The 10 Best Astrophysics and Astronomy Schools in the US

Astronomy and astrophysics are excellent choices for students interested in the universe beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Astronomers observe and actively research space phenomena such as planets, stars, celestial bodies, galaxies, and black holes. 

From the nature of time to the origins of the universe, these scientists increase our knowledge of the natural world.

Astrophysicists concentrate on the physical processes associated with solar systems. They must apply a solid knowledge of physics to solve practical problems. In addition, they study complex subjects such as string theory and dark energy.

These professionals analyze astronomical data using computer software and models of the solar system. They are responsible for writing scientific papers about their experiments and drafting proposals for new research funding. Other astronomers design scientific equipment, from optical telescopes to satellites.

Astronomy is a highly technical field that requires a BS degree or higher to perform research. While in school, undergraduate students complete coursework in astronomy, math, computer science, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, and electromagnetism. Graduate students can further specialize in a subfield according to their interests. 

Along with a comprehensive curriculum, astronomy school provides practical experiences such as research and hands-on opportunities. Students gain essential analytical, communication, and problem-solving abilities that prepare them for their future careers. After graduation, astronomy students go on to work in R&D, universities, federal agencies, and museums, among other institutions.

There are over 2,300 astronomers across the United States, a figure which continues to grow. As more and more students gain an interest in the field, strong astronomy programs become more competitive. 

Here are the 10 best astronomy and astrophysics schools in the US.


10. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Champaign County, IL)

UIUC
Amphylite, UIUC Cornfield, CC BY-SA 4.0

At Illinois, astronomy students have access to unique learning experiences. The university is a leader in observational astronomy, cosmology, and theoretical astrophysics. Courses throughout the curriculum provide modern datasets to give hands-on experience analyzing real data.

Astronomy students at Illinois have access to leading facilities, including the South Pole Telescope, Hubble Space Telescope, and state-of-the-art supercomputers at NCSA

From Arizona to Antarctica, students learn on industry-leading equipment. Many undergraduates take advantage of the school’s facilities to complete research projects outside of the classroom.

Illinois is at the forefront of astronomy research, exposing students to groundbreaking discoveries. A new study led by an astronomy department student and professor found a definitive relationship between black holes and their distinctive light-flickering patterns. 

Their work was published in Science.


9. Penn State University (University Park, PA)  

Penn State University
Stilfehler, Penn State University Millennium Science Complex 5, CC BY-SA 4.0

While at Penn State, students learn from over 60 faculty members

These educators are committed to helping students understand the universe using an interdisciplinary approach. Alexander Wolszscan, discoverer of the first exoplanets, is just one of the impressive faculty members that astronomy students interact with.

Astronomy students learn how to solve quantitative problems throughout the astronomy and astrophysics field. Courses focus on a wide range of topics including exoplanets, observational cosmology, radiation, space instrumentation, astrostatistics, and astrophysics. In their final years, students can choose whether to focus on physics or computer science to complete their education.

Along with educating college students, Penn State has an active collection of public outreach programs. The astronomy department promotes an interest in science for younger students and other members of the community. 

Through public lectures, workshops, planetarium shows, and stargazing, Penn State encourages an appreciation for astronomy.


8. University of Colorado at Boulder (Boulder, CO)

CU Boulder
MECU, Old Main – Colorado, CC BY-SA 3.0

CU Boulder is recognized for its distinctive program that combines education in both astrophysics and planetary sciences

The astronomy department has access to state-of-the-art facilities, such as the Sommers-Bausch Observatory. Conveniently located on campus, the center offers hands-on training in astronomical observations. Astronomy students also gain experience with telescopes, optics, instrumentation, and image processing throughout the curriculum.

In order to keep students engaged, the astronomy department at CU Boulder hosts a variety of events. These include networking opportunities, guest lectures, and open houses. The department colloquia provides a forum to discuss new topics in astronomy with other members of the program.


7. UC Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz, CA)

UC Santz Cruz
Ponderosapine210, Rachel Carson College Administration Building, CC BY-SA 4.0

UC Santa Cruz leads the field in both observational and theoretical research. In 2017, the university was ranked as #1 for research influence in the physical sciences and #4 overall. This is the result of an impressive number of citations by other astronomy researchers.

Along with leading research, students in the astronomy department learn from the top experts in the field. UC Santa Cruz faculty members have earned impressive recognitions, such as the Gruber Cosmology Prize, Benjamin Franklin Medal, and National Medal of Science. Other professors are members of professional societies relating to astronomy and astrophysics.

The university manages the UC Observatories, including the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton. Designed by UC Santa Cruz scientists, the Keck Telescopes on Mauna Kea are the world’s largest optical and infrared telescopes.


6. Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD) 

Johns Hopkins University
Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

Johns Hopkins is home to the Maryland Space Grant Consortium (MDSGC), selected for its unique role in Maryland’s astronomy education. The group is made up of other institutions in the area who collaborate closely with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. In order to strengthen scientific education, MDSGC is committed to solidifying Maryland’s visibility as a center of space science.

The flexible astronomy program at Johns Hopkins prepares students to achieve their career goals, whether it is further study, medical school, or technological careers. Students gain a strong understanding of basic subjects, then further specialize in condensed matter physics, particle physics, astronomy and astrophysics, or plasma physics.

Astronomy students can participate in department workshops to discuss a variety of relevant topics. These are hosted by a rotating body of institutions, including Johns Hopkins, Chalmers University, and the University of Florence, 


5. University of Arizona (Tucson, AZ)

University of Arizona
Michael Barera, University of Arizona (Old Main), CC BY-SA 4.0

The University of Arizona has one of the nation’s largest astronomy enrollments for non-science majors. Students from all majors can learn directly from astronomy professors, making the program an outstanding option for both the serious aspiring astronomer as well as the student with a basic interest.

During the academic year, undergraduates can participate in paid, part-time research opportunities through the UArizona NASA Space Grant program. Students work alongside practicing scientists to perform innovative research. Topics include zero-gravity effects, mining atmospheric fuel, climate effects, and the development of lunar rovers.

The astronomy club at the University of Arizona aims to foster a passion for astronomy in all students. They provide an array of opportunities to work on astronomy projects with peers and astronomers. Regardless of major, this organization engages undergraduates through astrophotography, model rocketry, planetarium building, stargazing, and more.


4. UC Berkeley (Berkeley, CA)

UC Berkeley
Firstcultural, UC Berkeley Wheeler Hall and Library, CC0 1.0

Since the 1870’s, Berkeley has been an active member in astronomy education and discovery. The astronomy department is recognized for its work on discovering comet orbits and asteroids. Today, Berkeley houses over 30 astronomy faculty and many passionate students.

The courses in the astronomy program are taught by faculty experts, ensuring a more thorough education. At Berkeley, astronomy students gain valuable research experience, computational abilities, and an analytical mindset. This education prepares them to act as a leader and drive innovation in their field.

Astronomy students can participate in research at unique centers, such as the Berkeley SETI Research Center. This program aims to detect electromagnetic signals from other planets. As an intern, students can work alongside scientists and engineers to analyze data from Green Bank Telescope, the world’s largest steerable radio telescope.


3. Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA) 

Carnegie Mellon University
Asamudra, The Mall Carnegie Mellon, CC BY 3.0

At Carnegie Mellon, the physics department provides a deeper understanding of what the world is made of and how it works. 

The McWilliams Center for Cosmology helps students to understand the makeup of the universe better. Using an interdisciplinary approach, researchers employ observational, experimental, theoretical, and computational approaches. The facility brings together researchers from many disciplines, from physics to software engineering.

Carnegie Mellon physics graduates go on to find success in the astronomy and astrophysics fields. 

Alumni of the program work in the industry at renowned companies such as NASA, SpaceX, and Boeing. Others go on to top graduate schools from Stanford to UChicago to further study astrophysics.


2. Princeton University (Princeton, NJ)

Princeton University
John Phelan, Walker Hall, Wilson College, Princeton University, Princeton NJ, CC BY-SA 3.0

While at Princeton, astronomy majors are part of a relatively small department with 15 – 20 students each year. The close-knit program allows for a supportive atmosphere and strong relationships with faculty members. 

Despite the small size, students have access to some of the most advanced technological facilities in the nation.

The university is home to the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, the largest center for space science studies in the United States. Supported by the US Department of Energy, the laboratory aims to explore fusion and the plasma universe. The facility is home to advanced computational simulations, vacuum technology, and high-voltage power systems.

Each summer, astrophysics students participate in the Undergraduate Summer Research Program. Students complete an intensive workshop on computer programming and astronomical statistics, followed by an independent research project. Some students write research articles on the work completed in this program.


1. California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, CA) 

CalTech
Antony-22, Kerckhoff Laboratory Caltech, CC BY-SA 4.0

Caltech’s astronomy program emphasizes giving students the tools for a successful career in research. The curriculum boasts a wide range of physics, computation, math, and astrophysics courses based on each student’s interests. In addition, the program requires writing and oral presentation courses so astronomy students graduate as effective communicators.

Every astronomy student at Caltech performs multiple research projects. Past research theses include various astronomy subjects such as black holes, infrared sky, surface water on Mars, galaxy alignment, numerical relativity, and galaxy spectroscopy.

Targeted to launch in 2023, SPHEREx is a NASA mission managed collaboratively by Caltech and JPL. The center aims to map the large-scale structure of our universe using infrared spectroscopy. Students working with the center will be at the cutting-edge of space exploration.

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