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Astrophysics Career

  1. May 28, 2015 #1
    I am currently a sophomore in high school and wish to pursuit a a PhD in astrophysics. I was wondering how life as a astrophysicist is actually like and as well how difficult it is to reach it. I have a pretty strong background in math and science as I am currently in Calculus AB and plan to take Physics C next year as a junior.
    I don't really see myself in the future as a college professor as I would rather much do research since everything about the universe truly fascinates me and would rather focus on that but I hear that it's quite difficult to even land a job doing research outside of a university.
    And another concern that I had was that if it's possible to do aerospace engineering as an undergrad and astrophysics for graduate school?
    Thank you.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 28, 2015 #2


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    Ok. First, there are very few astrophysicists who do astrophysics research who work outside of a university environment, with the exception of the few who work in government research institutes. However, you seem to be under the impression that professors don't do research? Research is pretty much what a professor does. Sure, there are teaching positions, but there are also pure research positions. Pure research positions will still involve supervision of students though, it's part of the job.

    Why would you want to do a PhD in astrophysics but an undergrad degree in engineering? I'm sure it's possible but you'll be at a disadvantage in terms of applications and then actually doing a PhD in astrophysics to your peers who have done physics/astro degrees.

    So, what's life like as an astrophysicist? Well, it's not too different from other physics/science jobs. After getting a PhD, you apply for a post-doctoral position somewhere. There, you work in a research group/collaboration to answer questions in astrophysics. To do that, if you're in observational astronomy, you collect data on telescopes -- you apply for time every quarter/half year/year (depending on the telescope) and you may be given some number of nights on the telescope in depending on the quality of your proposal. You then may travel to the telescope (or more and more frequently, observe remotely), and the data will be collected, providing the weather is good (up to luck, and if it's cloudy, tough luck, someone else will need it tomorrow). You then analyse it, which involves a lot of hours on the computer, and a lot of problem solving. Chances are good you'll have to write your own analysis programs. Hopefully, your data tells you something interesting about the universe. If so, you then write it up, go through about fifty million drafts with your collaborators, and submit it to a journal, wait, get it back, revise it, and so on until it is published. Repeat, until your post-doc runs out (1-3 years) and apply for a new job. Repeat until you manage to land a permanent position.

    In parallel to this, you're keeping up with your collaborators, contributing to their work, reading the literature, discussing the literature, presenting talks on your work, listening to other's talks on their work, attending conferences, writing up conference proceedings, working on committees and other service, tracking papers, mentoring students, teaching, working on side projects, working on grants (oh yes, you have to apply to get money that supports you and your students/post-docs), managing grants, working on outreach, and hopefully there's also some time to eat lunch.

    ETA: This is pretty good, http://www.aoc.nrao.edu/epo/powerpoint/life.as.an.astronomer.pdf

    ETA: A good way to find out the kind of problems that astrophysicists work on is to look at the arXiv, which is a repository of preprints. http://arxiv.org/list/astro-ph/new

    Last edited: May 28, 2015
  4. May 28, 2015 #3
    In your opinion, is this a type of career worth going into?
    Or is something along the lines of medicine better?
    I'm struggling to decide between these two.
    Thank you.
  5. May 28, 2015 #4


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    I think science is a great career, but it has substantial downsides. You should only do it if you are absolutely passionate about doing science, and aware of the downsides. The same goes for medicine. Whether or not they are worth going into or not is a personal decision that you need to make.
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