Astrophysics Major

Our exploration of the phenomena of the extraterrestrial universe is conducted through the lens of physics. We are committed to providing each of our majors a solid foundation in the basic principles of both astronomy and physics, an understanding of their most recent developments, and the tools and inspiration to pursue learning in both.

Student research is a vital part of the major. Extraordinary teachers and mentors, our faculty also work at the cutting edge of modern astronomy and cosmology, creating exceptional research opportunities for majors. Some of those opportunities are based on campus, within the College’s well-equipped William J. Strawbridge Observatory; others take students across the country to observatories such as the one at Kitt Peak in Arizona.

Curriculum & Courses

We recommend our astrophysics major for students who seek more grounding in physics and aim to enter a career (or pursue graduate study) in astronomy or astrophysics.

Astrophysics majors must complete several introductory and upper-level physics classes; introductory and advanced courses in astronomy; a senior research paper; and Physics 399, a year-long seminar in which physics and astrophysics majors develop these papers. For the department’s astronomy major, see that Area of Study.

  • Major Requirements

    Astrophysics Major Requirements

    • PHYS H105 (or PHYS H115 or PHYS H101), PHYS H106 (or PHYS H102), PHYS H213, PHYS H214, PHYS H211 (usually taken concurrently with PHYS H213).
    • Two mathematics courses; MATH H121 and all 200-level or higher mathematics courses can be used to satisfy this requirement.
    • ASTR H204 and any two 300-level astronomy courses. Majors can substitute 100-level Swarthmore astronomy seminars for 300-level astronomy courses.
    • PHYS H302, PHYS H303, and PHYS H309.
    • The Senior Seminar, PHYS H399F and PHYS H399I, including a talk and senior thesis on research conducted by the student. This research can be undertaken in a 400-level research course with any member of the Physics and Astronomy Department or by doing extracurricular research at Haverford or elsewhere, e.g., an approved summer research internship at another institution. The thesis is to be written under the supervision of both the research advisor and a Haverford advisor if the research advisor is not a Haverford faculty member.

    Bryn Mawr equivalents may be substituted for the non-astronomy courses.

    Astronomy Major Requirements

    • PHYS H105 (or PHYS H101 or PHYS H115), PHYS H106 (or PHYS H102), PHYS H213, PHYS H214.
    • Two mathematics courses; MATH H121 and all 200-level or higher mathematics courses can be used to satisfy this requirement.
    • ASTR H204, four 300-level astronomy courses, one of which may be replaced by an upper-level physics course. Majors can substitute 100-level Swarthmore astronomy seminars for 300-level astronomy courses.
    • PHYS H399F and PHYS H399I, which may be replaced by approved independent research either at Haverford or elsewhere.
    • Written comprehensive examinations.

    Bryn Mawr equivalents may be substituted for the non-astronomy courses.

    Senior Project

    The senior project and requirements are the same for the Astronomy major and the Astrophysics major:

    Coursework prior to the senior year provides students’ primary preparation for their thesis work. As outlined in our program’s educational goals, this coursework emphasizes: knowledge of the extraterrestrial universe, problem solving skills, constructing models, developing physical intuition, computer programming, observing skills, and research-like inquiry. Students also gain experience with oral and written communication of complex scientific topics in their introductory physics labs and in upper level coursework, including ASTR H341 (Observational Astronomy). During group research meetings, students provide weekly oral reports to each other on their thesis progress and receive ongoing support and instruction from faculty.
    To pull together the many elements that make up the senior year, students are required to participate in a year-long seminar course, PHYS H399. At the approximately biweekly meetings, students and some departmental faculty gather around a table to discuss topics running the gamut from scientific ethics to how to give a scientific talk or write a scientific research paper. Further details on this course are contained in the description of senior year work in physics.
    The most important part of the senior seminar remains the senior paper and the senior presentations. We assess students by their performance on a short talk and the draft of the background section of their thesis during the fall semester, a comprehensive talk or poster presentation in the spring semester and a senior thesis written in the form of a scientific paper.

    Senior Project Learning Goals

    The senior thesis project extends through at least an entire academic year, with many students starting their thesis research during the summer before their senior year. The thesis thus requires students to engage in focused work, towards a single goal, for a substantial time period. We aim for students to develop deep topical expertise in a single subfield of astronomy or astrophysics, and to develop technical expertise in one of the analysis techniques common to that field (often computational data analysis).

    Students learn to ask good questions of others and themselves, in pursuit of a deeper understanding of a previously unsolved question about the natural world.

    Students are expected to place their senior research work in the context of the scientific literature in their field of study, and to present their results to an audience of professionals (for their thesis) and their peers (for the talk or poster). They are given training in searching and reading the scientific literature by each research supervisor, as well as specific materials through the senior seminar course.

    More than is the case in any other undergraduate curricular engagement, students must learn how to be independent and self-motivated to complete their thesis work. This style of scientific inquiry also imbues a realistic sense of professional scientific research in students and increases their grit.

    Senior Project Assessment

    Each senior’s thesis culminates in both a written and an oral component. The written thesis is carefully read and evaluated by two faculty readers.
    The thesis research itself is evaluated for (i) a demonstrated understanding of the context and content of the research (including a review of the relevant scientific literature), (ii) independent problem solving and synthesis, and (iii) success in understanding the forward looking implications of the research.
    The written and oral presentations of the research are evaluated for (i) a clear and appropriate writing style and (ii) well-curated and well-presented visual displays of the research results.

    Requirements for Honors

    All astronomy and astrophysics majors are regarded as candidates for honors. For both majors, the award of honors will be made in part on the basis of superior work in the departmental courses and in certain related courses. The award of honors will additionally be based on the senior thesis and talk. High honors carries the additional requirement of demonstrated originality in senior research.

Research & Outreach

For astrophysics majors, student research culminates with Physics 399, our required two-semester senior seminar. In it, majors develop, draft, and present a scientific paper based on original research performed with a faculty member or based on existing research on a particular topic. Students also explore ethics and other conventions of the discipline, learn about career options and graduate programs, and interact with an array of visiting scientists as well as our vibrant alumni/ae community in this discussion-driven class.

After Graduation

We are invested in the long-term success of our students and are committed to developing the skills and perspectives—as well as the relationships—that will enable our majors to thrive as grad students at top programs and in a range of careers.

More than half of our majors pursue graduate study at the Ph.D. level in physics or astrophysics. Others go on to graduate programs in related areas such as mathematics, engineering, materials science, climate science, and computer science.

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