University of Virginia, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Why Study Astronomy?

What is Astronomy

Who has not felt a sense of awe while looking deep into the sky, lit with countless stars on a clear night? Who has not asked themselves if ours is the only planet that supports life? Who has not pondered the nature of the planets, stars, galaxies, and the Universe itself? Astronomy is a science that seeks to explain everything that we observe in the Universe, from the comets and planets in our own solar system to distant galaxies to the echoes of the Big Bang. By studying the cosmos beyond our own planet, we can understand where we came from, where we are going, and how physics works under conditions which are impossible to recreate on Earth. In astronomy, the Universe is our laboratory!

Why study Astronomy at UVA?

The Astronomy Department at the University of Virginia is a world leader in innovative and cutting edge science. With over 15 full time faculty, ours is one of the largest departments in the Southeast. In recent years undergraduates have participated in research in the following fields:

  • The Milky Way and the Local Group of galaxies (Steve Majewski)
  • High energy astrophysics, including black holes and clusters of galaxies (Craig Sarazin)
  • Astronomy instrumentation, especially detectors of infrared light (Mike Skrutskie)
  • Star formation in other galaxies (Kelsey Johnson)
  • Education and public outreach that brings astronomy to the people and classrooms of Virginia (Ed Murphy)

To see a list of all the research that goes on in our department, click here.

Students can take advantage of all that our department offers through one of two majors:

  • The Astronomy Major, which is meant for students who have a strong interest in astronomy but are not looking for an intensive science program
  • The Astronomy-Physics Major, which gives students a strong background in physics and math, and is meant for students looking to pursue a professional career in astronomy

Our undergraduates have the opportunity to work closely with the faculty. The ability to do research as part of their degree gives our students the chance to take part in the process of discovery, first hand.

Students needn't travel far to experience the wonders of the Universe, as we operate two observatories locally:

  • The Leander McCormick Observatory, situated on Mt. Jefferson on the UVa Grounds, houses one of the largest refractors in the world (one of the oldest operating telescopes in the United States).
  • Fan Mountain Observatory is a fully functioning research and education observatory located just 15 miles south of Charlottesville.

The headquarters of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the North American ALMA Science Center are also located on the UVa Grounds, just a short walk from the Astronomy Department. Many astronomers at NRAO are adjunct faculty in the department. NRAO operates telescopes such as the VLA in New Mexico and the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.

UVa is also a partner on world class telescopes such as Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, the brand new Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona, and the Magellan Telescope in Chile.

Careers in Astronomy

An Astronomy major gains skills in a wide range of fields including physics, math, computer science, and critical thinking and problem solving. For this reason, astronomy and physics majors are prepared for many careers, both inside and outside the physical sciences. Astronomy students often go on to graduate school or find a job related to astronomy, but astronomy majors are qualified for a wide range of positions related to engineering, mathematics, computer science, and environmental science. Many students also go on to study law or medicine or enter the world of business or education, including teaching high school physics.

Those who do concentrate on astronomy typically find themselves employed as faculty or researchers at universities, observatories, and government labs, with about 10% working in private industry or at planetariums or museums. Astronomy is a close-knit field where you will get the opportunity to work with many people.

Professional astronomers are motivated by curiosity and a deep desire to understand some of the grandest and most beautiful phenomena in the universe, as well as a desire to share these wonders with others.

To learn more about careers in astronomy and how to prepare yourself for one, visit the website of the American Astronomical Society.

Life in Charlottesville

Charlottesville has the cosmopolitan feel of a big city combined with the cozy atmosphere of a college town.

Discover the historic Downtown Mall, with its wide variety of shops, bookstores, and ethnic food, complete with outdoor dining. Enjoy concerts, movies, and entertainers at a historic movie theatre, outdoor amphitheatre, and local music venues.

Hang out at the Corner! Immediately adjacent to Grounds, this student hangout includes restaurants and bookstores. This cobblestone stretch has been a meeting place between the University and the town for over a century.

Home to UVa's student body and a large population of young professionals, Charlottesville boasts a wide variety of affordable housing options, from economy flats to townhouses and condominiums. University and city buses provide free transportation all around Grounds, the city, and the shopping centers north of Charlottesville.

Go play outside! For those who love the outdoors, there are beautiful national parks and recreational areas with camping, hiking, and skiing just minutes away.

Learn More

If you have specific questions, you can email Craig Sarazin, the Director of the Undergraduate Program, at astro-ugradadv@virginia.edu.