Physical Sciences 


Areas of Emphasis:

  • Astronomy: BA, Minor
  • Astrophysical & Planetary Sciences: PhD

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Degree Requirements

Sample Four Year Plan

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The Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at CU Boulder has a reputation of excellence, consistently ranking among the top space programs in the country.

The department is one of the few programs that combines both astrophysics and planetary science, providing a unified view of the space sciences; the solar system and comparative planetology; extra-solar planets; stellar and galactic astronomy; cosmology; and high-energy astrophysics of black holes

My degree gave me the knowledge and confidence to engage with the general public at Sommers-Bausch Observatory, to engage with my peers by being a Learning Assistant, and to engage with career scientists as an intern at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory."

Maya Yanez

Have you ever dreamed of being an astronaut? What about working with a world-renowned program to study the science of space? If either of these describe you, then CU Boulder's astronomy degree is a step in the right direction.

Did you know that:

  • CU has sent instruments to every planet in the Solar System. And Pluto, too!
  • CU has produced more astronauts than any other university in the U.S.

A major in astronomy is designed to meet student needs for training in space sciences, including astronomy, astrophysics, planetary sciences and space physics. Undergraduates will be prepared both for academic research careers and for the industrial market (aerospace, computer software, instrumentation, and other technical areas), as well as for K-12 science education, science journalism and outreach and space policy. The astronomy degree has two tracks — General Astronomy (Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences degree only) and Astrophysics / Physics (supervised jointly by Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences and Physics).

  • The General Astronomy track highlights the science of astronomy, observation, and technology. As a major in this track, you receive core training in astronomical sciences, mathematics, applied physics, and computational and instrumental technology needed for professions in the space sciences. 
  • The Astrophysics/Physics track is directed toward students interested in pursuing graduate studies in astrophysics. The track is multidisciplinary in focus with work in physics, mathematics and astronomy. Upon graduation, students should have solid technological training in the space sciences, including mathematical, physical, computational, and instrumental expertise.

The Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences—which administers both tracks—is one of the few programs that combines both astrophysics and planetary science, providing a unified view of space sciences, the solar system, and comparative planetology, stellar and galactic astronomy and cosmology. You will be exposed to hands-on experience with telescopes, optics, instrumentation and computer image processing and modeling. 

The Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at CU Boulder is also the best in the nation, consistently ranking #1 in terms of numbers of astronomy graduates by the American Institute of Physics. The Astrophysics graduate program is also ranked in the top ten programs nationwide by the National Research Council.

In addition, the department has a number of excellent and award-winning faculty, including a CU Distinguished Professor; three College of Arts and Sciences' Professors of Distinction; two Distinguished Researchers; NASA and National Science Foundation Early Career Award recipients; a Governor's Award for High-Impact Research in the category of Earth Systems and Space Sciences; and numerous NASA award winners and fellowships for organizations like Alfred P. Sloan, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Geophysical Union, Guggenheim, NASA, National Science Foundation, Hubble and the American Physical Society.

The Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences is nationally recognized in several areas of research, focusing broadly in seven categories: Planetary Science, Observational Astrophysics, Theoretical Astrophysics, Astronomy Education, Space Physics, Solar Physics and Space Instrumentation. 

Their diverse faculty are affiliated with many different research labs, both within the university (Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy, Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, JILA), in the Boulder area (High Altitude Observatory/National Center for Atmospheric Research, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Southwest Research Institute) and outside Colorado (NASA). These affiliations often lead to research opportunities for students in the major. You may also choose to work with Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences faculty on independent research projects that use the Sommers-Bausch Observatory, the 3.5m Apache Point Observatory, the Sloan Digital Sky Surveys (both Sloan-IV and soon Sloan-V) or the Fiske Planetarium.

For the undergraduate students pursuing a degree in astronomy, there are a number of research opportunities beyond just class work:

  • The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) offers students a chance to work alongside a faculty sponsor on original research. Learn to write proposals, conduct research, pursue creative work, analyze data, and present the results. For more information, call UROP at 303-492-2596.

  • The department also encourages faculty-advised research and honors theses. Graduating with honors requires a) a grade point average of 3.3 or higher, b) successfully completing two honors seminars and c) writing and defending an honors thesis based upon original research. Students who graduate with honors receive a designation of cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude depending upon the overall quality of their work.

  • You may want to enrich your undergraduate years with a study abroad. The university offers more than 100 programs throughout the world, where you may spend a few weeks to a full academic year, depending on the program you select. Programs also offer credit. Language study is a prerequisite for participation in many programs, so early planning for study abroad is essential. Further information about study abroad is available from Education Abroad, 303-492-7741 or on the education abroad website.

The General Astronomy track lends itself to a career in education, science journalism, science policy, information technology, science management or technical work that does not require a graduate degree. The Astrophysics/Physics track is intended for students who wish to do research and continue on to graduate work in astronomy or planetary sciences. This track also lends itself well to a career in technical work related to the field. 

Career Services offers free services for all CU Boulder degree-seeking students, and alumni up to one year after graduation, to help students discover who they are, what they want to do, and how to get there. They are the bridge between academics and the world of work by discussing major and career exploration, internship or job searching, and graduate school preparation. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects:

  • that 2016-2026 job growth for physicists and astronomers will be 14 percent, faster than the average for all jobs.
  • Median 2016 pay for physicists and astronomers was $114,870.

The astrophysical and planetary sciences department has an extensive list of alumni that are either working or have worked in a variety of industries across the globe. Some alumni of the program include:

  • Joe Romig (BA Physics, '63; PhD Astrogeophysics, '75), founder of the consulting firm Ponderosa Associates, was a two-time all-American selection and runner-up for the Heisman Trophy when he played football at CU and a Rhodes Scholar. He also worked in the advanced planetary program section of Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) and contributed to NASA’s Voyager missions.
  • Alan Stern (PhD '89) is the founder of the Boulder Office of the Southwest Research Insititute (2001 to present) where he helps lead NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. His awards include the Von Braun Aerospace Achievement Award of the National Space Society, the 2007 University of Colorado George Norlin Distinguished Alumnus Award, Smithsonian Magazine’s 2015 American Ingenuity Award and the 2016 Sagan Memorial Award of the American Astronautical Society.
  • Megan Donahue (PhD '90) is professor of physics and astronomy at Michigan State University and the president of the American Astronomical Society (June 2018-June 2020).
  • Randol Aikin (BA '06) is the system-engineering lead on Uber's self-driving truck program. Prior to Uber, he was a senior technologist at Apple and was a member of the technical staff at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory. He graduated with a PhD in physics from Caltech.
  • Loren Wilber Acton (PhD Astrogeophysics, '65) is a physicist who flew on NASA’S Space Shuttle mission STS-51-F as a Payload Specialist for the Lockheed Palo Alto Research Laboratory.
  • Morgan Rehnberg (PhD '17) is the director of scientific presentation at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.
  • Mark Voit (PhD '90).  Professor of Physics & Astronomy at Michigan State University, and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies. Voit, along with Jeff Bennett, Megan Donahue and Nick Schneider, is a co-author of "The Cosmic Perspective," the world’s best-selling textbook for undergraduate astronomy, used by over 700,000 students.
  • Jeffrey Bennett (PhD '87) is the lead author of best-selling college textbooks in four subject areas: astronomy, mathematics, statistics and astrobiology. Together, these books have sold more than 1.5 million copies.