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Are your chances of working with Astrophysics/Astronomy diminished if

  1. Nov 14, 2009 #1
    ...you study Physics in general?

    I'm namely most interested in Astronomy and Astrophysics, but altough at first I was meaning to apply for those specializations I was studying Physics in general (but choosing courses from said fields) would leave more doors open in terms of finding employment. However, I am now a bit worried whether this would put me in a worse situation for finding a job in the Astronomy/Astrophysics sector? Or do they just require Physics and don't really care whether you haven't specialized?
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  3. Nov 14, 2009 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    It depends on the job and the requirements. If you want to be a professor of astronomy, you're expected to know some astronomy. If you want to be a janitor in an observatory, you don't need a degree in anything. To give specific advice, we'd need more details about what you're thinking about.
  4. Nov 14, 2009 #3
    If you're going for postgrad -> postdoc in astrophysics then it would be best to get a decent number of astro courses under your belt during your undergraduate education. It's a pretty broad area and it can't do any harm to have done some modules in Stellar Physics, Galaxies, Cosmology, Interstellar Physics, Experimental/Observational methods and something along the lines of Relativistic Astrophysics / High Energy Astrophysics/ Astroparticle physics.

    If you have a good degree in physics you'll still be a good candidate and I doubt you'd really be disadvantaged but if possible get some exposure to the general topics even if its only to give you a better understanding of the research areas/topics.
  5. Nov 14, 2009 #4


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    If you don't mind moving to Arizona, there is a very nice university in Tucson with a comprehensive astronomy/astrophysics program. You might find yourself drawn away from theoretical concerns to more practical ones, since they fabricate sensors, mirrors, etc, there. You'd be able to sample a lot of sub-specialties there if your interests expanded. I have a young friend from Mongolia attending there on a scholarship, and in his freshman year he was operating the university's on-campus telescopes, and fabricating sensors under the supervision of some grad students.

    I regretfully turned down a math scholarship to the U of A, in part because air-travel was so expensive in the '60s and my family couldn't have helped me much in that regard. The university's affiliation with the Steward Observatory can lead high-achieving students to projects with world-class equipment. If I was in my teens again, I wouldn't hesitate.
  6. Nov 14, 2009 #5
    Thanks for the answers, everyone!

    Well, with reading on the boards here that in terms of employability it may be better if your degree says merely "Physics", what I was thinking about was that maybe getting "Astrophysics" - as I'm aware that the chances of actually pursuing career in the said field are rather small - could avert some employers thinking I'd only have specialized knowledge. But on the other hand, as I am interested in Astrophysics and Astronomy, I would take courses pertaining to those fields should the curriculum allow me to do so.

    So basically, I don't want to come off as someone with his knowledge too specialized an thus perhaps unfit for some tasks a general physicist is presumed to be able to do, but would still like to have a chance of getting that job when they actually want such specialized knowledge - which as said, I would indeed attain, though perhaps not a degree as if I'd study Astronomy, with the elective courses.
  7. Nov 14, 2009 #6


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    There's really not a lot you can do in astronomy if you don't have a PhD in the subject (or in astrophysics or physics) - there's not much in the way of an astronomy sector. The main employers are colleges and universities, national labs and observatories, and NASA. And most of them will expect you to do original research, and you'll need a PhD for that. So if you're not going to get one, physics is a good major. And if you are going to get one, physics is still a good major. You can always take astronomy courses along with it.
  8. Nov 14, 2009 #7

    Vanadium 50

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    I'm still partially unclear on what your plans are, but let me assume that by "degree", you mean a BS.

    The normal route to a PhD in astronomy is a BS in physics. This is probably a statement more about the small number of universities that offer a BS in astronomy or astrophysics than anything else.

    As far as the corporate world, the key is not so much what it says on your degree but instead how well you can market yourself.
  9. Nov 14, 2009 #8
    So I guess if, like you said, I do a B.Sc. or MPhys in general Physics, I don't close any doors to astrophysics and astronomy, as for them to be open I would require a PhD anyway?

    Ah, sorry, yeah, I mean a B.Sc. in Physics or, should I go to UK, an MPhys. As for the small number of universities offering a B.Sc. in Astronomy or Astrophysics, well, I guess that's changing as there's more and more of them offering at least a "Physics with Astrophysics", "Physics and Astronomy" or something similar, if not already the full-fledged "Astronomy", as UBC, for example, is offering.

    But if get back to the "normal route to a PhD in Astronomy", which according to you is through a B.Sc. in Physics mostly due to the lack of an appropriate undergraduate programme, do you think with the rise in such specific programmes this could change so as for those holding a B.Sc. in general physics to have a harder time getting into the field of Astronomy?

    And as for the corporate world, I have to agree with you there, though my fear was that if it said "Astronomy", instead of "Physics" on my CV, without them knowing that the curricula are to a great degree the same, this could serve as perhaps not the best introduction and acquaintance. Am I way off here? It's not that I don't believe that if you have the knowledge you can get the job and get it done right, but sometimes that first impression can be important as it can serve as a foot in the door, as well. But these are just my presumptions, which I've posted here so as to find out whether they are in tune with reality and if yes, to what degree.
  10. Nov 14, 2009 #9


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    It's easier to go from general (physics) to specific (astrophysics/astronomy) than the other way around.

    If you're just looking at doing an undergraduate degree, I would agree that your best bet is to start out in physics and take the astrophysics oriented classes that interest you. You may find your interests change once you're exposed to other fields at the university level. Or another field could emerge that doesn't exist yet between now and when you finish. Physics is sufficient to get you into astronomy/astrophysics graduate school, buy you may run into roadblocks if you end up trying to get into say material science graduate school with an astronomy degree.

    As for the job market afterwards, I think you're better off with something that says physics rather than astronomy for exactly the reasons you described. Ultimately though, as Vanadium said, your employment opportunities will come down to how you market yourself.
  11. Nov 15, 2009 #10
    Well, I'd much prefer doing a PhD, as well, but money could be a problem here. Seeing as I'd be studying Physics in Canada or the UK, coupled with the lack of scholarships for foreign students, I'd be very much pressed for money as it is and would find it hard, though hopefully, with the help of loans, manageable to do even an undergraduate degree. Plus, another thing that kind of pust me off is that I'd be around 35 by the time I'd finish the PhD, which in and of itself, wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, but considering I'd have to somehow make a living, as well, might present a problem.

    How's with the access to the observational facilities if you're not studying Astronomy, though? I would guess that you are at least to some degree left out, if you study general Physics, even though you choose specific courses pertaining to Astrophysics. Though I'm not sure how that works in practice, whether the professors make an effort to really give it all to the Astronomy students, but only convey theoretical knowledge to the other ones.
  12. Nov 15, 2009 #11
    At the undergraduate level. No. But your odds of getting a tenured faculty position at a research university are so low that this shouldn't be your goal regardless of what you study. There are *lots* of ways of working with astrophysics/astronomy, and if all else fails, buy yourself an astronomy lab for $20K, and join the AAVSO.

    Your odds of finding a tenured faculty position are so low that it this shouldn't be a consideration at all. Among astronomy Ph.D.'s, only 15% become professors and this as after six years of post-doc work. Also whether you get a tenured faculty position is less a function of talent than of politics (i.e. how much money Congress provides to study certain things).

    The good news is that about 70% of astronomy Ph.D.'s do something astronomy related, and a lot of them do research through the back door. I know quite a few people that work as system administrators at supercomputing centers that end up doing astronomy research on the side. The important thing here is that they got hired because they know *both* astrophysics and system administration.

    If you want do something astrophysics and astronomy-related, you are much, much better off being *less* focused rather than more focused. Take some computer courses, or education courses, or journalism courses, finance courses, or political science courses. To be frank, I personally think that if you really want to get a university research position, you are better off studying political science and sociology in addition to physics. The committee will trash your application, but if you understand political science and sociology, you can figure out ways of getting around the committee.

    At some point I'll make enough money so that I'll retire and spend the rest of my life studying and teaching astrophysics full-time. I don't know if it will happen when I'm 45 or 60, but it will happen.
  13. Nov 15, 2009 #12
    Also you can get knowledge in ways other than taking courses. I got hired in my current position because of my knowledge in programming C++, and I've never taken a single course on the language.

    Different employers want very, very different things, and what makes you attractive to one employer will make you very, very unattractive to another one. This poses a problem since what may make you hyper-attractive to someone looking for an astronomy professor will make you highly unattractive to someone else. I had problems getting into grad school, precisely *because* I spent time programming C++.

    And also the rules change. I'm working at a job that simply did not exist when I was an undergraduate. If in 2015, we suddenly discover that an asteroid will hit the earth, or in 2015, the Premier of China announces that China plans on establishing a moon base, then the rules are going to change very radically.

    One important talk that I heard was from someone that was a senior in 1957. In 1957, the United States was in a recession, and people were worried about getting jobs. Then on October 4, 1957, Russia launched Sputnik, and the world changed.

    I think honestly that it's too early to be too focused on careers, and you are better off getting a strong liberal arts undergraduate education that will let you do what you want, regardless of what happens. If you just study astronomy, and don't study any history and politics, then you are going to be in a less good position to handle the world changing suddenly.

    You've been brainwashed. That's fine, since we all have. The thing about people in academia is that you advance in academia by doing what your teachers and professors and admissions committees say will make them happy.

    However, at some point, that's not going to work, since you are going to end up being pulled in ten different directions by different people that want different things from you. Part of what education needs to be able is not just to be accepted by the committee, but also to figure out what to do if the committee says no.
  14. Nov 15, 2009 #13
    In my current job, the resume said "numerical modeler". Also resumes are very, very different from CV's. One problem that people from academia have in getting corporate jobs is that most of them don't know how to write a resume. They know how to write a CV. but that's something different.

    For most numerical corporate jobs, no one will care if you have a Ph.D. in astronomy, physics, mechanical engineering or aerospace. How to make a good first impression to a corporate employer is a separate topic, but it's something you can worry about later. Just get good at math, and physical modeling, and you can worry about marketing later (or take a class on marketing and advertising now.)

    One thing about corporate jobs that makes it very different from academia is that in the corporate world, you are allowed to make mistakes and be less than perfect. In academia, there are so many applicants and so few jobs, that if you aren't totally perfect, you aren't getting the job. In the corporate world, there are more jobs than applicants, so you probably won't get the perfect candidate, and even if you did have the perfect candidate, you couldn't afford them.
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