Let’s meet the next guest in our Major Spotlight’s lineup–Astrophysics! An impressive-sounding name to make people you meet say “oh, wow!”, but still disappoint your parents that you’re not an engineer. Though the major still needs to be petitioned for at Barnard, it still holds a special place in our hearts.


Mathematics: Both Barnard and Columbia Astrophysics majors need to have completed the Calculus sequence through Calculus IV.

Computer Science: The Barnard physics major requires you to take a computer science class, astronomy I believe is highly recommended. Astrophysics usually works the computer science requirement in there as well. It’s highly recommended that you take 1006 Introduction to Computer Science for Applied Scientists/Engineers. Other options can be 1004, which is in Java.

Physics: Now we are starting to get into the meaty bit of the major. For Barnard students, you’re required to take 2001 and 2002 (Mechanics and E+M respectively)–both of which include a lab. The professor who teaches it strongly recommends that even IF you got the AP credit to test out (I sure didn’t) that you do not skip this intro sequence. You continue the intro sequence into 3001 (typically sophomore fall or junior fall if you took time off/studied abroad), which is Classical Waves and Optics. It is five credits and includes a lab, and is definitely worth that much. From there the ordering is basically whatever you make of it and where you can fit it in. Quantum Physics runs spring semesters and most will take it their sophomore or junior year. Mechanics also runs in the spring, and if you want to study abroad this is where some people double up. But, most split it up and take one their sophomore year and one their junior year (with Quantum usually done sophomore year). Additionally, it’s required to take Electricity and Magnetism, a fall class, and Electromagnetic Waves and Optics, which is a fall class. Something to think about is that because this is a custom major, some of these are subject to change. You can also throw in some 4000-level physics classes in there, depending on what your research interests are and what you want to do after college (e.g. graduate school, work, etc.).

Labs: The intro sequence all have labs built into them, however, after that you need to independently sign up for the three-credit lab. The Astrophysics major requires two labs, where you can choose between Quantum Lab (spring), Electricity and Magnetism (fall), and Observational Astronomy (spring). I’ll talk more about the benefits of Obs in Astronomy, but it is also an astronomy elective. However, if you decide to count it as an elective then (to my knowledge) you cannot also count it as a lab.

Astronomy: You are required to take ASTR2001 and ASTR2002, which are Intro to Astrophysics I and II, respectively. Intro to Astro I runs in the fall, and II runs in the spring. The classes build off of each other, so in order to take II, you need to take I before it. Additionally, you need a minimum of six credits in astronomy at the 3000-level or above. This equates to at least two astronomy electives. There are a bunch of really fun classes to take and I’ll go more into the specifics in the Overview of Classes section–since there are many, many options!

Overview of the Classes:

Mathematics: Depending on what professor you decide to talk to, you can get varying information on what additional math classes to take. Nothing besides the calculus sequence is technically required, but it does come in handy. Some recommended math classes to take are Linear Algebra, Ordinary Differential Equations, and some take Intro to Applied Math that combines Linear and ODE (please learn from my mistake and don’t have to PDF Linear).

Computer Science: 1006 is a requirement for all SEAS students, but is particularly useful to Astrophysics majors because the class is taught in Python. Most research is done in this language, and it’s helpful to have some background in coding (but definitely not required!) for research.

Physics: 2001 and 2002 are typically taken in your freshman fall and spring respectively, as they are part of the introductory sequence that is required before you take any upper-level physics and astronomy courses (though they are some exceptions in the astronomy department if you are doing a co-requisite). Waves (aka 3001) is a great class for Barnard physics/astronomy majors since this is when you really get to know the students and faculty in your department since the class is usually around 10-12 people and is typically all Barnard students. Quantum has an adjacent lab (titled Quantum Lab) that you can take alongside it. When signing up, please bear in mind the lab requirement, as you have to take two in your time here and if you don’t take Quantum Lab, you lock yourself into taking E and M Lab and Observational Astronomy (and vice versa if you choose not to take E and M or Obs). Timing is key and it can be overwhelming sometimes, so make sure that you balance yourself out with classes.

Astronomy: So, here’s the thing, almost all astronomy classes run on a two-year schedule (which is what makes it difficult to make the custom major) with a few exceptions. For example, based on past years, Extrasolar Planets and Astrobiology with Caleb Scharf ran in Fall 2018, and will most likely run again in Fall 2020. An exception to this is Observational Astronomy, which runs every spring semester. Keep in mind, 3000-level astronomy classes almost always have a requirement of having a year of general physics (aka the intro physics sequence at Barnard or Columbia), but some can get waived depending on what it is and who the professor is. Some classes that have run recently are The Science of Space Exploration, Modern Stellar Astrophysics, Galaxies, etc. Many students also take 4000-level GU classes such as Modeling the Universe, General Relativity, Black Holes, and Cosmology, and Astrostatistics. The astronomy elective is whatever you make of it, and your classes are dependent on what you’re interested in. Like most things, some classes have reputations of being good, difficult, etc. so I highly recommend reaching out to upperclassmen to see what classes you should (or should not) take.

Department Newsletter: 

Columbia has several astronomy listservs, one I would recommend is astro-ugs which sends announcements to undergrads. You can join it here.

Applying for the Major: 

At Barnard, Astrophysics is not an officially recognized major, and thus you do need to petition to major in it. That being said, it’s an extremely popular custom major and you won’t be denied, there’s just a little extra work involved to declare. As of currently, you need to declare either Astronomy or Physics your sophomore year, and then your junior/senior year, you petition for a custom major. The reason why you petition at the latter half of your college career is due to class schedules. Astronomy classes (with a few exceptions) run on a two-year cycle (e.g. a class that runs in your freshman fall will also run in your junior fall). To create a custom major, you need to layout every single class that will go towards your degree, and sometimes you can’t predict what professors will be gone when and typically can only lock this down your junior or senior year. Don’t worry though! There’s a large amount of Astrophysics majors in the department and

Last-Minute Tips:

  • Go to Barnard Physics Help Room! It’s staffed by Barnard physics and astronomy majors! It’s a great way not only to get help if you are struggling but also to meet upperclassmen and get advice. During the school year when we are not sent home (rip), it runs Mondays and Wednesdays from 7 pm to 9 pm in Altschul 514.
  • Also, another great way to meet people who like and people who are majoring in astronomy/astrophysics/physics is to go to Blueshift! They meet Tuesdays from 8:30 pm to 9:30 pm.
  • Also, please, for the love of God, go to recitation.

fancy space picture via Wikimedia Commons