Are you a pre-college student interested in astronomy? Great! Florida has some interesting opportunities for bright high-schoolers, including the dual-enrollment program, where students attend state college some of the time, and then go directly into a Florida State University System school like UCF. Here is some advice on preparing for an astronomy-specialization BS degree in Physics. It applies to every pre-college student, but there is specific advice for dual-enrollment students.
First, if you are local, please visit us. We usually meet on Fridays for a lunchtime talk. Drop by at any of those that strikes your interest.
Check that UCF accepts any state college courses you’re planning on taking before arriving. Sometimes we don’t, and if we don’t, it’s for a good reason, we promise. It’s best to take our version of the courses required for our degree. Our version of a course with a given number may be more intense than a state college’s. In fact, it may be better to take courses you are interested in and that are not in our program, and focus on the physics at UCF, rather than taking a lot of physics now to “get ahead.” You may end up repeating courses we don’t accept. When in doubt, check first by contacting the corresponding UCF department!
Take only calculus-based physics.
Take as much math as you can. Most of our upper-level courses require at least differential equations. The most relevant topics are algebra, geometry, trigonometry, analytic geometry, calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, vector and tensor analysis, probability and statistics, and Bayesian statistics and functional analysis. Group theory is important to particle physics. This list starts in high school and finishes in grad school, but that’s about the sequence they’re usually taken in.
Learn to program well, preferably in Python and/or C. Python is a lot easier and more flexible, and it’s what many of us use for our research (in particular, the numpy and scipy packages, and its plotting package, matplotlib). Learn these and some astronomy, and you might land a research project with a university group.
Get involved in a real research project as soon as you can. This is how you can really tell if it’s the career you want, and what part you want to specialize in. Once you can program or do web design, someone may be interested in hiring you for credit or pay. If you’re at the top of your class, email us with your interests and skills.
Learn to write. Focus on getting good at the craft of prose, expressing abstract ideas and thought trains for different audiences. For example, explain circular motion to a 5th grader, or your latest lab experiment to a peer. Do it using as few words as possible, but no fewer. Nearly everything we are known for as scientists is communicated through writing, from published papers to grant proposals to web pages. Those who write well have a much easier time of it, and are looked to as leaders.
Prepare now for university academics by taking a full load of the most challenging courses you can take, and learning to juggle the workload. We’ve had some cases where dual-enrollment students have come with little in the way of study skills because it was so easy for them before. Then they crash, hard, even flunk out. We use the same books and assign the same problems as they do in any other PhD-preparatory undergraduate program. So, you’ll get a good education here, and it will be more work than you’ve ever done, by a lot.
Finally, stay well rounded for as long as you can. The deeper you get into college, the less time there will be for courses outside of the major. So, learn a language, and an instrument. Do athletics (our faculty include cyclists, hikers, and a fencer). Make good friends and spend time with them. Take every chance to see the world. Read for fun.