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Are astrophysics majors outcasts of the physics department?

  1. Jun 17, 2014 #1
    I will be a Junior this Fall at a large and well-known public university. I am working towards a double major of physics and astronomy.

    I was told by a professor (at a different university) whom I had befriended that due to my interests in astronomy I should expect a certain attitude from other physics majors as I get further in school. I accepted his comment because it was based on his honest personal observation. Fast forward about 6 months from the day he told me that to yesterday (6/16/2014) where I encountered, what I feel was, the first display of this attitude from other physics majors and a professor.

    I was meeting a new professor of my future classes and and two of his research students in a lab. These people know nothing about me, only my name and that I am majoring in physics. During conversation I mentioned that I was declaring my 2nd major soon (astronomy), I was given this "ut oh, one of those guys :/" kind of looks from both students. A few minutes later, the professor and I walked to his office to discuss scheduling and classes. After some great discussion about my schedule the professor says, "Those astronomy classes are easy.". After a pause due to confusion of the intent and value of his comment I asked him, "What do you mean by that?" and he replied, "Typically students that double major in physics and astronomy don't do so well in physics and that brings their GPA down.". All of my excitement was instantly crushed and I simply replied that that was very interesting.

    Are astrophysicists really treated like this by other physicists or is this just a college thing? Any insight or comments on this will be appreciated.

    I feel like the professors intent was to belittle me and his response was nearly irrelevant to the comment I questioned. If this disrespect is real and common among physics majors, that is a very sad insight into intelligence and humanity.
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2014
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 17, 2014 #2
    I think you have just met disrespectful students in that lab. Rather ignorant ones too. When I studied, there were two students above my year who both got into Astronomy and they got encouraged to do so by a Prof whose field himself has nothing to do with it.
  4. Jun 17, 2014 #3
    This kind of behavior can be found a lot in academia, and only wrt astrophysics.

    I have seen engineers laugh at pure mathematicians, I have seen pure mathematicians laugh at engineers, I have seen mathematicians laugh at physicists, I have seen physicsts laugh at mathematicians,... I've seen the behavior in undergrads, grads and professors. Most of this behavior is innocent teasing, but some people go too far with it and really do think they have a superior major.

    I think a little teasing should be ok. But in your OP you clearly describe that the people you talked to really do think they're superior. Yes, this is sad. Just try to ignore it. They know nothing about you, so why would you care about their judgement?
  5. Jun 17, 2014 #4

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    First, it's absolutely true that astronomy and astrophysics grads who enter grad school in combined physics/astronomy departments have a much harder time with the qualifying exam than physics grads. Not so - or at least if it is so, it's to a much lesser extent - the other way around. So I don't think your professor is wrong, although he could have been more diplomatic.

    As far as the other students, that's a lot of information to be gleaning from one look. Do you think you would have drawn the same conclusion had you not been "primed" by other comments?

    Finally, if a funny look and an undiplomatic comment upset you this much, I think you should rethink science as a career. What are you going to do when a proposal you have worked on for months is turned down? What are you going to do when you finally get observing time and on your night it rains? What are you going to do when your balloon-borne experiment's parachute fails to deploy? What are you going to do when your Mars lander becomes a Mars impactor?

    These things happen. In science, things much worse than this happen all the time. You need to develop a thick skin, or you'll go crazy.
  6. Jun 18, 2014 #5
    I think this varies a lot between schools as well. My undergrad was in a combined physics and astronomy department, and I would guess a majority of students double majored in physics and astronomy. So if anything, it went the other way around. Also, the astronomy professors were much more productive in research and more renowned than any of the physics professors. So here it would not be possible for astronomy students to be belittled. I also spent a summer at a top 30 physics and astronomy department, and I didn't detect any negativity towards astronomy. Here the physics and astronomy professors were more evenly matched. I would guess that the primary reason astronomers would get belittled by physicists is that a lot of physicists are simply ignorant of what astronomy actually is, and what astronomers actually do. My undergraduate class in cosmology was harder than any physics class I ever took.

    In the end, you just need to worry about doing well in the field that interests you most.
  7. Jun 18, 2014 #6


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    Reasons to not feel bad about Astronomy/Astrophysics, and maybe reasons to feel good about the topic:

    The earthquake authority from Caltech in California has PHd in Astronomy or Astrophysics.
    Well known and popular astrophysicist Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson.
  8. Jun 25, 2014 #7
    I'm intrigued by this. What do you think the cause of this could be?

    The combined physics/astronomy honours degree program at the major Canadian university I attend has identical physics and mathematics course requirements to the honours physics, but with several upper-level astronomy courses added in (galactic dynamics, plasma physics, cosmology, etc).
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