poetry contest put on by the philolexian society, and at least one is Canadian. The research there is dynamic. The grad students enjoy mixing with undergrads (which is an under-rated plus for the undergrads). And the public outreach program is top-notch and an excellent way for undergrads to test their chops with the general public.

It being New York City, the observing isn’t always the best, but it can be done. So there is some observational work done on the roof fairly often. But the department does seem to lean towards the theoretical side.

And then, of course, it is Columbia University. New York City. It’s a great school in a great town with lots of cultural and social opportunities.

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13 Sharon February 16, 2011 at 1:34 pm

I would definitely recommend my grad program department – Astronomy & Astrophysics Department at Pennsylvania State University. I believe we are top five in the nation in terms of undergrad Astronomy program (according to our chair, sorry for not being able to provide a source).

We have a great faculty-student ratio, which, in terms of undergrad study, is probably higher than 4:1. The faculty here are a very supportive group of astronomers who take undergrad research experience very seriously. Students graduated from Penn State Astronomy undergrad program go out to excellent grad schools such as MIT and Berkeley.

Needless to say, Penn State Astronomy has a very strong graduate program too, which is very highly ranked in the recent NRC report (see phds.org). This also helps with the undergrad program, as we offered a wide variety of courses, together with many double major or minor options.

And I don’t think I need to say too much about how Penn State would be a great place to spend your undergrad life. ;)

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14 Therese May 22, 2012 at 6:56 pm

Although I’m coming across this more than a year later, I’ll second Sharon’s support of Penn State, having actually been an undergrad there. Even though Penn State in general is a huge school, the department makes it seem tiny– almost everyone stayed over the summer and did research starting after their sophomore year (paid; some did it freshman year too). 50% of the faculty knew >75% of the upperclass students, which is a much higher percentage than the number of grad students professors in my present department know. The intro astro courses for majors are famously fantastic, and the professors for the upper-division classes genuinely care about teaching and make the courses almost grad-level!

Funding is also fantastic across the university for science– they’re very eager to send undergrads to conferences to present research. You get far more attention than you would in many schools with grad programs, because of the high faculty:student ratio, and get to work with people who are well-known in their given fields (which is a problem at most small liberal arts colleges for letter-writing purposes).

15 Mike February 16, 2011 at 1:40 pm

I will add Princeton University to the list. The Department of Astrophysical Sciences has a undergraduate major targeted specifically at astrophysics, and in addition to rigorous coursework, the undergraduates perform two semester-long junior research projects (JPs) and a full year-long senior thesis. These mandatory independent research projects are conducted under the supervision of faculty and postdocs (for JPs only). This allows undergraduates to get exposure to several research projects, and importantly, it also allows the faculty to write meaningful letters of recommendation for graduate schools. Many of these projects reach peer reviewed publications and are widely promoted by faculty during talks. The department has a nice sense of undergraduate comradery with a dedicated room and personal desks for the undergraduates. Finally, the department got rated at the very top of the NAS review of astrophysics departments in the United States. How can you go wrong?

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16 Brooke February 16, 2011 at 3:32 pm

I second the recommendation of Princeton. As an undergrad there, it felt like I was part of a family. The research is rigorous and the department is small and comfortable. The undergrads are generally on a first-name basis with the professors, and the classes are excellent. Most (not all) of the prerequisites are in the physics department, but once you’re a major, there’s at least one high-level astrophysics course per semester, taught by professors, not TAs. As an undergrad, you get to work with some of the top names in all of astronomy, and they take their jobs as mentors seriously. Plus, I’m still very good friends with my fellow astro majors.

I wasn’t a huge fan of some of the more elitist aspects of Princeton as a whole, but I would still go there all over again just to be an astro major. The Astrophysical Sciences department is fantastic.

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17 Adam Ginsburg February 17, 2011 at 1:48 am

As a Colorado grad student, I’ll second the mention of CU. It’s a great program with some unique opportunities for undergraduates including time on the APO 3.5m telescope as part of the upper-level observing class. Additionally, we have two faculty dedicated to full-time teaching and abundant research opportunities for interested students.

A number of Case Western graduates have come through our graduate department, so I think they must do an excellent job as well.

Rice University, my alma mater, has a very small undergraduate class but a reasonable number of faculty and an excellent physics program. If you can handle the Houston weather, it is also worth considering.

My main advice to undergraduates interested in astronomy as a career is to focus on physics: you need a strong physics background to have any hope in grad school, but most specialized astronomy topics can be learned relatively quickly given that background. I took both as an undergrad, and I loved the astro classes but definitely needed the physics.

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18 Joe O February 17, 2011 at 3:23 pm

As an undergraduate at Yale, I’m pleased to promote Yale’s excellent Astronomy & Physics major. The student to faculty ratio is extremely low, so individual students receive tons of faculty attention. Opportunities for meaningful research are abundant. It’s easy to get summer funding from Yale for research at Yale or even other institutions. A plethora of astronomy courses are available and it’s not uncommon for undergraduates to take classes with graduate students. My graduated friends (who wanted to) have all entered exemplary graduate programs.

Plus, as an undergraduate at Yale, you’re part of an amazing community. As an undergraduate, it’s not a bad thing to be surrounded by people who are doing (very well) completely different things. Since Princeton’s elitist reputation was mentioned, I’ll say that, in my experience, Yale students are uniformly friendly, unassuming, and (helpfully, for science majors) non-competitive.

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19 Ilya U August 6, 2011 at 2:48 am

As an another undergraduate at Yale (and Joe’s friend), I couldn’t agree more with his response. Yale is definitely the way to go. Not only are the professors amazing, but we also have access to some of the best telescopes.

20 I.P. Freeley February 17, 2011 at 6:13 pm

I’ll plug my alma mater of Berkeley. Hands-down the best course I ever took was my undergraduate astronomy lab. Classes were held 6-midnight, and epic.

An important note is that even if you really want to do astro, the school needs to have a top notch physics program. I’ve heard complaints from undergrads at my current institution that while they love the astronomy department, the physics classes are not rigorous enough, so they have a hard time with the Physics GRE.

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21 AR February 17, 2011 at 8:58 pm

I suppose you are referring only to the US.
If not, or even just to add some european informations, I would definitely recommend Padova, in Italy.
It sometimes take longer to finish it, but it is a very high quality institute and you will be in direct contact with famous scientists from the first year.
You usually end up studying a lot of things that in other countries will be taught only at PhD level.
Few students, so a lot of interaction with professors.
There is also a PhD program, in both physics and astronomy departments.

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22 Tiger February 17, 2011 at 10:07 pm

Princeton. Less than four years after my AB there, I had a tenure-track job at a Research I university. As others have said, it’s the *requirement* to do three different research projects, and the opportunities to do these with some of the world’s leading astronomers, that make the difference.

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23 Chris February 18, 2011 at 8:46 pm

I’ll recommend our nascent program at the University of Notre Dame. We’re a physics department with an astronomy “concentration.” Students take a four course sequence in astronomy within our physics major: introductory astro (largely stellar astrophysics), observational techniques, advanced theoretical astro (largely galaxies and cosmology), and relativity. We feel it is crucial to have pursue a physics major if you are interested in astrophysics, but we our courses also give students a good grounding in research astronomy.

Many of our astronomy undergraduates pursue research with the members of our astronomy group, including 8 professors studying issues such as extrasolar planets, the intergalactic medium, and the nature of dark energy.

We have a new on-campus 0.8-m telescope with which students can get hands-on training. We own a share of the Large Binocular Telescope, a 2 x 8.4-m telescope that we use regularly, and we have access to the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (1.8-m). Both of these are on Mt. Graham (AZ). In addition, we have a state-of-the-art digital planetarium, and we offer a teaching / outreach practicum that trains students to use this facility.

I certainly have known some excellent students to come from the aforementioned programs. I’ve personally seen several students from Villanova, Swarthmore, Oberlin, Penn State, and Yale that have turned into excellent astronomers.

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24 Meredith February 23, 2011 at 10:56 am

I’ll pipe in here with a recommendation for my undergrad alma mater- The University of Michigan. With both physics and astronomy departments/concentrations, students in both majors have a strong founding in physics coursework (and labwork!), plus there are many options for astrophysics research in both departments. The environment there was friendly and collaborative, and the student groups (society of physics students and student astronomical society) were active and appreciated. A group of ~10 fellow students from my UM cohort all met up at AAS for lunch– a large percentage of the students go on to PhD programs and keep in touch! The curriculum is great, the departments are lively and engaged in on-campus activities (and self-promotion). And as a place to have a good undergrad experience overall, you can’t beat Michigan.

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25 Gray March 22, 2011 at 11:44 am

I’ll put in a plug for my undergrad U: Rutgers. They have a Physics & Astro dept, with separate major tracks. There is a pretty sizable and good astro faculty and grad program, and I had several profs interested in working with me for my senior thesis. The standout undergrad classes for me were the two observing labs (optical and radio).

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26 Curtis October 28, 2011 at 11:37 am

I can’t believe no one has mentioned New Mexico Tech!

I’m here now, working in the Dept. of Physics on a B.Sc in Astrophysics and the course content is so strict and heavy that I know I’m learning. This is the school where Friday and Saturday nights are spent studying until 4 am…

Calculus 1 & 2 are general requirements for all degrees from here now matter what you choose, and I already have a research position doing light-curve photometry of asteroids with a professor…I’ve only been here 2 semesters! It’s amazing! The campus observatory and the Astronomy Club are tops (I’m serving as president for this year. :D) And Etscorn Campus Observatory has among it’s vast collection of telescopes, 2 C-14 computer controlled, 1 20-inch Newtonian and a 6″ Tak, computer controlled with CCD’s.

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27 Kristen October 23, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Villanova’s Astronomy professors are amazing!

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28 Meredith Hughes February 14, 2014 at 4:35 pm

…and two years later, I stumbled across this thread while thinking about how to advise a very strong student I mentored as an REU student who is looking to transfer to a stronger undergraduate astronomy program. Please allow me to put in a plug for the eight primarily undergraduate institutions that make up the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium: http://astro.swarthmore.edu/knac/

All of these institutions have a strong commitment to undergraduate research in astronomy, we run a joint REU program each summer and an undergraduate research symposium every fall, and as PUIs I think we all generally have a very high level of commitment to undergraduate teaching, so the courses are good. And our students often go on to excellent graduate programs in astronomy.

Personally, I think Wesleyan is the best, but I may be biased. :-)

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29 AUBREY May 27, 2016 at 8:58 am

im doin my second year bsc physical sciences. I want to do astrophysics, what do I do after I graduate?

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