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Budding Astrophysicist

  1. Jul 25, 2014 #1
    Hey guys!

    I'm in high school right now, going to Year 12 (British curriculum). I'll have to start applying to universities in a while. I want to become an astrophysicist; do a PhD in astrophysics. I have a few questions:
    1- For my Bachelor's degree, should I do a course in Physics or Mechanical Engineering? (I prefer physics, but I'd like to know which would be more beneficial)
    2- For my Master's degree, Physics for sure, but other opinions are welcome.
    3- When do I pick which field of astrophysics I would like to work on or specialise on; before my PhD (after my Master's), or after my PhD (before I get a job)?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 25, 2014 #2
    Poor child, you can't get a job in astrophysics. Your post is like "when do I pick music genre which I want to sing? Before of after I become international music star?" It's not a matter of being good or bad. If economy/market does not need astrophysicists then you won't get a job no matter how good you are and it can't be helped.

    So, stop daydreaming and get your BSc and Master's in Mechanical Engineering. Your job afterwards will be probable more fun and more related to physics than any other job that PhD in astrophysics can get.
  4. Jul 25, 2014 #3
    Well you didn't completely answer my question but thanks for whatever you wrote anyways. My final aim is to work in NASA, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, or any other space research center. So I think I require a more beneficial, helpful answer that'll assist me, so I'll probably pass on your opinion. Thanks anyways!
  5. Jul 25, 2014 #4
    Good job. I can't give you specific advice, but I'd mostly ignore people like that. Realize that it is a hard industry to break into, and the ones that fail often feel the need to splash their brand of cold water on the face of anyone who tries.

    There are people here that can give you more balanced advice.

    Here is the "So you want to be a physicist" thread: https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=240792

    Here's a "Can I get a Ph.D. in physics if my bachelor's degree isn't in physics" thread


    I saw a good thread once with very realistic but good advice on this, and I think it really should be a sticky here.

    -Dave K
  6. Jul 25, 2014 #5
    Thank you!
  7. Jul 25, 2014 #6
    I personaly didn't fail but I saw many who had failed. And more are coming to this forum nowadays whining about non-existent job prospects after graduating with physics degree. So giving this kind of advice - "don't give up, follow your dream and keep trying" is little irresponsible. Will you take responsibility for this kid's money, time and opportunity costs? I don't think so.

    If this kid is ok with doing something more marketable like mech eng then he should do it. Chance for tenure track position at any university is around 1-3%. For NASA it's even less. 1-3% sucess rate is not definition of "hard". Ofc, he can try doing it but he should be aware of his chances.
  8. Jul 25, 2014 #7
    Your opinions are duly noted.
  9. Jul 25, 2014 #8
    I'm a she btw :P I am aware of the chances, but I love physics and astrophysics, I have absolutely no interest in doing mechanical engineering, as I've researched the jobs related to it and I don't have a passion towards them.

    -Now please if someone can actually give a direct answer to my question, it would be very helpful!-
  10. Jul 25, 2014 #9
    Great! Astronomy/astrophysics needs more "shes." :)

    You might find this website helpful. http://womeninastronomy.blogspot.com/
  11. Jul 25, 2014 #10
    To keep anwers to simple questions simple:
    1) Physics.
    2) Astrophysics may be an alternative, if such a program exists.
    3) It may depend on the country/system. But generally, the selection of a field is a gradual process over the course of a physicist's training. There are a few specialization options at the beginning (bachelor student), and there is effectively full specialization at the end (PhD student).

    I skipped answering questions that you didn't ask, which everyone else seems to consider of utmost impotance. Oh wait, I'll answer one: Do not focus on only one field that you think you like on the basis of never having worked in the field. Also take the time to look a bit to the left and to the right along your path.
  12. Jul 25, 2014 #11
    Then why did you ask about mechanical engineering? I think Rika gave fine answers.

    The area you end up specializing in is not solely up to you to decide. Its a mix of opportunity and choice. You should start doing research as an undergraduate. With astrophysics in mind you should take some classes or do self study on computer programming and managing big data sets. Consider double majoring in computer science. This will help you in your research since that is what much of astrophysics work is. Then with your undergraduate research and computer skills in hand you choose schools to apply for based on research interests. Once in a school you talk with professors about what they are doing and how you can help them and try to find a good match. After graduation it doesn't matter so much which research area you specialized in. Its you computer coding, modeling and big data skills that will most likely get you a job. (And mentioned, its very unlikely to have anything to do with physics. Employers don't care as much about the subject you study as they do about the skills you have.)

    But like Rika says, I think you are putting the cart before the horse. You haven't even started college yet and are thinking about your post PhD plans... Maybe you like the subject of astrophysics, but wont actually like the work involved? Do you like coding? You wont know that until you join an undergraduate research group and get some experience behind the screen doing actual astrophysics research. I think its a bit early to be declaring what you do and don't have a passion for.
    Last edited: Jul 25, 2014
  13. Jul 25, 2014 #12
    Ignore the condescending blanket statements like Rika's and make your own thoroughly informed decisions. I think I would reserve the term 'budding astrophysicist' for an academic who works on astrophysics that has recently gotten tenure, is starting to establish his/her research group, getting his/her own funding etc.

    During my time in the UK, it appeared that a physics bachelors or 4-year MSc has as good job prospects as any other degree for many white collar jobs, so it is not a terrible investment of your time/money if you have a change of heart near your last year. Or if you decide to work before going for a phd, which you will have very good chances of getting into if you get a 1st or perhaps a 2:1 and have some research experience coming from most UK schools.

    When you reach that stage (ie: are done or about done with your BS), read this:


    and then decide if you really want to invest a substantial part of your life to this kind of work and are OK with all or most of the most likely outcomes, within or outside of science or education. Like Modus said, it sounds like you are putting the cart before the horse. You need to go through the experience of physics undergraduate program and a good number of hours of more-often-than-not tedious research, preferably on more than just one topic, to really know if you really like doing this or if it is just an infatuation.
    Last edited: Jul 25, 2014
  14. Jul 25, 2014 #13
    If you want a Master's degree in physics for sure (and PhD in astrophysics) and have no interest in MechE, then for a Bachelor's degree it's clearly physics. If you "have absolutely no interest in doing mechanical engineering", then I really don't understand why you're even suggesting it as a possibility for a Bachelor's degree.

    As far as picking a field of astrophysics to specialize in, I don't think you need to worry about that yet, probably sometime in grad school, before or after your MS probably doesn't matter much (as long as it's not too long after). Getting a PhD implies, to me anyway (unless you mean something different by specialize than what I'm thinking), a certain degree of specialization, so you'd have to decide before then. Not that you couldn't potentially change later. IMO the earlier you connect with a PhD supervisor the better, but it's more important to get the right match than to do it quickly.
  15. Jul 25, 2014 #14


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    Rika's statements are harsh but meaningful. What the statements mean is that you should gear your education for practical employability. You can still have your dreams and act on them, but make practical decisions in your educational planning so that you can find good employment.

    PLEASE, someone discuss the benefits of a degree in Astrophysics including the concepts AND SKILLS which a student develops while earning a degree in astrophysics. This subfield might be an under-appreciated one.
  16. Jul 27, 2014 #15
    On 1: You consider a foundation in Math, and selected core Physics courses

    On 2: You could consider a Master program in Physics. You may need additional core courses as well.

    On 3: You might try an internship at JPL while completing your doctorate.


    It ain't easy but many of your class mates can't get beyond the Xbox.
  17. Jul 27, 2014 #16
    What do you mean by "can't get beyond the Xbox" ?
  18. Jul 27, 2014 #17


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    There seem to be a few poor (and patronising) responses here; I'm sorry about that.

    If you are interested in physics and astrophysics, then you should certainly do a Physics degree. A degree in mechanical engineering will set you up well for a career in engineering, but if that's not where your interests lie, then I'm not sure why you would do that.

    I would recommend applying for straight physics courses, probably for 4 year undergrad masters courses (e.g. MPhys or MSci). You can always switch down to the BSc, but it's often trickier in terms of funding to switch from 3 to 4 years. You might want to apply for Physics + Astrophysics, but in my experience the first year is the same in both so you can switch further down the line. You should certainly start attending open days at universities you're interested in soon, and you can ask more specific questions about their programmes while you're there.

    In terms of specialising, you would choose before you started your PhD, since a PhD is independent, original research in a certain research area. Your job will then most likely be in the same area as your PhD was.
  19. Jul 27, 2014 #18
    Ha! Where do you get that idea? The statistics show that is clearly not the case.


    (and that is for all physics. I think that astrophysics is one of the hardest subfields to stay in.)

    Its a poor response to offer platitudes and neglect the caveats and difficulties.
    Last edited: Jul 27, 2014
  20. Jul 27, 2014 #19


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    If you end up getting a physics-research type job, that is: an academic postdoc or faculty position, industrial research scientist (very few if any of those are in astrophysics, though), etc.
  21. Jul 27, 2014 #20


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    Now is a good time to explore various areas in astrophysics.

    Perhaps one can browse CFA's website. Look at the research and opportunities.

    There is also - http://www.esa.int/ESA

    Actually, mechanical or electrical engineering might be useful if one builds instrumentation.
  22. Jul 27, 2014 #21


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    The nice thing about engineering is employability should never be your biggest concern. The curriculum differences between an engineering vs physics major is negligible until your 3rd year of undergraduate studies, so, you have that much extra time to decide. If your GPA after two years is not almost perfect, a Phd in physics is probably not your cup of tea. That factor alone should help you decide.
  23. Jul 27, 2014 #22
    I agree
  24. Jul 27, 2014 #23


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    If you really want to go into astrophysics and graduate school is a likely next step, then a degree in physics is the more desirable route. As other have alluded to though, it's important to have a backup plan if the physics route doesn't work out. Make sure you develop some skill that you can market if it comes time to leave academia. I would do mechanical engineering if you're keen to work as a mechanical engineer.

    It's also important to keep in mind that your interests may change or mature as you go - and that can be a good thing. So in regards to your third question, try to avoid getting too specialized too quickly.

    I'm not sure how the master's degree works in the UK system. In Canada, it's a lot like shortened version of the PhD and so this is the point where you would really start to specialize. So you would do the master's degree in a specific sub-field.

    Generally speaking your specialization really starts when you choose a PhD project or at least when you enter the PhD program (although see above comments about the Canadian system). Starting the PhD, you will take field-specific coursework, but then it's really the project that defines your specialization. Exceptions might include something like medical physics where you have to gain entry separately into the graduate program.
  25. Jul 27, 2014 #24


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    A lot of the advice here appears to assume that undergraduate education in the UK is organised in the same way as the US. It is not. I did have a lengthy diatribe on the points of difference, but it probably belongs in a different thread. Suffice it to say that in the UK, you are admitted to study a specified program of courses in a specified subject; there are virtually no undergraduate courses shared between programs in different departments, and there is virtually no possibility of transferring between programs in different departments. The decision between engineering or physics must be made when initially applying to the university, not after two years of study at university.

    I'm assuming here that you have a reasonable choice of AS/A-level subjects, which should include both Physics and Mathematics and, ideally, Further Mathematics and that you have good predicted grades.

    A mechanical engineering degree at least sets you up for a career in engineering (and probably involves a work placement, which should get you a reference). But if it's not a career you're interested in pursuing then why bother? A physics or maths/physics degree will also give you transferable skills, and a mechanical engineering degree will not assist you in theoretical astrophysics. (I assume your interest is theoretical; if you want to design and build satellites or probes or landers or telescopes then you will want to go down the mechanical engineering route.)

    Funding wise, it is easier to switch from a four-year MSci to a three-year BSc than the reverse.

    Ideally it would be in astrophysics, but astronomy, (theoretical) physics, and (applied) mathematics are all possibly relevant course titles.

    Astrophysics is a large portion of Cambridge's MMath/MAst (more likely to be suitable if your Bachelors degree contains a large mathematics component), and Cambridge also offers a specialized Astrophysics masters-level course. (Other courses are available.)

    But you should probably not be thinking too much about this or about PhD studentships until you have started your undergraduate course.

    At master's level at the latest.

    You should note that there is competition for places at every level, and a cut is made at every level. If you do not get at least a 2:1 at bachelor level you will probably not progress further. If you are rejected everywhere the first time you apply to the next level, then next year you'll be competing against the best in the year below you.

    It is probably best to apply for graduate jobs at the same time as you apply for Master's courses; you are always free to decline the former if you are offered the latter.
  26. Jul 28, 2014 #25
    I would say the most important skill astronomers learn is the ability to obtain meaningful conclusions out of large, noisy data sets (in addition to just being able to program). This could be helpful in essentially any field, whether it be for basic research or corporate profits. There has been a lot of discussion recently about how our society is being increasingly data-driven. What that means is that because of our technology, we have more data than we can actually review ourselves. The next step is then to be able to automate computers to analyze data in ways that you might think only humans can.
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