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Astrophysics Career Options

  1. Jan 3, 2015 #1
    Hello all.

    I am a high school student, and I plan on going to University (not sure which yet) to study Astrophysics, and I hope to eventually land a research job at a prestigious University. Of course, this is a very ambitious goal, and that's where my question comes in: Will I be able to do it?

    Some background on me and my situation: I have always loved Science. From the time I was 3 I would listen to my grandfather and father tell my about different topics and have discussions with them. When I was 12, I read Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and loved it. I devoured it an afternoon, and spent the rest of the day grilling everyone for further details.

    As a result I have a LOT of background knowledge for Physics, including much of the math behind it and advanced topics. From what I can tell, I will do well in Physics if I study it. When I was 14 I taught myself Newtonian Mechanics by reading The Principia and some old textbooks, and more importantly loved all of it.

    So I'm reasonably confident I can succeed in college, but what do I do past that? Obviously for Academia the best option would be to go for a PhD immediately afterwards, but what if I can't get a good job? What other options are available for someone with an Astrophysics degree? Most people I've talked to say I should go into engineering, but that's just not my thing. I'm pretty good at it, but I don't enjoy it.

    So what would you guys advise?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 6, 2015 #2
    Consider my response as one by a fellow student (I'm in my senior year of high school):
    I'm in the same boat as you - I love learning about cosmology and astrophysics, and I also have a passion for mechanics. After some consideration about where I could go after uni, I've thought about keeping some career options open - even though I know I'll most probably do something related to engineering. Most of my uni friends say undergraduate studies is when you truly discover yourself, so you don't want to end up doing a major in something that you lose interest half way through.

    I'd say getting a job into NASA would probably be a dream come true for any astrophysicist, but let's be realistic: the space industry has been declining over the past few decades, and you have fewer competitive jobs available in this field. Now I'm not saying that should hold you back from following your interests, but just remember that getting a doctorate is going to require some serious funds (thank you scholarships), so try to find a midway niche for yourself for your career, so that you never have to experience regret. I personally plan on doing a double major, but haven't planned much beyond that(I'll wait so that things clear up a bit).
  4. Jan 6, 2015 #3
    Thanks, I'll be sure to keep that in mind.
  5. Jan 6, 2015 #4
    First, I'll be blunt. If getting a faculty job at a prestigious university is the only thing that will allow you to fulfill your goals, then you may very well never fulfill your goals. There is a very small number of very prestigious research universities in the world, an increasing number of qualified candidates to fill their positions, and this a decreased probability that one particular person will ever get such a job.

    I got to a mid-to-low tier university of about 16,000 students. Professors here do a lot of exciting research in cosmology, acoustics, and geophysics in our physics department. There was a job opening a couple of years ago. I'm told that the opening received over 80 applicants. So, 79 people who applied did not get the job.

    Does that mean it's impossible to get a faculty job? Of course not. I'm just sharing some anecdotal evidence with you, because I believe it's important to be realistic about the situation right now for hopeful academics. The number of tenure track positions open has been dropping in nearly every field for a while now. Does that mean it won't improve? Of course not. That's impossible to tell.

    As to whether or not you can do it, none of us are qualified to answer that. You love science? That doesn't tell us anything. Does that love inspire you to work hard to do science? That's the important part.

    The smartest thing you can do is to keep your options open. If you're passionate about physics, then by all means major in physics. But you need to develop marketable skills while you do it. Programming, lab work, etc. At this point in your life, you may not even truly know what interests you (especially if you haven't worked in physics), so keep your options open. Physics in academia is a little different than self-study physics. The "safe" option is to keep your options open, find what you like in undergrad studies, and go for it while developing marketable skills.

    Of course, take this advise with a grain of salt, as it comes from your friendly neighborhood engineering undergrad.
  6. Jan 8, 2015 #5
    Thank you for the reply.
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