Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Signing day

Yesterday was signing day for college football, when high school football players can start signing national letters of intent, or what are essentially contracts promising to play (American) football at a college in exchange for a scholarship. This makes big news in the college football world, as everyone is wondering which great high school player will go to which college. Sometimes the recruits are indeed excellent players, sometimes they aren't. It's a bit of a guessing game played based on a recruit's performance by various statistics.

Although you don't hear about it, now is also astronomy's recruiting season. Most astronomy PhD programs have made offers of admission to promising undergraduates, and most programs will now try and woo their prospects, who have until April 15 to decide where they will go to school.

Like with football recruiting, there is a little bit of black magic in choosing who gets admissions offers. Unlike in football, astronomy students have to apply for entry to a program. Then a committee reviews the applications, including factors such as grades, performance on a physics exam, and letters of recommendation from advisors and teachers. Poor performance on tests can sometimes be made up for by good grades and good letters. Students who take part in research projects while earning a bachelor's degree can also help themselves, provided they show positive signs in their research work.

But good grades, good test scores, and good letters do not guarantee that a student will make a good astronomer, and poor performance doesn't mean a person would be a poor astronomer. There are many intangibles, and only time will tell if a given year's recruiting class is as good or not. Like the recruiting classes of college football, the outcome can be greatly different from the perceived potential.

Looking back on my own experience as a recruit, it was a lot of fun. I got to travel around the country on other people's dimes, and I was warmly treated at each stop along the way. My decision was tough: I was offered admission to several great astronomy programs, each of which would give me a good education and a good start to a career. In the end, my decision was based on criteria that some would scoff at. Where did I want to live for five or six years of my life? Where did I feel I would best get along with people? That narrowed it down to two places, and then I chose based on a bit of a whim. And I think I made the right decision.

So, good luck to all of the seniors out there, whether you are trying to decide where to study astronomy or where to play football! Enjoy the recruitment process, and be wary of high pressure. Make the choice that is best for you, not what is best for a coach or a professor.


  1. "Where did I want to live for five or six years of my life? Where did I feel I would best get along with people?"

    That's hardly something to scoff at. Some days (weeks even) it's the people around me and the cool place that I live that are getting me through grad school!

  2. I completely agree with Nicole. I am getting ready to head into grad school soon, and those two factors are easily the two I have considered the most.

    On another note, being from Canada, I'm really not that updated on which schools are strong in Astronomy/Astrophysics. Is UC Berkeley still the powerhouse it once was? It seems like UC Santa Cruz is quite a good school as well, one I had not considered much. I believe they are even collaborating with people up here in Victoria on the adaptive optics system for the TMT.