Graduation & Career Options
Students in the Astrophysics Degree program must complete an original Senior Thesis project. This research experience, as well as the courseload required for a major, is designed to prepare students for careers in several very broad areas, including graduate school, industry, and secondary education.
For more information, see the CSE Four-year Program Plan website.
At least 3 credits of Senior Thesis (Ast 4994) is required for graduation. This course is intended primarily to ensure that each student has a research experience with a faculty member. Design your Senior Thesis to enhance the degree emphasis you have chosen. A suggested path for this process is as follows:
- December of the JUNIOR year
- Determine what area of astronomy or program emphasis you are interested in. Determine which faculty work in this area and contact them about doing a Senior Thesis. It is the responsibility of the student to make the initial contact with a faculty member. There are no predesigned or packaged senior theses, nor can the DUGS be expected to assign one to you.
- Arrange with the faculty member to start the Senior Thesis
- in the Spring of the JUNIOR year. You may or may not decide to officially sign up for the course credits at this time. Work on the Senior Thesis during the Spring semester. Generally students will take more than one semester to complete the Thesis.
- Finish the Senior Thesis
- in (or at the very least have made substantial progress by) the Fall semester of the SENIOR year. This will ensure that when asking for letters of recommendation in the Fall and Spring semesters you will be able to include a faculty member that has had contact with you beyond just the instructor in a class. This is VERY important!
- Try to pick research in your area of emphasis
- If the area of emphasis is Secondary Education, your thesis can be on an astronomy education topic if you wish. Otherwise, the Senior Thesis must involve contemporary research in astronomy. Some exceptions to this rule have been made in the past for students going into Law School, CSOM or the Peace Corps. Note that the ROTC program at the University expects Astrophysics majors to do research with a faculty member for their Senior Thesis, just like any other Astrophysics major.
The Astrophysics degree program at the University of Minnesota is designed to prepare students for careers in several very broad areas. The four most common of these are graduate school, industry, secondary education, and ROTC:
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 have the major influence on admission to graduate school. They have roughly equal weight. These are:
- The Graduate Record Exam in Physics (this is in addition to the general exam!) is required by virtually all graduate programs in Astronomy and Astrophysics. The GRE Physics score is used differently at different institutions but, whatever the particulars for admission in any given graduate program a high score on the GRE Physics exam is a major benefit. Another advantage of a high GRE score is that it can often compensate for a somewhat weak grade point average. For example statements by the applicant such as , 'I took too big a course load', 'I did not get along with some of the professors', 'I had a bad year my Junior year', etc. will be much more believable with a high GRE score.
The GRE Physics exam is difficult, and the competition is strong. Adequate preparation is critical for a good performance. Feedback from former students is quite clear on the GREs. Form a study pair or group and go over as many example GRE exams as you can. Schedule regular study sessions and stick to them. Physics course work alone is not sufficient preparation for the Physics GRE. Other suggestions include taking the general exams (the verbal and analytical) ahead of the physics exam on a separate date. This relieves some of the fatigue you will experience in taking the exams.
When to take the GREs? At the absolute latest, take the GRE exam by the October exam date during the Fall semester of the Senior year. Any later, and your GRE scores will probably not make it to the graduate schools you are applying to in time. Many former students recommend taking the GREs in the Spring of the Junior year, then if you are not satisfied with your score, you can retake the exam the following Fall. At the very least, you should be able to improve your score. If you can bear the extra expense, take the general exams in the Fall of the Junior year, the Physics exam in the Spring and then take it again in the Fall of the Senior year. This will maximize your chances of getting a good score. Keep in mind, however, there is no substitute for studying for the exam.
- Your GPA, especially your GPA in Physics and Astronomy, is a major part of the application to graduate school. Minnesota is a large public university with a strong undergraduate Astrophysics program. All A's with some B's, particularly in the upper division courses, is a clear indication that you are a good student, and a good candidate for graduate school. To some extent, the GREs and your GPA can compensate for each other. If one is a bit low, a strong showing in the other can sometimes make up the difference. If they are both mediocre, this will severely limit the chances of getting into graduate school. 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. First, and most obviously, choose faculty and professionals who will write a good letter. It is critical that at least one of the faculty writing a letter of recommendation has supervised you in some research. This could be anything from a UROP, your Senior Thesis, or employment as a research assistant. Letters from professors who taught you in a 5000 level course, particularly courses with considerable work beyond traditional exams, is 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 people 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 benefit 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 is the key component in the letters of recommendation.
- Other Factors
- 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 very wide variety of influences. Your letter should sound enthusiastic, and draw attention to your strengths. Avoid making excuses for your shortcomings unless you have good corroborating evidence or compensating strengths. If you have a particular area within astronomy you are interested in, say so and target graduate programs strong in that area. 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.
- your sights primarily at graduate schools commensurate with your performance as an Astrophysics major. Never apply only to top schools. A good recommendation is to apply to one top school you are really interested in and at the same time 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 DUGS about your plans for graduate school. They are in the best position to give you advise about what schools to aim for.
Check out the University of Minnesota's Graduate Program for further information and and 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. The job market for technically trained people is fickle at best. You may be just what the market was looking for at graduation time, and you may not. It is impossible to tell. 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.
MN Institute for Astrophysics
University of Minnesota
John T. Tate Hall, 116 Church St. SE, Minneapolis, MN, 55455