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Career Guidance - Where Should A Seventeen Year Old Hopeful Astrophysicist Be

  1. Jul 21, 2008 #1
    I am overwhelmed by this super competitive science world - where fifteen years olds are entering university worthy research into science competitions, and students are encountering calculus in middle school. I go to a Performing Arts School in NYC which is the farthest place for one who is hopeful for a career in science. Ever since sophomore year I have been consumed by this passion for space and physics. I try to take the top classes my school offers and master the classes I have; yet, when I compare myself to other students in high school who are also passionate in science I feel I am very behind. I will be taking AP Calculus as a senior - students younger then me are training for olympiads and other competitions in this field. I can't help but believe that perhaps science came into my life a little to late to make a career of it - but I'm SEVENTEEN! How can that possibly be? I really do need some guidance in the area of having a career in astrophysics and how to get there. Am I right in thinking I might be too behind or am I overreacting? Will I be on an even footing when I enter college?

    *Pardon the misspelling of Astrophysicist
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  3. Jul 21, 2008 #2
    You're overreacting. Those people doing stuff so early are, by far, in the minority. Having a few years head start on someone doesn't really mean a whole lot anyways. It just means that they do stuff earlier in life. You need a base level of talent to do physics, but that base level isn't anywhere near "doing university worthy research" in high school, luckily. The base level is probably closer to "could have taken calculus in high school." Beyond that, hard work is usually more important than talent.
  4. Jul 21, 2008 #3


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    I think you're exaggerating: I doubt that there are many 15 year olds that produce "university level research." Sure, entering competitions and olympiads is a good thing to have under your belt, but it is not the be all and end all. What is important is to have a good grounding in subjects: finish high school, and get into a decent university to study for your degree. Only then will you know whether you can (or want to) go to grad school to become an astrophysicist. You seem to have the most important thing-- an interest in the subject. You don't need to win competitions to prove this, and most certainly should not give up on things now.

    Whilst I'm not from the US, I never entered any competitions or olympiads and didn't race through school. There's something to be said for enjoying your youth!
  5. Jul 21, 2008 #4


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    I would echo the comments above. There will always be people who seem like they've accomplished more, with less effort, and at a younger age.

    What's important at seventeen is to explore the options you have and figure out what direction you want to take. I would suspect fifteen year olds who produce "university level research" don't have a whole lot of time for anything else. Thus, they run the risk of finding out half way through undergrad that they're in a field they may be good at but don't enjoy.
  6. Jul 21, 2008 #5
    Thank-You to all who responded. I am a firm believer of balance between a social life and academic life. My next question is - I plan on majoring in physics in college. If I see that works out then I would attempt to pursue a phD in astrophysics (I am aware of the difficulty of getting to that level, and the possibility of other oppurtunities may come across my way). Though some suggested if there was an astrophysics program in the University I am looking at - to take that undergrad, as opposed to taking physics undergrad then trying to pursue a degree in astrophysics. Is my plan of action a good approach or not?
  7. Jul 21, 2008 #6


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    I would personally go for the undergraduate degree in physics rather than astrophysics, as you don't want to close any doors before you're really sure what you want. And you might want to have taken at least one course in astrophysics before deciding on doing that for the rest of your life. I say that mostly because the astrophysics undergraduate degrees that I have seen tend to be closer to astronomy than physics, and you might miss important physics concepts by locking yourself into such a program. But of course, it strongly depends on the program itself.

    That being said, if your university offers an astrophysics degree, you can take advantage of the many astrophysics courses and potential research positions that this may offer you, regardless if such courses are compulsory. This would allow you to have the best of both worlds: a complete physics education, courses in astrophysics, and a backup plan in case you realize that you actually hate astrophysics.
  8. Jul 21, 2008 #7


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    I agree with tmc (in fact, I was going to write pretty much the same thing, but was beaten to it!).
  9. Jul 21, 2008 #8
    I will take that advice - and do any of you know if the University of Rochester in upstate New York is a good school to start my academic career in physics?
  10. Jul 21, 2008 #9


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    I don't know much about them except that their quantum optics group is highly well-regarded. Or at least, was. Their website states that they encourage their undergrads to do lots of research, which is great.
  11. Jul 21, 2008 #10
    yeah, 78% undergrads are doing research, and they the largest laser in the world there, but I was just wondering how other people would rate their physics program. I was very impressed when I visited the school a few months ago.

    Oh and lets say I start off 2 years at a SUNY - would that set be back a lot, or would it not have a difference. The only way I can go to private school is if I get a scholarship (53k a year is crazy), so I must look at other options. Would I still be able to go to a great science school if I start off my 1st two years in a State College?
  12. Jul 21, 2008 #11


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    78% is awesome (although I wonder how far their definition of 'research' stretches). Remember, you don't have to stay there to do research - there are plenty of REU (research experience for undergraduates) programs during the summers all over the country. If you spend a semester or summer at your school doing a research project, you'll have no trouble getting into some good programs for the following summer. http://www.aas.org has a list of REU programs in astronomy and astrophysics at universities and national labs; NASA also has a program.
  13. Jul 21, 2008 #12
    There are plenty of great public colleges for science, especially in New York. I would go so far as saying that Stony Brook would probably be even better than a number of private colleges, with regards to physics and science in general.

    Another thing to keep an eye out for are the private universities that offer full tuition/full cost grants to students from families making only so much money. Admittedly, the majority of colleges offering this aren't easy to get into as it is, and there is usually a requirement of working a few hours a week at the school, but it would certainly be useful, if available to you.
  14. Jul 21, 2008 #13
    Thinking about jobs and careers probably seems hazy and way out there at 17, but realize that the job market for astrophysics PhD's is incredibly poor (ie: 15-20 phd's per open position), and there's no reason to think that it will be any different 10 years from now.
  15. Jul 22, 2008 #14
    I see what you are getting maze - but with college around the corner I wanted to have some goal, no matter how distant or vague.

    Another question - I heard it is very suggested to have some research under your belt if you can, since it looks very good when applying for grad school, is this true?
  16. Feb 26, 2011 #15

    I'm also a teenager interested in astrophysics who goes to a performing arts school in NYC. I go to LaGuardia. Where do you?

  17. Mar 1, 2011 #16
    There really are. There's a whole system for getting people into science, and there is a subculture of people that take science fairs and talent searches quite seriously. I got caught up in that system, that might explain the amount of emotion I have on the topic.

    When you mix science talent searches with "tiger moms" (google for the term), the results are quite interesting.

    I got into science fairs and Westinghouse (and now Intel STS) programs. One problem with these sorts of programs is that they encourage young people to be hypercompetitive, which is sometimes a good thing, sometimes not.

    My advice is not to go overboard. If it's important to you, then you'll find a way of doing science your entire life.
  18. Mar 1, 2011 #17
    Job market in academia. Job market outside of academia is extremely good if you have don't trying to narrow yourself down too much.

    Also I don't want to give people the wrong idea. I can sound negative at times, but I'm actually trying to do what I can to get people into astrophysics and science, because I think society would be a lot better off if there were 100x as many astrophysics Ph.D.'s as they are.

    As far as what this does to the job market..... Well, if you think that you are smart enough to figure out the big bang, then trying to figure out how to set up a society that can deal with 100,000 astrophysics Ph.D.'s each year shouldn't be too bad.
  19. Mar 1, 2011 #18


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    I guess it depends how you define 'university level research'. Anyway, I still stand by my comments of three years ago: there's something to be said for having some spare time and not overloading with science.

    That said, it would be interesting to see where the OP is now s/he is ~20 years old!
  20. Mar 1, 2011 #19
    Maybe, but the science incentive structure is set up to encourage hyper-competitive behavior. If you have a system in which only the top 1% gets stuff and everyone else gets nothing, the people that win in that situation are people that are totally obsessive. Part of what you have to learn in that sort of system is "how not to burn out."

    If you think that's a bad thing (and I sort of do), then the incentive structure needs to be changed. One reason I don't think that the current system is that great is because I don't think that if you are totally focused on astrophysics that you'll end up doing good research. If you between doing astrophysics, you do something like football or being a pastry chef, you may end up with some interesting and original ideas for how to so astrophysics.

    I'm as interested in what s/he is when they are 40 years old (i.e. roughly my age), 60 years old, and 80 years old.

    Once you've caught the bug, it can stay with you with the rest of your life. One thing that I think is cool is that I know astrophysicists in their 80's that are doing interesting and productive research.
    Last edited: Mar 1, 2011
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