Astrophysics, what do I need to do?

  • Thread starter tgramling
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  • #1
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I am currently getting ready to end my sophomore year at my high school and have basically come to the decision that i wanted to study astrophysics. Although i still have "time" it seems as though i will run out of it before it is too late, so I am wondering what suggestions people have that i should do in order to go into the study of astrophysics, in school and outside of school. Also if i can get a list of some of the better astrophysics schools out there. Thanks.
 

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  • #2
jtbell
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As far as high school is concerned, just take whatever physics and math your school offers. If you can take calculus in high school, great, otherwise it's not a deal-breaker. College/university physics degree programs are normally set up so you can start with "general physics" and calculus during the freshman year.

If your college offers both physics and astrophysics degrees, the courses are likely to be the same until about junior year, so you don't have to lock yourself in right at the beginning. As an example, check out the University of Arizona's web site. They're big on astronomy and astrophysics, and offer both physics and astrophysics degrees.

I encourage you to keep your mind open to other sub-fields of physics along the way. In physics, you don't have to commit yourself to a particular sub-field until graduate school, and it's very common for people to change their minds along the way.
 
  • #3
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Thank you for the advice, and i will try to keep my mind open and see where it takes me
 
  • #4
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Yes keep ZapperZ's advice in mind before you try committing yourself to anything
I cringe every time I read in here of kids still in high school, or barely starting college, who already either are focused on a particular career, or already made up their minds that on a particular, exact career that they want to do. Now don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with having an ambition and aiming to want to be something. However, one needs to step back a bit and figure out if the "choice" being made here was made based on having all the necessary information (i.e. a well-informed decision), or made entirely based on superficial perception.

There are two important issues here that should be addressed and considered.

(i) It is highly unlikely that an 18-year old knows extremely well what is involved in being, say, a theoretical astrophysicist. So how did someone like that arrived at the conclusion that that is what he/she wants to be? More often than not, this person saw some TV shows, or went to some facility, or read some news coverage, and over a period of time, "fell in love" with the idea of being a theoretical astrophysicist.

(ii) It is also very likely that this person hasn't yet been exposed to ALL (or at least, a lot) of the exciting aspects of other field of studies. It is one thing to have seen all the "merchandise" and then make an informed selection, it is another to have only seen one or two and decided that those are sufficient to make a choice.

While there is nothing wrong with having a goal, there is a lot of things wrong when such a decision causes one to have blinders on and not even consider looking at other possibility. It is one of the reason why I conducted a https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=293634" here on PF. I wanted to see how many here who actually ended up in the VERY exact field that he/she envisioned when he/she was that young. If you simply look at the results, you'll see that only 15% of the poll participants ended up in the very exact career that they envisioned[*]! Significantly more of the participants end up doing roughly the same type of field of study, but not exactly the area of specialization that they had in mind.

What is the lesson in all of this? The lesson here is that, if you're just starting out in your academic life, there's a VERY good chance that you WILL NOT end up in the very exact specialization that you had in mind. That is a very important take-home message, and could be one of your first smack of reality. What this means is that you should NOT close the door on other subject areas just because you already have an ambition to be something. Just because you want to be a theoretical astrophysicist doesn't mean that you shouldn't at least look into solid state physics or read new discoveries coming out of atomic/molecular physics. There's a good chance that you will not be a theoretical astrophysicist, and you need to prepare yourself for such a possibility. It is why I've always tried to emphasize an undergraduate education that is as WIDE-RANGING as possible. Want to be a theorist? Well, take that extra lab class anyway! You'll never now that your ability to make that thin-film deposition might be the very skill that get you that job, or that graduate school admission. Idealism can only go so far before financial reality steps in and smack you on your face.

Zz.

[*] I am still skeptical of this number, and so far, only one participants have given an explanation on his selection. I think this number might be even significantly lower than what we end up with. I am guessing that many didn't actually read the full options posted in the first message of the poll. Of all the physicists that I've chatted with, I don't ever remember even one of them telling me that they are doing what they had in mind exactly when they were 17/18 years of age.
 
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  • #5
jtbell
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As you get exposed to more subjects, your preferences may very well change. This is completely natural.

When I was in high school, I took chemistry as a sophomore, and got really interested in it, enough that I took the general chemistry course at a nearby college (the one I ended up going to later, in fact) during the following summer. Then in my junior year I took physics. After that I couldn't make up my mind between Physics II or Chemistry II for my senior year, so I took both.

When I graduated, I was waffling between chemistry and physics and a couple of other things. During my freshman year in college, I had already taken the general chem course, so the obvious thing to do was take general physics. That finally hooked me on physics, and I went ahead with a physics major.

Actually, looking back on all that I've done since then, I think that if my college had offered a computer science degree (this was back in the early 1970s when fewer small colleges had CS programs), I probably would have gone with that instead. Instead, I spent a lot of my leftover time from physics, playing around with computer programs, in Fortran and a couple of different kinds of assembly language. That experience came in handy in grad school in physics.
 

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