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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Obtaining a Master of Astronomy Degree in Astrophysics Online

copyright 2011 Rick Boozer
The University Medal

ATTENTION: Since this article was written, the Centre of Astronomy has moved from James Cook University to the University of Southern Queensland.  People interested in obtaining a Master's degree as described in this article should apply at USQ.
 
At the age of 58, I achieved a dream I had had since the age of 8: to get an advanced degree in astronomy. Without leaving my home in the southeastern United States, I had attended classes for three years at a large state university located on the other side of the planet! Astronomy enthusiasts in general may find my experiences to be interesting, enlightening and even surprising in certain instances. But there is a second audience for this article as well. The online alternative is not suited for everyone who may be considering an advanced astronomy degree and the information provided here may be of help when attempting to make an intelligent decision in this regard.

Beginning the adventure
My reasons for waiting so late in life to start my academic odyssey are not relevant to this article. It’s enough to say that four years prior to getting the Master of Astronomy in astrophysics, I left a successful career as a software engineer to pursue my childhood dream full bore.

After the initial decision to obtain the degree, it became necessary to decide how to go about it. I live in South Carolina and there is no institution close to my home offering an astronomy degree. Normally, I would have to attend a school in another state, pay higher out-of-state tuition, and incur the extra expense of paying for living quarters. Robbing the nest egg my wife and I had built was not an option.

Would one of the internet-based astronomy master’s degree programs offered by a couple of institutions in Australia be the solution? Those two were Swinburne University and James Cook University with main campuses in Hawthorne, Victoria and Townesville, Queensland respectively. Both are large state universities where tens of thousands of students physically attend classes on campus.

A credible way to go?
I had two questions: 1) How do these institutions rank academically relative to other universities worldwide? 2) Can either of these programs suit my particular goals?

The first place I looked was a widely recognized rating list for post-secondary education called the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU.org). At the time of writing this article, out of the approximately 9,000 universities worldwide, Swinburne is ranked within the upper 400 to 500 universities, whilst James Cook is listed in the top 300 to 400. Though not exactly in the stratospheric heights with Harvard or MIT, they do rank well compared to many respected U.S. universities. For instance, Swinburne shares its range with Auburn University, Kent State University and LeHigh University. Also, James Cook ranks with Clemson University in my home state, George Town University, Syracuse University, Texas Tech and others. These rankings are very similar to what they were in 2006 when I started planning.

James Cook’s Master of Astronomy degree program (or MoA) is split into two tracks: the History track which is well suited as preparation for teaching astronomy at college level, and the Astrophysics track for those who also want the option of pursuing astrophysical research. Swinburne does not formally specify two tracks named History and Astrophysics for its Master of Science in astronomy program, but it appears students choose a curriculum that is equivalent to either of these two directions. There was a time when Swinburne’s website stated that their courses did not provide preparation toward a career in professional astronomical research, but it appears they have since modified their curriculum for this direction.

JCU claims that their master’s program is a “combination of course-work and research” allowing a path toward a professional career via a progression from the Master of Astronomy program to a Doctorate of Astronomy and finally to a PhD in Astronomy or Astrophysics. An MoA graduate who has demonstrated outstanding ability may be allowed to skip the intermediate degree and go directly into the PhD program. Also, JCU’s PhD program partners the doctorial student with a prominent researcher in his/her chosen field (at a major university in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world) to serve as a principle supervisor, along with a co-supervisor and associate supervisor.

Swinburne’s tuition was lower, but in my case the extended options following the James Cook master’s degree were attractive. However, for someone whose primary focus is to save the maximum amount of money on tuition and/or move away somewhere to get a doctorate after obtaining a master’s degree, Swinburne may be as good a choice.

What you need before you start
To be considered for a master’s degree in astronomy, a bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite. Preferably, that earlier degree was in a physical science and included some fairly advanced mathematical training and scientific problem solving. In my case, the science was geology with added extensive courses in advanced mathematics, physics, and engineering. If your bachelor degree was in something other than a physical science, you might still qualify for entrance into an astronomy master’s degree program. Such a person would have demonstrated an extensive interest and activity in astronomy at a fairly advanced level for a significant amount of time.

I have given astronomy presentations to many general civic organizations, astronomy clubs, and even to one major conference of amateur and professional astronomers. At almost all of them I am asked a question similar to this, “What do I need besides my bachelor degree and passion for astronomy before I enroll in a master’s degree program?”

Remember, mathematics is the language of science. Brush up on the advanced math you may have forgotten, such as: algebra, geometry, trigonometry, spherical trigonometry, vector mathematics, differential calculus and integral calculus. I spent at least a preliminary year doing just that and it was a definite advantage. Once classes began, I pulled in a little part-time supplemental income tutoring those same subjects. There is no better way to gain proficiency in mathematics than having to explain it to someone else!

Assuming you are married, another important asset is a very understanding spouse who is just as committed to seeing you through to your goal as you are. Said spouse will need an enormous amount of toleration and patience when you become a nervous wreck and lose your personality during one of the grueling semester final exams. How and why my sainted wife put up with it, I’ll never know!

Experiencing the program
My fellow students and I interacted with each other and the instructor via web-based applications. I will skip the particulars of how all of this online communication was done in order to focus on how the academic content of the course and interpersonal interaction affected my classmates and me. We didn’t confine ourselves to our latest assignment and would often have lively online discussions about various timely astronomical topics of interest that one of us would bring up. This thought provoking and easy exchange of ideas was one of the most enjoyable parts of the experience. Not a few friendships began in this way between people scattered around the globe! Even now since graduation, some us still keep in touch.

Students are not supposed to give detailed help to other students, but offering a clue as to the right general direction to go is not discouraged. Private communication with the instructor is done via electronic messaging or email.

Another thing, even though Australians and Americans both speak English, the fact that words or phrases may have very different meanings in each country can sometimes cause frustration when trying to understand a lecture or assignment instructions. There is an old joke that the English and Americans are two peoples separated by a common language. The same situation sometimes applies to Australians and Americans.

Because the JCU program is the only one with which I have direct experience, it is the only program on which I can give extended details. The first course is called “Introduction to Astrophysics”. Its purpose is to comfortably ease students into the rigors of scientific study. Though providing a fairly sophisticated introduction to classical Newtonian physics, quantum theory, relativity and the latest frontiers of astrophysical science, the math gets no more complex than plane and spherical trigonometry. For all courses except the last two, an online lecture is administered on a weekly basis and a homework assignment given. Since Swinburne’s introductory course uses the same textbook as this course, I imagine the two courses must be very similar to each other.

Again excluding the last two courses, a research assignment is added every two to three weeks requiring the student to either directly acquire data through observational research or use supplied computer software to analyze and manipulate published observational data. You learn scientific rigor fast or you won’t make a good grade on your research project. Occasionally these projects contain so much data that students are encouraged to form teams. Such multi-student projects hone the collaboration skills that are so important when working in any science. The final paper explaining the student’s work and results is usually supposed to be written in the same format that scientific research journals expect; that is, starting with a general abstract description, details of methods used, conclusion, references in the proper format, etc. During these projects I learned so many fascinating new things that I never suspected, nor had I ever seen them mentioned in any popular astronomy publication. For instance, in certain unusual cases, there is a way to use radio signals from quasars to give image resolutions of less than a microarcsecond. That’s much finer than the Hubble Space Telescope’s best resolution and even better than from the widest baseline radio interferometer with dishes on opposite sides of the world!

All courses end with a final exam, excluding the last two. To be honest these tests are somewhat exhausting affairs involving complex analysis and problem solving with a completion time limit of 24 hours. However, there was one that had a time limit of 48 hours and consisted of two parts!

After the first course, the classes steadily become more advanced: Astronomy Instrumentation (from radio through gamma rays and particle detection), The Solar System and so on. Again, I have noticed that some textbooks are common between JCU and Swinburne for the applicable subjects, but the courses do not necessarily have the same name.

Courses on both the History and Astrophysics tracks are identical until they diverge after the scientifically and technically intense Galactic Astronomy and Cosmology course. How intense? One of the questions on the final exam involved deriving the equation for finding the smallest possible mass of the primordial black holes that are thought to have formed during the Big Bang. Though I sometimes felt frustration, I enjoyed this course immensely because I came to understand things that I never thought I could have. I eventually got so into it; I often did problems in the textbook that were not assigned. One of the most surprising of these unassigned challenges was to produce a mathematical proof of Einstein’s assertion that the speed of light is the same for all observers. I say surprising because, unlike most of the unassigned problems that I solved, no calculus was involved and I used nothing more advanced than 11th grade high school algebra to do the proof!

After coming this far, some students may decide that doing advanced astrophysical science doesn’t suit them. They can then withdraw from the program with a “Graduate Diploma of Astronomy” rather than continue towards the master’s degree. I tried unsuccessfully to talk a classmate out of taking this option, pointing out to him that he at least passed Galactic Astronomy and Cosmology when some failed it. Alternatively, any student in such a situation who had originally pondered taking the Astrophysics track could choose to continue in the History track instead.

Anyone who intends to go the History track route and receives a good grade in Galactic Astronomy and Cosmology would definitely understand how science is done on a fundamental level. After they obtain their degree, these newly minted science educators are less likely to mindlessly teach rote methods of problem solving to the next generation of students and instead pass on a basic understanding of principles from which those methods came. Thus, future bright young minds would be exposed to critical reasoning skills needed to advance scientific knowledge.

The fork in the road
As mentioned before, I took the Astrophysics track after Galactic Astronomy and Cosmology. Thus, I can only state general points about the History track. The final two courses in that direction are called Scientific and Technological Developments in Astronomy and Pilot Research Project. The former is a detailed overview of the development of astronomy through the ages up to the latest discoveries, advancements, and trends. It is meant to train the student in the archival research skills and document preparation techniques necessary for the research project that is to follow in the next course. The final course covers some astronomical topic of the student’s choosing that is of historical or cultural significance and culminates in a formal research paper on that topic.

On the Astrophysics track the final two courses are designated Astronomy Literature Review and a final Pilot Research Project. The first course consists of the acquisition of yet more research skills that will be needed for the astrophysical research project in the following course. The student learns how to find important technical background information relating to the subject of his/her research in various scientific journals, databases and other professional sources. It also covers prerequisite document processing of research articles in special data formats or printing formats that are often required by professional astronomical journals. After each skill area is covered, the student demonstrates his newly acquired knowledge in a formal scientific paper on a cutting edge topic.

Despite the last astrophysics course being called The Pilot Research Project, not quite the entire course is consumed with the final project. At the beginning, techniques of astronomical image processing are covered along with relevant technical details of image data formats that need to be understood for proper preparation of astronomical research images. Techniques and software for performing such tasks as astrometry and photometry are also covered.

My final research paper involved an attempt to photometrically detect an exoplanet that had been previously discovered by other means. My final results showed that the planet does not transit its parent star within one half of a degree of the line of sight between the star and Earth. I could have gotten definite results for even wider angles, but the images were shot by another party who did not carefully follow precise image acquisition procedures. It was a lot of work, but by the end I felt very satisfied with a definite sense of accomplishment.

Receiving the degree
During the three years I was working on my Master of Astronomy degree, it was the primary focus of my life. Out of all the people in the classes in which I was enrolled, only one other classmate and I made the dean’s list during my first year. In my second year, I was the only one of my classmates who did so. After the final year, I was awarded the University Medal (pictured at the beginning of this article) “for outstanding academic achievement at the Master’s level”. Receiving the medal was a surprise and I did not know until afterward that it is given for accomplishment considered beyond cum laude. I truly believe those achievements were not because of superior intelligence or ability, but primarily because of the freedom I had to totally commit to my goal and the moral and emotional support from my life partner. In short, my wife earned the degree as much as I did and I thank her for giving the 8 year old his dream fifty years later.

How would I rate the overall experience? First and foremost it is my opinion that the astronomical education I received was at least as good as what I would have gotten at many reputable universities and even better than some. I have heard of astronomy degrees awarded where students were taught “cookie cutter” science. That term refers to a situation where only specific methods for solving certain types of problems are taught whilst requiring none of the actual original thinking or creativity necessary for advanced scientific research. My experience was by no means one of those situations. The total tuition cost for my Master of Astronomy came to about $18,000 U.S., but I think I got my money’s worth.

I am currently pursuing my PhD doing cutting edge research into the physics of compact H II regions. Maybe I’ll continue my math and science tutoring while I do so, but I now also have the credentials for teaching an astronomy course at a local college or to write an occasional science article for a popular magazine. After I finish my PhD, I plan on doing professional level astrophysical research and/or teach university level astronomy/physics. Regardless, I hope to excite the general public with a sense of wonder about science and inspire to action those seasoned astronomy enthusiasts who may have the inclination to take their interest to another level.