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Astrophysics: A Student's Questions & Monetary Concerns

  1. Dec 5, 2014 #1
    Hi, I am a high school senior planning on attending somewhere similar to UCLA. I have always had a passion for astronomy but never considered it as an actual career option, as I was dead set on becoming a medical doctor. I recently thought of dropping that idea, however, because even though I would enjoy having a philanthropic career, I am so, so in love with astrophysics.

    However, I was raised in an upper middle class environment with an engineer and an accountant as parents, so I was taught from a very early age how to value money. I know that I can always switch majors if I don't declare immediately, but I want to be prepared. I want to get a scope of things now, so if I make a mistake -- at least it'd be an educated guess.

    Can you please humor me and my questions? Many of these things may be able to be googled, but the results vary, and I would feel better if the ones answering were speaking directly to me.
    1. What is the usual starting salary of an astrophysicist? At what point would it reach $100+, if at all?
    2. Is it hard/competitive to get a job? How about specifically a research position? Or in academia?
    3. How quickly does the job pay back the educational costs?
    4. Can graduate school really be free? How? What about a PhD?
    5. Why try for NASA? Why not?
    6. Does most of the work truly happen in an office? If yes, does the office look like what people usually think of when they hear "office"? How about a laboratory?
    7. What is the nature of the community? Do people know each other well, is it isolated until there are group researches, etc.?
    Thank you very much.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 5, 2014 #2


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    Staff: Mentor

    I'll tackle just a couple of these questions. Hopefully others will address the rest.

    As far as I know, most jobs in astrophysics are in academia, where you do a mixture of research and teaching, with maybe some research-only jobs in government labs. These jobs are very competitive. You need to have a backup plan ready for work in other fields, using the programming or data-analysis skills that you learn while earning your degree.

    I think space-related jobs in private industry are mostly in engineering.

    (The statements below apply to the US)

    PhD students in the sciences generally receive funding for tuition and basic living expenses. In exchange for this, they teach introductory labs and classes, or assist in professors' research, or both, in addition to their studies and their own research.

    When I was a PhD student in physics, I always shared an apartment with another student, and did not own a car until my last year. (a gift from my parents, their second car which they no longer needed). Because of that, I had enough extra money to travel a bit, and had a little money left over when I started my first "real job."

    Most students enter their PhD program directly after finishing a bachelor's degree. It includes coursework like you would take if you were in a master's-only program. But students in a master's-only program generally do not receive funding like PhD students do, I think.

    Undergraduate students seldom receive complete funding. The vast majority of undergraduates (or their parents :oldwink:) have to pay a significant part, usually even the majority, of the cost of a bachelor's degree.
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2014
  4. Dec 5, 2014 #3


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    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    For data on careers in physics the best statistics I'm aware of are here:

    The typical career progression for an astrophysicist looks something like this:
    ~ 6 years in graduate school earning a PhD brining in somewhere in the ballpark of $20 - 25k per year
    ~ 5 years as a post-doctoral researcher earning ballpark of $35 - $55k
    ~ 5 years on a tenure-track position, if you're fortunate enough to get one. I think salaries here can vary, but you're probably in the $50 - 70k ballpak
    Then, if all goes well, you get to climb the academic ranks. Here the salaries might cross the $100 k mark one you get to a full professor status depending on where you work.

    Last I heard, it wasn't uncommon for post-doc positions in astrophysics to get 50 applicants, if not 100. There are few if any direct commercial applications of astrophysics so most PhDs end up leaving the field, unfortunately. There are applications for the skill set you might develop. Apparently many will cross over into finance or programming. Very few people get to make a career out of studying black holes.

    I think this can vary depending on how much you pay for and how much debt you take on for the education. For me it was zero because I was fortunate enough not to have taken on any debt as an undergraduate.

    I think JTBell explained this, but I'll throw in my two cents. My experience is Canadian where universities are set up with public funding. A physics department will get some money as a part of the university budget that ultimately comes out of the taxpayers' pockets, and some from independend funding sources. Professors will obtain grants from various institutions that depend on the merrits of the research they conduct. Graduate students are given stipends through these sources or through independent scholarships. In addition they are also given assistanceships which are essentially jobs where they are paid to supervise labs, lead tutotials, or grade assignments. In Canada, this money is put towards tuition.

    This is up to you.

    I suppose a lot depends on the nature of the research you're conducting. A lot of astrophysics is theoretical and involves a lot of computer simulation. You will be unlikely to have an office with a window until you're a full professor.

    I don't know the astro community very well. I'm a medical physicist. But we have a very small circle and I imagine other disciplines are the same. I'm still early in my career and I would stay that I know about 10 - 20% of the medical physicists in Canada at least to a casual converation level and probably half or more of them I would recognize either by face or name. I don't know as many medical physicists in the US or abroad.

    To first order, no one does research well in isolation. That said, there can be fierce competition between groups.
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