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What's a good school for astrophysics?

I get this question from prospective college students:

What's a good school for astrophysics?

Photo by Vadim Sherbakov on Unsplash

I did my Ph.D. in particle astrophysics at Ohio State University.

I went to college at North Carolina State University. 

During my college years, I worked on three research projects.

These were in the fields of analytical chemistry and neuroscience, nonlinear dynamics, and nuclear astrophysics.

None of these projects were directly related to or all that similar to my Ph.D. project.

Through my undergraduate research experience and thanks to my undergrad research advisors, I learned how to be a scientist. 

That's the most important thing.

The specifics of a project can be learned and applied as needed.

Fun fact: ALL of my research advisors were women. Namely, Profs. Leslie Sombers, Karen Daniels, and Carla Frohlich!!

These are the brilliant scientists that brought me up!

How did I find them? 

Huge thanks to the undergraduate research director in the chemistry department, Prof. Reza Ghiladi.

As a freshman, I knew absolutely nothing about how to get started with research - only that I wanted to get started with research and Dr. Ghiladi helped me find my first research mentor - Dr. Sombers!

Getting that first research opportunity was so important to everything that followed. 

So thank you Sombers lab!! 💜💜💜

Even though it didn't have much to do with astrophysics it played the most important role in making me the astrophysicist that I am today. 

One research opportunity led to another and I ended up finding my other research advisors. 

Like with any job, once you have a good record for research with one place, you can leverage it to get the next opportunity. 

Heck, if you do a great job, people will seek you out! 

I won first prize at a poster presentation competition for my chemistry research and people in physics started to wonder why I didn't work for them!

By the time I was in grad school, I wasn't afraid I would break something in the lab.

I had already broken something in the lab in undergrad.

I remember the first time I broke something. 

I felt so terrible I was incapacitated. 

I went to my boss, Prof. Leslie Sombers, and told her.

She said it was a casualty and casualties happen and that it was OK.

In the short term, I was relieved and in the long term, I learned to be careful.

Super careful.

Then there was the time when I worked on some machine shop drawings for a part I needed.

I forgot to measure something that I should have measured.

Well, I learned to measure everything after that. Always and forever.

By the time I was in graduate school I was trained in multiple disciplines and lab settings.

It was not a matter of what I could do but a matter of finding the right fit.

I had really good professors at N.C. State.

I look back and cannot remember a single class where I thought it was a waste of my time.

Huge credit for this goes to my academic advisor, Prof. Steve Reynolds of the physics department.

I did not always know which classes would be best for me and he never let me settle for anything but the best.

Professors in the physics department had an open-door policy. 

Any time we had questions, we felt free to go ask them.

I really value the well-roundedness of the education I received in college. 

I took everything from water aerobics to Shakespeare - and loved it. 

So, what's a good school for astrophysics?

For me, it was N.C. State!

Did any professor at N.C. State specialize in the particular type of project I ended up doing for my PhD?


Regardless, they taught me many things and set me up for success in graduate school. 

Two pieces of advice:

1. Go to a college (or community college) that cares about their undergrads. As opposed to being known for their grad programs only.

2. Focus on breadth more than depth. Take all sorts of classes and be open to different types of opportunities. Don't avoid the hard classes. A class known for easy A's might not be the best use of your time. Take that difficult Statistics class. Take the P.E. class you have never taken before. 

Share your questions and concerns in the comments below!

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