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Astrophysicists: What do they do?

  1. Nov 4, 2011 #1
    I made a thread a month or two ago when I was questioning my current major. I am currently an aerospace engineer with plans to get a minor in physics/astrophysics. I started questioning my decision and wanted to lean toward switching to Astrophysics as my major, and possibly get aerospace engi as a minor. However, I talked myself out of it in fear that the only job an astrophysicist does is become a professor and do research for the university. But now I am questioning myself again, and need some guidance from those with experience or know more. I'll list some stuff about myself below, and then what i'd like to know.

    What I want to do/What I find interesting: Money is not my main priority, as it shouldn't ever be. If you are passionate about your career, money will come, or so i'm told. Regardless, I am HIGHLY interested in everything about space. I like rockets, missiles, astrophysics, Einstein's work, etc. I love to read up on it. Now my ideal job is a little strange. I don't care what I am actually doing, I just want to progress our space travel/knowledge of space. Whether that is building a space shuttle, designing one, or finding out how to make one go faster. Whatever it is, I want to know at the end of my life that I help push us toward inhabiting other planets or exploring the universe. So my perception was that aerospace engineering would allow me to help collaboratively design better spacecraft to do this. However, the more I've read up on all of this, it seems more like the astrophysicists, or scientists or something actually do all the research and just hand it over to the engineers to build. Basically, they make the blueprints/concept, and engineers just turn it into reality. As much as i'd like either job, it seems dissatisfying to me that instead of progressing our space travel through discovery, I will just be a highly specialized mechanic that just screws in some bolts and puts together a machine, which I guess is what engineering is.

    So my question is, for those of you who know an astrophysicist, or better yet, ARE one, what exactly do you do? What jobs are there to actually get? Can you only be a professor or work for the government? Does the private industry, such as SpaceX or a similar company, actually hire astrophysicists to research? If so, what is the pay like? Not that the pay is priority, but if I spend thousands of dollars and many years in college learning a highly intelligent field of study that everyone can do, i'd not like to make the same as a teacher or say the local store owner.

    I'm trying to find out soon before I waste time in classes for a major I don't end up getting. I like aerospace so far, even though technically the only aerospace i've done is my intro to aerospace (i'm a freshman). The only downside is it seems like there is a HEAVY focus on aircraft and not spacecraft. We do a lot of aerodynamics, which is needed, but I really could care less about learning to build a new commercial jet. I'd also like to do what I enjoy more, and for now it seems like that is astrophysics.

    What i'm scared about honestly, is that getting a major in astrophysics (since at my uni, you just get a degree in physics and take a "path" of astrophysics) will just be physics courses only and that my only "space-like" courses will be astronomy. Thanks in advance for any help given. I'll check this daily and continue to discuss/reply.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 4, 2011 #2


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    Aeronautics is mainly focused on military applications, which is kind of a bummer for most physicists. Designing things to kill stuff is contrary to our nature. Astrophysics is nearly as onerous - unless dealing with the politics of academia is your idea of a fulfilling career. Few astrophysicists have a career path outside of the academic world.
  4. Nov 4, 2011 #3
    It's not. Most astrophysics Ph.d.'s in fact *don't* become tenure-track faculty.

    You might consider going into politics (seriously). How much to spend on space exploration and how to go about doing it are essentially political decisions.

    Investment banking. Imagine a particle going through a star. It follows a random path, and you can average over a lot of particles and get a set of equations. It so happens that those are more or less the same equations you get if you have a stock undergo a random walk.
  5. Nov 4, 2011 #4
    Well, see, i'm doing aerospace, but it will eventually give me options to either focus more on aeronautics or astronautics. My ideal job with an aerospace degree is to work on propulsion with SpaceX and help devise new models of spacecraft with better propulsion systems to get us farther in space. But at the same time, I have a strong interest in astrophysics, which is why it's my minor. I just don't want to teach astrophysics. My ideal job with an astrophysics degree would be to either 1. work for a company to do research or 2. work for the government to do research (but not as a professor!). Academia is great and all if you are so highly interested in the subject that you wish to express this interest with others in the form of teaching. However, I don't like the idea of doing this work to only be able to turn around and teach it back to others so they can do the same. It's like an endless chain of uselessness, as it appears, outside research done, that the only reason we even learn this subject is to teach it, which makes no sense. Also, I don't want to be an investment banker. If I was going to do that, i'd go into buisiness or something. My dad is a financial advisor, he watches stocks and invests other's money into them. It makes amazing pay (I believe he is making close to $200k/year) but to me is not interesting at all.

    Like I said, all I want is a job that helps give progress to our space travel. I want to contribute to the achievement one day of us inhabiting another planet, and eventually traveling all of the universe. And no, I don't want to be a politician, even if they sort of do that by giving out funding.
  6. Nov 4, 2011 #5
    Just a minor side point. There are lots of places in the universe with an atmosphere that you might need to navigate. Just because everyone else is thinking airliners doesn't mean that you can't be thinking Titan or Venus. The same lateral thinking can apply to many seemingly 'mundane' aspects of Engineering.

    Purely personal, but I think there are going to be some very cool engineering puzzles to solve in getting through the ice into the deep oceans of Europa. I doubt that is what most people think of when they first hear "space exploration."
  7. Nov 4, 2011 #6

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    That's a nice sentiment, but it is not true. It is physicists who design things to kill stuff in the biggest way known to mankind. Think Manhattan Project, for instance.
  8. Nov 4, 2011 #7

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    I'm going to be blunt.

    You are now a young adult, not a kid. You need to start being a bit more realistic both about what the world as a whole and you as an individual are capable of. Traveling all of the universe is a scifi dream. Think of it this way: The easiest way to explain the Fermi paradox is that this scifi dream is impossible. A start toward inhabiting another planet is possible in your lifetime -- and astrophysicists will not be involved in this endeavor for the most part. Planetary astronomers will help to some extent, but most of the design, development, and operational work will be done by engineers of various sorts.

    And by politicians. There's no way such an endeavor could even lift off the ground without lots and lots political help.
  9. Nov 4, 2011 #8
    Astrophysics tells you about the environment that a spacecraft moves through, and that will have some design implications. Also, special and general relativity are relevant for astrogation. But apart from that, designing a spacecraft is about engineering.
  10. Nov 5, 2011 #9

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    Space is a vacuum, more or less. An astrophysicist is not required to tell engineers how to deal with vacuum. If you want to stretch the meaning of astrophysics to cover solar physics and planetary atmosphere physics, the maybe yes, but that is more than a bit of a stretch.

    For the most part, special and general relativity are pretty much irrelevant here. There are a few very outlier cases where some understanding of relativity is important. These include the clocks on a GPS satellite, satellites such as Gravity Probe B and LAGEOS that were specially constructed to study gravitation in detail, and developing long-term, high-precision planetary ephemerides. These are special cases. The pork chop plots that JPL uses to design their interplanetary missions, planning and operations of satellites in Earth orbit, moving spacecraft from one place to another: Pure Newtonian mechanics. The errors and uncertainties in sensors, effectors, and environmental effects overwhelm the tiny perturbations caused by general relativity. There is no need to go beyond Newtonian mechanics in most cases.
  11. Nov 5, 2011 #10
    One should point out that there are tons of interesting and unsolved problems in Newtonian mechanics. Once you have three or more bodies, things get quite complex and interesting.
  12. Nov 5, 2011 #11
    And specifically astrophysicists. The three main industrial employers of astrophysicists are the defense industry to build hydrogen bombs, oil and gas, and Wall Street. It's not surprising that each of these groups can wreck the planet. When you go into astrophysics, you start dealing with mysteries of the universe, and in the grand scheme of things the earth is tiny and easily wrecked.

    OP: Whatever it is, I want to know at the end of my life that I help push us toward inhabiting other planets or exploring the universe.

    As long as we maintain a technological civilization, then we'll make it off the planet sooner or later. Whether we can keep a high technology civilization going is an open question.
  13. Nov 5, 2011 #12
    I don't think it is. I know a lot of astrophysicists that are employed building hydrogen bombs, and they don't have a problem with this. One thing is that once you know how a hydrogen bomb works, you really aren't going to be randomly posting your thoughts on the internet.

    That's also not true. It's just that most astrophysicists that end up outside of academia seem to fall into a black hole. and don't talk too much about what they are doing. Once you work on Wall Street, there are very strong pressures to say nothing, and few pressures to say something. The only real reason that I post is that when I went through the grief of job hunting, I kept my sanity by promising myself that once I made it through, I'd do whatever I could to help people on the same path after me.
  14. Nov 9, 2011 #13
    Astrophysicists who leave academia do a number of different things. Some work ata meteorology modelling centre, others go into Defence. I've left academia and am now working at a government agency focusing on geoscience, but surprisingly am working on astronomic data.

    There are lots of paths to take and if you're focuses on where you want to go then it can work out. Although if you do do a PhD in astronomy, I probably wouldn't be telling my supervisors of my plans ... outside of academia is seen as failure from within the system and is strongly discouraged, and may also have detrimental effects on your plans.

    If you're working towards engineering and astronomy, then JPL and Nasa would be good places for you - but it does take a lot of time and energy, and while you say money isn't everything, it is needed.

    Definitely keep up outside hobbies, they're your escape back to reality and are necessary when you're in the depths of the PhD.
    Last edited: Nov 9, 2011
  15. Nov 9, 2011 #14
    Why is this? Given the well-known slim chances of becoming tenure-track faculty, why would supervisors discourage students from trying to attain some level of job security/stability?
  16. Nov 9, 2011 #15
    One reason is there's a conflict of interest. For tenure track supervisors, they either publish or they perish. In order for them to publish, they need research done. Grad students do the research. So if grad students spend time outside of research to think or do something about leaving academia, it would likely not benefit research, and hence not benefit the faculty.

    One other reason is that they have little idea what it looks like outside academia. Tenure track faculty can be someone who spent their entire career in academia. Sometimes they don't think industries require any preparation to enter. Sometimes they think it's below intellectuals to go into industries. But I think it mostly comes from too little exposure the outside world.

    However, I do know full professors that know students who go into oil/gas and Wall Street and consider them successful. Not all of the professors, certainly.
  17. Nov 9, 2011 #16
    Totally agree. And even political help from other countries. The reason US got so mobilized to send people to the moon is because USSR seemed to be leading the space race. My guess is that the next political help will be from China...
  18. Nov 12, 2011 #17
    I think a lot of it is unintentional. It's not so much that faculty explicitly tell students that they are dead if they try to do something other than the Ph.D., but rather that people have certain attitudes that get inherited by students. Some of it is that most faculty, even well-meaning ones, think of the world outside of the university as some scary unknown black hole, and so students tend to think of things in that way.

    Also much of Ph.D. training involves inheriting a culture and certain modes of thinking and most of that happens through implicit teaching rather than explicit teaching. If you are with a group of people that think that eating spinach tastes bad, then after a few years you yourself will think that eating spinach tastes bad. So what happens is that people implicitly think of going into industry as "inferior" and so students also tend to think in those terms.

    One other thing is that if you accept that going into industry is "normal" or even "preferred" is really shakes up status hierarchies. In the area of "what do I do with my Ph.D.'s?" the student and the teacher suddenly become equal, since most professors really know little about what can be done than their students.
  19. Nov 12, 2011 #18
    This sort of attitude is extremely unfortunate since there is a ton of stuff that I've seen done in oil-gas and Wall Street that is would be useful in astrophysics. Siloing works both ways. Once you work in an oil-gas company it becomes difficult to get time off so that you can visit a AAS conference.

    It's also difficult to be the first when you are doing something. If someone else has done a summer internship at a software company and survived, it's less scary for you to do it. If you are the first, it can be plenty scary.

    The other problem is that if you have an environment in which people have done things other than academia are ashamed to show themselves in public, that means that people just disappear. Also it works both ways, most industries are not set up to hire physics Ph.D.'s.

    Also there is an analogy to Chinatown. Chinatowns exist in major US cities because it's really scary for someone from China that has never been to the US to jump here, so what happens is that Chinese often concentrate in a few cities and neighborhoods. The same sorts of thing happens with astrophysicists. There are certain industries with "astrophysics-towns" in which it's possible to jump and feel that you are "back home". Then there are industries that don't have them.

    Curiously for me, my Ph.D. experience was excellent preparation for industry from a *technical* standpoint. The problems that I had were mostly psychological. I ended up doing the right things, but it was really scary and more painful than it had to have been.

    But then you have institutional attitudes. Right now, I don't know of any situations in which someone that has gone into industry has ended up in a policy making position in a university science department or professional society. I'll know that things are different if a university search committee hires someone from industry for a senior policy making position over people that have gone through the standard route, but I'm not holding my breath.
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