Astronomy at the University of Illinois

My last blog post was about being a STEM major – for today’s post, I thought I’d jump into specifics and talk about my major. I’m a junior majoring in Astronomy, and I intend on going to graduate school and becoming a professor. I love my major, and I think it’s one of the most unique and interesting programs of study at the University of Illinois. In this post, I’ll talk about what it’s like to be an Astronomy major and why I chose to study Astronomy.

It’s Astronomy, not Astrology!

I’ve been asked what my astrological sign is countless times since I came to Illinois – for those of you who curious, I’m an Aquarius. Although I think horoscopes are pretty cool, they have very little to do with the scientific study that is Astronomy.

Astronomy is the science that deals with everything in the sky above us. You can study exo-planets orbiting other stars, exotic objects like quasars, and the history of our entire Universe. I’d love to break Astronomy down into specific topics and describe them, but there are simply too many to describe in a blog post!

The Department of Astronomy at the University of Illinois specializes in certain topics; the big ones that come to mind are Cosmology, Computational Astrophysics, and Observational Astronomy. If you’re interested, you can read more about the research fields Illinois is involved in on their website. I’m personally interested in Cosmology – the study of the history of our Universe. Since so many professors at Illinois conduct research in this field, this school is a great place for me to get a head start!

What are courses like for Astronomy majors?

Growing up, I loved reading the Harry Potter books. I’m sure the other Harry Potter fans out there remember the pivotal scene where Harry is taking his Astronomy exam (I won’t ruin it for those of you who haven’t read the books)! During his exam, Harry has to look through a telescope and map out the locations of several celestial objects.

Before coming to Illinois, I thought that Astronomy courses would be practical, just like in Harry Potter. I imagined that undergraduates would go out into the cornfields at night to observe the night skies. You can imagine my surprise when I was told most modern observations are done via computer!

If I attended the University of Illinois in the early 20th century, this might have been the case. However, Astronomy has modernized very quickly, and a lot of research can be done thousands of miles from the actual telescope. The courses Astronomy majors take today are based heavily on understanding theories and learning how to analyze data.

For example, I’m currently in ASTR 404: Stellar Astrophysics. Growing up, I would’ve guessed this course would mean looking at different kinds of stars and categorizing them. However, the course only briefly touches upon that. Instead, we learn about the physical laws governing stars – it’s a lot of thermodynamics and chemistry!

Astronomy courses are just Physics courses in space. In high school, I hated Physics because it was so dry – I didn’t really care about calculating the speed of a block sliding on a table. However, I still enjoyed the math behind it, and thought of how numbers could describe everyday phenomena was interesting. I enjoy Astronomy a lot more because it’s applied to a really cool and exotic scenario. Physics is a lot more exciting when it’s in the context of galactic collisions!

Is Astronomy a lot of work?

I get this question a lot, especially from newer students at the University of Illinois. Simply put, yes. I currently have to spend more than 10 hours a week on homework for certain courses, and I do find myself drained of energy a lot.

However, I personally don’t think that workload should be a factor to take into consideration when picking a major. I’m a strong believer in the idea that if you love something, it’ll be easy. I truly love Astronomy – I think it’s super cool and I want to pursue a career in the field. I will be tired from time to time, but I don’t really mind – the end goal is worth it. Plus, every major is difficult in its own way – don’t buy into the idea that there are ‘easy’ majors!

What careers can I get as an Astronomy major?

Instinctively, you might think that there aren’t a lot of career prospects for Astronomy majors. The first two jobs that pop into my head are research scientists or college professors.

However, getting a college degree is much more than learning about the specifics of your major. As an Astronomy major, you gain a very valuable skillset – the ability to analyze data. Knowing how to characterize stars may not be a widely applicable skill, but reading and interpreting tables of numbers is. It may not be a traditional path, but the skills you pick up in STEM are useful in fields like finance and law.

Astronomy is a great subject, and I really do hope that it becomes more popular in the future. I love what I’m studying, and I’m grateful that the University of Illinois allows me to pursue such a niche topic. If you have no idea what you want to study, I hope that this post was helpful!


Class of 2022
I grew up in Hong Kong, China, and I’ve come across the world to Illinois to major in Astronomy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. I’ve always thought outer space is super cool, and I love that I’m learning everything that I can about it at Illinois.

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