Department/Program Home Page

Department/Program Description

The Wesleyan Astronomy Department provides outstanding opportunities for undergraduates who wish to major in this fascinating subject, either in preparation for graduate school or as an end in itself. Our unique program blends coursework with research opportunity and provides students access to professional-quality telescopes, instrumentation, and computers. A principal strength is our active research faculty who will work one-on-one with undergraduates employing state-of-the-art instrumentation and computers to investigate areas of current astronomical interest.

Our students go on to graduate programs, including the best in the country, or to a variety of rewarding careers in and out of science. Many of our students are co-authors on research papers based on work performed during their undergraduate careers. In addition, we offer a comprehensive range of coursework that will prepare students for a variety of directions in life, including graduate study.

Student Learning Goals

In this major, students are expected to acquire or develop:

  • a broad understanding at an introductory level of the foundational concepts and recent discoveries that have shaped modern astronomy and astrophysics;
  • proficiency at an advanced level with the theoretical concepts and observational tools employed in four or more distinct subfields of astrophysics;
  • firsthand experience with the process of science through participation in research;
  • the technical and research skills needed to pursue graduate study in astronomy;
  • analytical abilities and computing skills useful for careers outside of professional astronomy.
Admission to the Major

The standard introductory course for potential majors and other science-oriented students is ASTR155. It may be taken in the first or sophomore year. It assumes a good high school preparation in physics and some knowledge of calculus. Potential majors with a good knowledge of astronomy may place out of this course by demonstrating proficiency in the material; anyone wishing to do so should speak with the instructor. ASTR211 is a sophomore-level course appropriate for interested nonmajors as well as a gateway course to the major.

Major Requirements

The astronomy major is constructed to accommodate both students who are preparing for graduate school and those who are not.

The basic requirement for the major is successful completion of the required courses as well as four upper-level astronomy courses. The required upper-level courses are taken one each semester in the junior and senior years.

Required Courses:
Introduction to Astrophysics
Observational Astronomy
Calculus I, Part I
Calculus I, Part II
Vectors and Matrices
General Physics I
General Physics II
Waves and Oscillations
Quantum Mechanics I
Four Upper-Level Astronomy Courses*:
Galactic Astronomy
Modern Observational Techniques
Exoplanets: Formation, Detection, and Characterization
Stellar Structure and Evolution
Galaxies, Quasars, and Cosmology
Radio Astronomy
*Upper-level Astronomy course offerings may vary year-to-year.
Strongly Recommended Courses:
Multivariable Calculus
Electricity and Magnetism
Special Relativity
Introduction to Contemporary Physics (if PHYS215 is not offered)

Additional upper-level physics courses are also recommended but are not required. Ability to program a computer in at least one of the widely used languages in the sciences, such as C, Fortran, or IDL, is also highly recommended. This does not necessarily mean that students should take a computer science course. Potential majors with graduate school aspirations should complete or place out of the basic physics and mathematics courses listed above, preferably by the end of their sophomore year, and should also take ASTR155 and ASTR211 during their first two years.

Since physics GRE scores are an important admission criterion at most astronomy graduate schools, those planning to go on for a PhD are advised to double major in physics. This can be accomplished by taking several of the following additional courses, normally in the junior and senior years: PHYS324, PHYS313, PHYS315, and PHYS316. Check the published requirements for the physics major for more details and speak to your advisor.

Additional mathematics courses, such as MATH229, may also be chosen.

Click here for more detailed information about the astronomy major, including a sample eight-semester course plan.

Capstone Experience

Research is an integral part of an undergraduate education in astronomy, and all majors are required to complete a senior research capstone that provides experiences beyond those obtained as part of their academic coursework. The capstone, to be completed during the twelve months prior to graduation, can take several forms:

  • completion of a senior thesis project
  • non-thesis related astronomy research
  • in-depth investigation of a current research topic, including a short written report

In all cases, students must present some aspect of their experience in a public forum, e.g., by speaking in the ASTR 431 research seminar, presenting a poster at the Wesleyan summer research program poster session, or making a presentation at a professional conference.


Students considering graduate school are strongly urged to do a senior thesis project (ASTR409/ASTR410); honors in astronomy requires completion of a senior thesis. Students with an interest in planetary science are advised to look at the course cluster information on that topic.

BA/MA Program


This program provides an attractive option for science majors to enrich their course and research background. Students are advised to begin research by their junior year if they intend to pursue the BA/MA. Admission is competitive and based on GPA, faculty recommendations, and research experience.

Additional Information

All astronomy majors are to enroll each year in the .25-credit courses ASTR430 and ASTR431. These discussion courses provide a broad exposure and introduction to research and education topics of current interest to the astronomical community. Majors are also encouraged to serve as teaching apprentices in a general education course at least once during their junior or senior year, to take part in the observing program with the department's 24-inch telescope, and to participate in the department's public outreach activities.

Graduate Program

General Introduction

The Astronomy Department offers graduate work leading to the degree of master of arts. The small size of the department permits individualized instruction and a close working relationship between students and faculty. Students are expected to become involved in the research programs of the department early in their graduate careers. They also are expected to select courses offered in the areas of observational and theoretical astronomy and astrophysics; a graduate student normally takes at least one 500-level astronomy course each semester. Additional courses in physics and mathematics are recommended according to individual student needs. Two years are usually necessary to complete requirements for the MA degree. However, the department also offers a five-year combined BA plus MA program for Wesleyan students. Eligible astronomy majors who complete their undergraduate requirements in four years can enroll for a fifth year and obtain a master’s degree upon successful completion of one year of graduate coursework and a thesis. Primary research activities in the department include mapping the local interstellar medium, probing the atmospheres of extrasolar planets, observations of young stars and protoplanetary disks, investigations of x-ray binary star systems, and studies of the massive black holes that reside at the centers of galaxies.


The student will normally enroll in at least one 500-level course in astronomy each semester. Depending on the year, the courses are ASTR521ASTR522ASTR524ASTR531ASTR532, or ASTR555. These courses are similar in content to the 200-level courses of the same name but with some supplementary materials and special assignments. These supplements are designed especially for graduate students. A minimum of 10 non-seminar credits, with grades of B- or better, is required for the MA degree. BA/MA students need a minimum of 6 non-seminar credits.  These include two credits for research leading to the thesis, which is also required. The student may expect to take four to six courses in physics, mathematics, or other sciences after consultation with the faculty of the department. In addition, students are required to participate in the department’s seminars on research and pedagogy in astronomy, which are offered each semester.  

Progress and Qualifying Exams

To be admitted to candidacy, a student must take a written and oral qualifying examination demonstrating satisfactory understanding of several areas of astronomy, fundamental physics, and mathematics. This examination should be taken after the fist year of study. If performance in this examination is not satisfactory, the student will either be asked not to continue or to repeat the examination.  BA/MA students do not take a written or oral qualifying examination


The emphasis in the program is on research and scholarly achievement, but graduate students are expected to improve communication skills by classroom teaching, formal interaction with undergraduate students, and presenting talks to the observatory staff and to the community.  BA/MA students are not required to be a teaching assistant.


The research interests of the current faculty are:

  • Dr. William Herbst—star and planet formation
  • Dr. Ed Moran—extragalactic X-ray sources and supermassive black holes
  • Dr. Seth Redfield—exoplanets and the interstellar medium
  • Dr. Roy Kilgard—high-mass X-ray binary populations and statistical challenges in high energy astrophysics
  • Dr. Meredith Hughes—planet formation

The department is well-equipped for instruction and research. Facilities include a network of MacOS X workstations, a CCD attached to a 24-inch reflector, a 20-inch refractor equipped for observational work, and the substantial astronomical library of the Van Vleck Observatory. Members of our faculty are frequently awarded observing time on world-class telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray Observatory, and dozens of ground-based telescopes.


Each candidate is required to write a thesis on a piece of original and publishable research carried out under the supervision of a faculty member. A thesis plan, stating the purpose and goals of the research, observational and other materials required, and uncertainties and difficulties that may be encountered, must be submitted to the department for approval after admission to candidacy. The thesis, in near-final form, must be submitted to the faculty at least one week prior to the scheduled oral examination. In this examination, the student must defend his or her work and must demonstrate a high level of understanding in the research area. The oral examination may touch on any aspect of the student’s preparation. It is expected that the student will submit the results of his or her work to a research journal for publication.


Planetary science is an emerging interdisciplinary field at the intersection of geology and astronomy with substantial contributions from physics, chemistry, and biology. The subject matter is planets, including those around other stars (exo-solar systems). The science questions include the most important of our times: How do planets (including Earth) form? How common are they in the universe? What is their range of properties and how do they evolve? Is there or was there ever life on other planets? The discovery of even microbial life beyond Earth would rank as one of the greatest human achievements of all time, and this quest lies squarely within the purview of planetary science.  Concentrations are available for BA/MA students

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