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Astrophysics vs Theoretical Physics vs Theoretical Astrophysics

  1. Sep 4, 2014 #1
    I'm currently looking into a career in either Astrophysics, Theoretical Physics, or Theoretical Astrophysics.

    What is the difference between the subject matter in each of these three fields and how would I go about attaining status of Theoretical Astrophysicist? I have found numerous majors for both Astrophysics and Theoretical Physics, but I have not found any majors for Theoretical Astrophysics.

    I find myself drawn to the whacky edges of physics: black holes, dark matter, dark energy, multiverse theory, etc. Which major(s) suits this best?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 5, 2014 #2


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    Staff: Mentor

    I'll assume you're in the US, and still in high school.

    Bachelor's degrees in physics (in the US) are pretty generic, as far as subject matter is concerned. A degree in astrophysics etc. would be mostly the same as a plain physics degree at the same school, but with a few more specifically-required courses which you're free to take as electives along with a generic physics major, anyway.

    Most people don't seriously specialize until they're in graduate school.

    Graduate schools aren't going to care whether the degree is labeled "physics" or "theoretical physics" or "astrophysics" or whatever, or even whether it's a B.S. or a B.A., per se. They're going to care what courses you took, as shown on your transcript. The first courses they're going to look for are the "core four", above the freshman-physics level:

    • Classical mechanics
    • Electromagnetism
    • Quantum mechanics
    • Thermodynamics & statistical mechanics

    Then, if you've said you're interested in specific fields (particle physics, solid state, atomic, optics, astrophysics, etc.), they'll look for indications that you've been exposed to those areas, either by coursework or by research experience.

    All of these fields have both experimental (or observational) and theoretical aspects, by the way.

    So, I'd advise to look for a college/university that has people doing research in the area(s) you're interested in, and hopefully also offers a course or two in that area, regardless of whether they have a formal degree program in it.

    For the areas you're interested in, there are few jobs available compared to the number of new Ph.D's who want them, so you should pick up skills (programming, data analysis etc.) that are useful outside of physics, and be prepared for an alternate career path. You should also sample other fields of physics while you're an undergraduate, and keep an open mind about them. People in solid-state, optics, etc. are more likely to find jobs, even though nobody makes snazzy TV shows about them :wink:. You might even find one of those fields interesting in itself!
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