Minor in Astronomy

The astronomy minor is suggested for those students who want to increase their knowledge of basic physics and astronomy as it applies to other branches of science or engineering. The minor gives students a qualitative overview of the universe, as well as a more in-depth view of some of the aspects of astrophysics.

A minor in astronomy can be of great value to students majoring in many subjects. It can broaden and deepen students’ understanding of their majors and of the surrounding universe. It can also increase their options for graduate study and employment, and it will enhance their academic record. Although students majoring in fields that are not science or technology related will find the astronomy minor more challenging than those that are, it may be of even greater value for such students because of the expanded career opportunities it can offer.

For details on the program, please see the GMU Catalog.

Minor in Renewable Energy

This college-wide interdisciplinary minor administered by the Department of Physics and Astronomy is designed for students considering a career in the field of renewable energy, or as preparation for graduate work in a wide range of academic disciplines.

For details on the program, please see the GMU Catalog.

BS in Astronomy

The BS in astronomy prepares students for graduate school or one of the many careers in research or teaching positions, or employment in industry, business, or education fields where analytical skills and a scientific background are advantageous.

For details on the program, please see the GMU Catalog.

BS in Physics

The BS in physics prepares students for graduate school and careers in education, business, or industry.

For details on the program, please see the GMU Catalog.

Minor in Physics

For details on the program, please see the GMU Catalog.

Physics FAQ

Who can I contact for more information?

Please feel free to contact one of our academic advisors or faculty members!

How do I apply to GMU

You can apply online at admissions.gmu.edu.

What is Physics and how it’s important in daily life?

  • Physics is the study and application of the fundamental laws of nature on all size scales from the infinitesimally small to the entire universe and on all time scales from the beginning of time to the far distant future. It describes how the physical world works. Other sciences build on physics, which is the most fundamental of all sciences. Physicists investigate the fundamental laws of nature or make use of what we already know about the physical world to design, develop, and evaluate new products and technologies. A physics degree opens an astonishing variety of career possibilities.

What special skills or abilities are needed to succeed in this major?

  • The potential to development advanced mathematical and logical skills is essential, and strong physical intuition and geometrical sense are very helpful.

If both B.A. and B.S. degrees are offered, what are the differences in career/graduate school opportunities?

  • Only the BS degree is offered

Is it possible to minor in Physics?

  • Yes. To find out more about a minor in Physics please visit the Physics Minor page.

Why Should I study Physics?

  • The study of physics develops an important range of skills, including sophisticated mathematical reasoning to analyze physical systems and the ability to use many different laboratory instruments.
  • A degree in Physics can open many doors to you in a variety of exciting and rewarding areas. Such areas can include occupations in technology based industries such as finding new methods to create renewable energy.
  • The department also offers a Renewable Energy Minor.

What are recent graduates doing?

  • A Physics degree opens an astonishing variety of career possibilities. Many recent graduates have gone on to earn advanced degrees in Physics or related fields. Graduates have found employment in a wide variety of fields. The Washington D.C. metropolitan area has a high concentration of high technology companies and federal government agencies that employ physicists. Fields open to Physics graduates include education, research, medicine, engineering, space and earth sciences, law, consulting, environmental science, publishing/journalism, communications, and manufacturing.

What are some occupations related to the Physics major?

  • Physicist
  • Oceanographer
  • Medical Imaging
  • Engineer Intergrated
  • Circuit Designer
  • Systems Engineer
  • Physical Science Technician
  • Technical Writer
  • Physical Science Teacher
  • Research Scientist
  • Software Engineer
  • Environmental Physicist
  • Web Developer

What are some organizations that typically hire Physics Graduates?

  • Naval Research Laboratory
  • National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration
  • Systems Research & Application Corp
  • National Inst. for Standards & Technology
  • NASA
  • Hunter Labs
  • Performance Engineering Corp.
  • National Weather Service
  • Science Applications International Corp.
  • Logicon, Inc.
  • Metron, Inc.

Astronomy FAQ

Who can I contact for more information?

Please feel free to contact one of our academic advisors or faculty members!

How do I apply to GMU

You can apply online at admissions.gmu.edu.

Is this a good time to embark on an astronomy education/career?

Yes! Progress in astronomy is driven by observations. Whenever new observational capabilities become available, dramatic discoveries follow. Recent examples include: Upgrades to the Hubble Space Telescope enabled the detection of supernovae in very distant galaxies. These observations showed that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. High-resolution spectrometers on ground-based telescopes have been used to search for extrasolar planets, i.e. planets orbiting stars other than the Sun. The first extrasolar planet was discovered in 1992. Now, nearly 600 are known. We’re currently in the midst of a golden era in astronomy. Several powerful observatories have come on-line recently, more will see first light in the next several years, and still more are planned for the next couple decades. The largest of the current generation of ground-based optical telescopes have diameters of 10.4 meters; within the next decade we expect to have telescopes nearly 3 times as big (which means 9 times as powerful). The James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is scheduled for launch in 2014, and will give us a view of the formation of the first galaxies in the history of the universe. There are many more examples of major upgrades on the horizon, from radio telescopes to gamma-ray telescopes. Consequently, there will be an explosion of data in astronomy over the next couple decades. This yields new discoveries as well as jobs for astronomers.

If I want to study astronomy in college, what should I do in high school to prepare?

Most importantly, take math each year and work hard at it. Take calculus if you have the opportunity. In college, you need to master Calculus I through III and Physics I through III before you can study astronomy at a high level. All of these math and physics courses are cumulative; later courses build on the material from earlier courses. You need a strong foundation to build upon. Also take physics in high school. Make sure to do a lot of practice problems in your math and physics courses. Your teacher will only assign a fraction of the problems in the textbook for homework. Extra practice gained by solving more of these problems will pay off handsomely in future courses.

Where do professional astronomers work?

In the US, 55% are faculty members at colleges and universities, or are affiliated with colleges and universities through observatories and laboratories. These positions involve a mix of scientific research and teaching. 33% perform research at federally supported national observatories and laboratories (e.g. NASA facilities). Both of these research-oriented positions require a PhD, typically in astronomy or physics. 10% work in business or private industry (e.g., aerospace, remote sensing, military contractors). For some of these positions, a bachelors degree is sufficient; others require a PhD. Other positions, for which a PhD is not needed, include secondary school teaching and public outreach at planetariums and science museums.

Where can I find additional information on astronomy careers?

The American Astronomical Society has a lot of useful information on their web pages (http://aas.org). Click the links for Career Services and Education Services on the main menu panel. What degree programs does Mason offer undergraduate astronomy students? We offer both a BS and a BA in astronomy and a BS in physics. The BS degrees in astronomy and physics are very similar. Both include a core curriculum of basic math and physics and essential junior-level physics courses. The BS in physics requires additional advanced physics courses while the BS in astronomy requires an introductory astronomy course and several advanced astronomy courses. Both degrees have a significant component consisting of electives drawn largely from advanced physics and astronomy. The BS degrees are suitable for students interested in pursuing graduate study or scientific/technical careers. The BA in astronomy is intended for students who do not want a rigorous math/physics component. The BA does not prepare students for graduate school. Rather, it is intended for those who are interested in public outreach, science writing, and science policy.

How many undergraduate astronomy students are there at Mason?

Currently, there are 27 astronomy majors. The major is experiencing fairly rapid growth. There are typically 60 to 80 physics majors; a significant fraction of these are interested in astronomy.

Who are the advisors for physics and astronomy students?

See advisors.

Should I major in astronomy or physics?

If you’re sure you want to do astronomy after graduation, then major in astronomy. If you’re uncertain, then physics is a better choice. Both degrees provide excellent preparation for graduate school in astronomy. Physics majors are not at a disadvantage relative to astronomy majors when applying. However, if you decide not to pursue astronomy, then the physics degree is usually more desirable to employers. A couple of important notes: The physics and astronomy degrees are so similar that you can switch from one to the other in your sophomore or junior year. No need to sweat the decision early on. Also, if you’re interested in astronomy and decide to major in physics, meet regularly with both the physics and astronomy advisors. The astronomy advisor will point you to important opportunities for astronomy students.

What astronomy courses are available?

A wide selection, including specialized courses in astrobiology, relativity and cosmology, planets, stars, galaxies, the interstellar medium, and observational techniques. It’s not uncommon for undergraduate astronomy students to take one or more graduate astronomy courses. A complete listing of Mason courses is available here.

What research and internship opportunities are available?

There are 13 faculty members active in astronomy research and teaching plus 7 research-only faculty members in Mason’s School of Physics, Astronomy, and Computational Sciences. The faculty are happy to take on undergraduate research students. The fields represented include: Galactic astronomy, extragalactic astronomy, solar physics and space weather, planetary science, astroparticle physics, and astronomy education. Types of activity include observation, theory, and computation. Nearly all astronomy students do at least one research project; some do two or more. There are also numerous opportunities for internships in the DC area. Nearby institutes include NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the US Naval Observatory, the Naval Research Lab, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington. There are major benefits to doing research as an undergraduate, and it is wise to get involved as early as possible. Research experiences are quite different from class experiences. Only by working on a real research project can you decide whether or not you truly enjoy doing science. Of course, you also develop research-specific skills while working on projects. Research experience can help a lot with graduate school applications. Professors can write better letters of recommendation when they have worked closely with you on a research project. Finally, graduate admissions committees are impressed with students who have already co-authored a research article.

Are there other opportunities at Mason to enhance my astronomy education?

Yes! We have two journal clubs, one in astronomy and astrophysics and the other in space weather. These bring together professors, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students, and undergraduates to discuss current advances in the field. This is a great opportunity to learn about the hottest discoveries and develop skill at reading research articles. You also get the chance to interact informally with faculty members. We also have a campus observatory, where students can get hands-on experience working with optical and radio telescopes.


About the Disciplines

The Department of Physics and Astronomy offers degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. At the Bachelor’s level, the Department offers a BS degree in Astronomy and a BS degree in Physics. Undergraduate majors in these fields receive a solid foundation in the basics and are also taught analytical and problem-solving skills essential for success in any career path. The Department also offers minors in Astronomy, Physics, and Renewable Energy.

At the graduate level, the department offers an MS in Applied & Engineering Physics, an MA in Energy and Sustainability, and a PhD in Physics. We also offer an Accelerated BS/MS in Physics.

About Astronomy

What are the objectives of astronomy?

First, to elucidate the nature of the myriad objects that inhabit the cosmos, including stars, planets, galaxies, and the universe as a whole. We aim to understand the structure of these objects as well as how they form and develop over time. We are continually discovering new types of objects to explore. Some of the big questions currently under investigation include: Will the universe expand forever? (Recent observations show that the expansion is currently accelerating.) Normal matter, of which stars, planets, and people are made, accounts for only about 4% of the material content of the universe. What is the mysterious “dark matter” and “dark energy” that makes up the rest? How did structure in the universe, i.e. galaxies and clusters of galaxies, form? How do stars and planets form? What fraction of stars have planets that are hospitable to life? Is there life beyond Earth? Second, we attempt to make use of cosmic objects to shed light on fundamental physics questions. A famous, early instance of this occurred in the 1680s, when Newton developed a theory of gravitation that could account for both Galileo’s ground-based experiments with falling objects and Kepler’s laws of planetary motion.

About Physics

Physics is the science that describes how the physical world works.  It is the most fundamental of all sciences.  Other sciences build upon physics.

Physicists conduct research into the fundamental laws of nature or make use of what we already know about the physical world to design and develop new practical products. As a career, physics offers an astonishing variety of possibilities.

The world of the physicist stretches from the tiniest particles of subatomic matter to galaxies and beyond.  It includes computer circuitry and spacecraft orbits, medical imaging and the search for controlled fusion power. Some of the questions that physicists try to answer are deeply philosophical:  How did the universe begin? On a very small scale, does empty space become “granular” or “foamy”? But many of the questions that physicists deal with are highly practical: How can more information be packed into a  smaller space? What will be the effect of adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere? Can chemical rockets be replaced by electromagnetic launchers? How can solar cells be made more efficient?

Most modern technology rests on physics. Sometimes new knowledge is put to work quickly. For example, many practical uses were found for the laser soon after its invention. Sometimes new knowledge is slow to be harnessed. In 1905 Albert Einstein explained how light can eject electrons from solid surfaces. It was many years before this “photoelectric effect” found application in television cameras.

Physics provides deep understanding of the laws of nature and will continue to help shape the world of the future. Few careers are more exciting, more rewarding, and more important to society than physics.