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Physics Aerospace or Astrophysics

  1. Sep 14, 2011 #1
    My current issue is that I am starting to believe I made a slightly wrong choice in my degree. But then again, it's hard to say. I love everything about space and so getting a degree in it has been my dream. I really want to be one of the people that help move our society toward space travel. I figured the best way to do this was to become an aerospace engineer. I assumed that not only did they build spacecraft, they discovered new ways to travel and would solve issues such as a better energy source. Now I'm not sure if that is true. However, I enrolled to the University of Alabama for a BS in aerospace engineering. But now that I have done a lot of research, I am extremely interested in astrophysics. I always was, but the main reason I did not pursue a degree was because I was afraid the only jobs out there for astrophysics was being a professor and doing research, mainly because alot of it is theories and cannot be applied. However now that I think about it, wouldn't the astrophysicist be the only to help develop ways for better space travel, while the aerospace engineer just then incorporates it into a design?

    I have always been bad at actually designing things, but I figured I could get better and become an engineer. However if being an astrophysicist had real, applicable jobs besides being a professor, and could actually lead me toward helping discover news ways to travel space, I would switch over. I don't think it's too late to switch, it's only the first semester and most of it is core classes anyways.

    So, if anyone with information about this could help, I just need a few questions answered before I make my decision:

    1. Which job (aerospace or astrophysicists) would focus more on solving issues with space travel, such as better energy resources, discovering new ways to fly, etc.

    2. Would an astrophysicist have available jobs without a Ph.D and would these jobs be other things than a professor? I don't mind researching, in fact that is what I would want to do to help discover things, but I would rather research/help a company than just be a professor. I hate teaching.

    3. Would an astrophysicist make good money? Compared to an aerospace engineer, which would make more?

    4. Lastly, how do I get a degree in astrophysics? My current university only offers a BS in Physics, so would I have to go into graduate school to specialize in astrophysics?

    I am well capable of going to grad school, please don't let costs of college factor into this. I was going to get my masters in aerospace anyways. I just want to know which (aerospace or astrophysicist) would fit my dream to bring humanity closer to space travel more. But at the same time, I want to make sure I can get a great job with a great pay. I don't want to spend years studying and stressing to learn stuff beyond what the average person can just to make less than $100k a year.

    Sorry about the long post, but this is a very important issue, it's no longer high school, this is my career now and my life. I want to make the right decision before it's too late. Also, if I just got a minor in physics, could I still then go on to get a masters in astrophysics? That way I could do both aero and physics and see which I actually like more before grad school. The only physics course i've ever taken was high school physics. I didn't really like it, though I don't like anything hard, but when we talked about space I was extremely into it.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 14, 2011 #2
    (1) While a lot of concepts of aerospace engineering are not valid in space flight systems, however I would say that aerospace engineering is a more relevant than astrophysics. Astrophysics is a board field and some do work on space flight systems, but I would say a majority do theoretical and experimental work of celestial bodies and/or the Universe.

    That being said, the complexity of space flight systems requires engineering and scientists of various backgrounds and specialties to be successful.

    (2) In the physics field, you cannot get many good jobs without a PhD. Astrophysics can have jobs outside academia See


    for a rough idea.

    (3) Take this as a grain of salt, but



    The median salaries are similar. However, astrophysicists requires more schooling--PhD usually. I am assuming they are jobs for AE BSs, so one could enter the field and work their way up and get PE certification etc. There is a lot more competition in astrophysics, while there is always a demand for engineers.

    (4) They are BS, MS, and PhDs in astrophysics depending on the University. Yet, getting a job with a BS or MS is much more difficult and if they are jobs, then there is no place for advancement. A Phd is pretty much a requirement in physics.

    I am a little confused on your current status. I am assuming you are either finishing high school or working on your BS, because you said you only taken high school physics. If you want a degree in physics, engineering, or any physical science, then you cannot avoid intro physics. You will also take more in graduate studies for sure.

    If you are interested in doing graduate studies, then you look into Aerospace Engineering programs that do in work space flight systems (another good term is astronautics) and do your MS/PhD work there.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2017
  4. Sep 23, 2011 #3
    You're a freshman at the University of Alabama? Figure that, I'm actually one right now as well (majoring in math and probably physics). Alabama offers more than a BS in physics, but the things it that you have to complete the BS before you can get higher degrees (like every other university in the world - unless you do a BS/MS program).

    My understanding is that you need a PhD to get far with astrophysics. And i think that when you say "now that I think about it, wouldn't the astrophysicist be the only to help develop ways for better space travel, while the aerospace engineer just then incorporates it into a design?", you have to realize that engineers do science and novel research as well.

    My friend who is a upperclassman electrical engineering major who has worked on a NASA Space Grant program mentioned to me this summer that the majority of engineers working on these aerospace programs were electrical engineers, while the remaining handful were mechanical engineers. No aerospace engineers. To which I have been put under the impression that aerospace engineering often teaches students a broad amount of knowledge, but not to a deep enough extent where it isn't just wiser to hire different engineers to collaborate and make up the gaps. But, it is just one anecdote I have heard, and I am under the impression that aerospace engineers are still having relatively easier times finding jobs.

    Given the fact that you've only had high school physics (AP or not?) you will probably have to take the freshman physics courses, which luckily apply to both majors, unfortunately, afterwards, the curriculum does not match up as well. I am in the intermediate mechanics course this semester (PH 301, I took AP Physics and a number of advanced math classes at a local university during high school) and I think some of the AEM classes would be more applicable to the kind of work that you want to be doing. I would talk to the undergraduate advisor(s) of AEM and PH (his name is P. LeClair, since I couldn't find it earlier online) since they'll be able to give you a good idea of what you might be able to achieve in their programs and how it matches your interests.
  5. Sep 24, 2011 #4
    Thanks for the advice Thefan. I definitely agree, and I will talk to the advisors and see if they can steer me in the right direction. My feelings of switching are just slowly getting bigger and bigger. I love aerospace and would love to get involved with propulsion of rockets but anytime I see threads or stories related to astrophysics I just seem to get more excited. I think I will just stick to aerospace and I'm sure i'll know the answer after my first year. Next semester I take physics and I'm going to add in astronomy. Regardless of my choice, I'll still get a minor in the one I don't choose as a major.
  6. Sep 28, 2011 #5
    Just an FYI:

    Astrophysicists will not do much work with spacecraft (nor will most people since it is still a pretty small field)

    Chemical engineers will work with aero's on propulsion systems theory, but again, everyone will work on the actual system.

    Aerospace Engineers: thefan, your friend is right that aerospace engineers wont build the craft, but who do you think designs the trans-at? Aero's in the space industry tend to focus on CFD in high speed / high temperature applications and the effect of the transitory regimes of the atmosphere.

    The mechanical engineers will design the componenets of the craft, like control surfaces, landing gear, cargo-bays, etc. They all work together, but generally the aerospace guys are more number crunchers, have higher degrees, and don't need to get involved in the mechanical side too much.

    That being said:
    I got by a BS in Aerospace engineering and Mechanical engineering with similar aspirations as yourself, Spartanlol. Because the economy is what it is, I was not offered any interesting full time positions at any of the aero places that could even offer anything. Luckily my mechanical background scored me a nice job in the aluminum industry. But engineering is engineering. You will not learn everything you need to in school. You really learn engineering in industry, so jobs are usually pretty field-independent (that is, a guy who worked as a process engineer for GM casting can easily be chosen as a process engineer for Boeing's fuselage dept.)

    Just some extra info:

    As an aero or mech engineer, you will not design a spacecraft. You will not personally design a new propulsion system. These things are done in large teams over many years. The life cycle of a new propulsion system starts with electrical/chemical/physical theory, then gets funding, and then gets moved on up to the engineers who toil away and make revision after revision in huge multidisciplinary teams.

    This is no less exciting, because once you realize just how difficult these things really are to make reliable, safe, efficient, and useful, you will be happy to spend 4 weeks figuring out that you need to open an oriface .005" for optimal flow (just a random example). Engineering is a team sport.
  7. Sep 28, 2011 #6
    I understand I will not do all this alone. It does concern me a bit the way you word it though. Regardless, I hope to find a job contracting for the military or DoD to build missiles/weapons. That and working for SpaceX (doing anything; just want to be a part of this team as they are going to achieve amazing things) are my dreams.
  8. Sep 28, 2011 #7
    Good, luck. They are very selective in their hiring and don't have an extensive engineering team (like boeing or something). They are typically MS at least, if I am not mistaken.

    Plus...I've already got a couple years on you :biggrin:
  9. Sep 28, 2011 #8
    Ha, thanks man. Ya, I know the chances are slim, especially with no experience. However they do have applications for students fresh out of universities, so there is still a chance. Also i'm doing a program to do part of my MS degree my senior year (the courses will count toward both my BS and MS) so I will have my MS in only one extra year after my BS. Maybe we could both work there :P
  10. Sep 28, 2011 #9
    The application for SpaceX is highly weighted towards extracurricular projects and research. If you want to get a job there, start looking into doing work outside of school that would impress them.
  11. Sep 28, 2011 #10
    Well, IMHO space flight is limited to Mars. Seriously. If you want to revolutionize space travel, either learn how to make the universe smaller, or get into space structures. Light speed is pretty much the limit for speed. Even if we achieve that, we are talking about light YEARS, and a lot of them. We are gonna have to shoot an entire society that will somehow survive a few thousand years through the universe. Pretty crazy stuff, but those are the hurdles ahead of us, so let's be realistic. But I suppose that's the engineer in me talking.

    On the other hand (I'm totally procrastinating from HW btw so I guess I'm thinking about this too hard) anti gravity would be a real problem for that trip. You could take the physics direction and try to crack that nut, I'm sure that would help a lot. It's really about what you want to do. Figure some perplexing stuff out? Or put it to use?
  12. Sep 28, 2011 #11
    I don't think we have the necessary foresight to say what is and isn't possible as far as travel through space is concerned. We are still currently in the "strap ourselves to a rocket" phase. Even if light speed is possible, it is not practical for any purpose in "travel"; studying nearby stars is a maybe.

    Anyway, you bring up a good point. A lot of the problems we face today in the field of astronautics is the biological effect of prolonged zero g flight. Technology that can minimize the muscular dystrophy of astronauts on long missions will be necessary if we ever decide to take the long trek out to mars or a prolonged stay on the moon. That, and obviously in-space deployable craft like those that Bigelow aerospace is developing.
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