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Physics Careers in astrophysics

  1. Feb 11, 2008 #1
    I am new to the forums and I am currently a 1st year student, and I am planning on majoring in astrophysics. I wasn't sure whether to put this here, or in career guidance, but anyway. I was just wondering what kind jobs are available for a major in astrophysics and if it is is almost necessary to get a masters and even a Ph.d.
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  3. Feb 11, 2008 #2


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    We have "Academic & Career Guidance " sub-forum, your post will eventually be moved from here to there.

    You surely need a Ph.d to work as an astronomer. Also, you will learn a lot about scientific computing, so there are lots of works / position available for you once you are finished.
  4. Feb 12, 2008 #3
    Hi Sheneron,

    An astrophysics major is a specialty of physics, and therefore a person who graduates with an astrophysics degree has a huge range of career options available to him/her. If you'd like to know what an astronomer/astrophysicists does, I'd recommend reading some of the interviews published at http://www.astromiror.org/research.html#astro .

    Within the professional research community, there are very few non-student positions for scientists who don't have doctorates. Do you need an advanced degree to work in the field? No. But a Ph.D. is required for the large majority of jobs in the field.

    Good luck!
  5. Feb 12, 2008 #4
    That graduates with an astrophysics majors have a "huge" range of career options seems a vague statement that readers would do well to question heavily. How many is huge? How many of those were available prior to getting an astrophysics degree? How many of those would be more rewarding options if one got a different degree instead?

    I believe this cannot be well quantified, and that it is an opinion. As such, I'd like to toss my opinion in as well. If one ignores career options available without the degree (ie plumbing, electrician etc,) those with an astrophysics degree do not have a huge range of career options. Instead, they have a limited number of academic and government jobs available, plus a small set of industrial ones that are not as rewarding as they could have been with a different degree.

    I have formed this opinion for two reasons. Firstly, there is a massive overproduction of physics PhD's, and has been for around thirty years. The areas of physics hit hardest are those with the fewest industry connections, including astrophysics. Because of tenure, this has had little affect on pay scales for professors already employed; instead, it has resulted in the vast majority of those with the degree ending up in part-time employment for extended periods before they have any chance of a permanent position. These part-time jobs tend to be lower paying and sometimes even lack benefits.

    The second reason I formed this opinion is because of personal experience. I did my undergraduate research in astrophysics and intended to do graduate work in the area. Life threw me a curveball and I ended up in industry for a few years instead. After returning to grad school I continued studying the materials science and physics I did there.

    And I thank my lucky stars for it. Some of my colleagues who were astro grad students in 2003 are still graduate students. In grad school I was surrounded by astrophysics and high energy theorist phd's who had been there 6, 7 years, and still had no thesis. I worked closely with several astro graduate students in their search for future work. It was just miserable.

    As far as I can tell in my searches for work both for myself and others, the only career options really open to astrophysics grads (BS or PhD) are academic part-time, a few governmental positions, and some very low paying industrial ones that do not make use of most of their skill set. Most of the stories of astro peeps leaving for industry are a decade or decades old, and students today shouldn't count on them.

    Obviously we have a difference of opinions here in this thread. I beg any reader considering this field to do some heavy research. Do not merely accept what your professors or advisors tell you - most of them haven't looked for work in a quarter century. (And, I was horrified to discover, some are completely aware of the situation, and just make sure their students aren't). I believe you can have a good healthy career in astrophysics, but it is very difficult to do, and you need to be aware of the problems associated with it. Information is key.

    My graduate experience was largely one of watching other people's dreams get crushed. Please trust me when I say you don't want to join them.
  6. Feb 12, 2008 #5
    I appreciate your opinion, but I disagree. Regardless of the name of the degree obtained, an astrophysics degree recipient has obtained certain knowledge, a certain skill set, and a piece of paper representing a college degree. A person with such a degree could be a movie ticket counter before or after gaining the degree, yes, but that wasn't what I meant. My statement was intensionally open: A person will an astrophysics degree has opened doors to a world (huge, as I stated) of job opportunities that are only open to those with a college degree, perhaps with some mathematical knowledge, perhaps with some critical thinking skills, perhaps with some programming experience, perhaps with some physics know-how, etc. Most of those are not astrophysics jobs, but they are open to astrophysicists, most certainly! Would the student have been better served getting another degree? Maybe yes, but not always. When else but in college can a student focus on learning what they love?

    I agree with you that positions within astrophysics are limited. I'm sorry you saw dreams crushed. Please appreciate that your experiences are not necessarily the experiences of others. I think we'd do a huge disservice to the future of the scientific community if we discouraged interested and motivated students from learning as much as they can about their intended field.
  7. Feb 15, 2008 #6
    Well, nowhere did I suggest or try to discourage anyone from learning about their field.

    However, I believe society has done a tremendous disservice to students by not encouraging them enough to be critical about the job market information they get. Further, by raking students into already crowded areas we do harm to those few who truly love their work by further oversupplying the labor market.

    It is true that astrophysicists have quantitative skills, allowing them to be hired in a number of poorly paying fall-back job options. However, those people would be better off getting a number of other quantitative degrees that would allow them to do similar work for much more money.

    I do agree that by admitting to students the cold-hard reality of the academic and government research job market, we run the risk of turning off someone who might otherwise have done well in the area.

    However, I'm arguing it's a better course of action than the one being pursued now.
  8. Feb 15, 2008 #7
    Students interested in a more quantitative discussion of this can find numerous well-defended papers on the internet. One I particularly like is Dr. Pion's take:


    This is just dealing with one area of our discussion of course, university hiring. However if you actually want to do astrophysics, then universities are one of the two big places you often see astrophysicists hired. Having a guess at what your chances of being hired are are important - and I would argue they're actually worse than what he states here. Remember, he's lumping lots of disciplines together, some of which are much hotter than astrophysics.

    If you want to get an astrophysics degree to teach at a two year college or do low level programming, then please go right ahead. I personally think you'll find those jobs harder to get than they sound, but there is some precedent for hiring physicists instead of engineers and programmers - often they're cheaper.

    On the other hand, if you want to actually work in astrophysics, you'd best have your game together, because your career options are limited, at best.
  9. Dec 15, 2009 #8
    I am a sophomore in high school, and I am very interested in the field of Astrophysics. One of the questions I get asked is, "What kind of jobs are there avaiblable for astrophysics?" And I never know fully what to say, but honestly, I don't care. I am such greatly interested that I just crave the knowledge, and further understanding the complex conundrum that is the Universe. I always thought that maybe as a "fall-back" I could get my teaching degree and because of my knowledge in mathematics that I could then just teach high school math or calculus or something else along those lines.
  10. Dec 15, 2009 #9
    As luck would have it, I know a professor that keep track of these sorts of things. There are about a dozen different careers that people have ended up doing, and they are quite diverse.

    I don't think there is an overproduction of physics Ph.D.'s. The problem is that people have this weird idea that all Ph.D.'s should turn into tenured research professors, and that's not going to work because of Malthusian pressures. If you get rid of those rather silly idea, then I'd argue that there isn't anywhere near an overproduction of Ph.D.'s.

    Ummmm... Astrophysics has huge industry connections. They aren't obvious, but they are there, and it's a big problem that Ph.D. students are more aware of what they are.

    And that's just not true. *IF* you have some minimal C++ programming experience, you can get a job that pays $70K-80K programming. Also there is finance where the starting salaries have been $100K-$120K. This is a bad year for hiring, but people are overworked, and the hiring freezes are being lifted. One other problem is that Ph.D. programs are *horrible* at providing students with career counseling and marketable skills. This is why it's really important that people go into graduate school with the *expectation* that they will not get a tenured faculty position, because if you go in with that attitude, you have a few years to learn how to write a resume and some basic programming skills.

    The thing about astronomy Ph.D.'s is that only 200-300 graduate each year, so that's not a huge number of jobs that you need to fill demand.

    FYI, the last time I went job hunting was three years ago. Of you go into industry then switching jobs every few years is something that you just have to get used to, and one thing that's *good* about a physics Ph.D. is that it's surprisingly easy to move to whatever the hot field of the day is.

    One other thing that is interesting if you look at the statistics is how few professors from *their* generation actually ended up with tenured faculty position. It was slightly better in the 1970's, but even then, the majority of physics Ph.D.'s didn't end up universities.

    One reason why I encourage students to give up any hope of being a university professor is that the world looks *SO* much better once you open up your horizons.

    I was lucky in that I got my dreams crushed early so that I had time to dream new dreams. I had to seriously unbrainwash myself.
  11. Dec 15, 2009 #10
    The problem is that everyone who goes into astrophysics "truly love their work" and one bit of brainwashing that I seriously had to fight was the idea that somehow I was being "disloyal" by not wanting the live a life of poverty, or that it was a seriously bad thing if I was interested in becoming something other than being a professor.

    If someone is going to be in school for seven years, then it may not be a bad thing if they are encouraged to take some business, education, CS, or law courses so that they can maximize the usefulness of their physics Ph.D. outside of academia. But somehow while bemoaning, the 'overproduction" of Ph.D.'s, people are also sending cultural messages that make it hard for people to pick up skills that would make their Ph.D. useful.

    The other thing is that I think it's a seriously bad thing when the curriculum decisions are made solely by tenured faculty.

    No they wouldn't, because

    1) I *like* astrophysics. It's fun, and we just *HAVE* to get rid of this idea that the university is some kind of goddamn vocational school, and

    2) it so happens that I just couldn't be doing my job as effectively if I had a non-physics degree. It so happens that the financial code that I run is pretty much *exactly* the same type of code that you find in astrophysics, and it's not that common to find it elsewhere. Certainly most CS majors never touch it.

    You also run into the problem that you end up with something that is financially unsustainable. All of the talk of limiting Ph.D.'s is just talk because without Ph.D.'s you don't have the cheap labor that you need to pay for the salaries of tenured faculty. If you want to reduce the number of Ph.D.'s, you can't do that without reducing the number of tenured faculty and that's a discussion that no one wants to have.

    But it's not going to work. No one says it publicly, but I think that everyone in academia subconsciously realizes what is going on, which is that without cheap graduate student labor, the whole system falls apart, and so reducing the number of Ph.D.'s is just not an option without having conversations that no one really wants to have.

    If we really want to reduce the numbers of astronomy Ph.D.'s, then fine, which departments do we shut down, and which senior faculty do we fire, and if you start shutting down departments, what I think you'll quickly find is that there is no equilibrium.

    Good grief. There are about tens of millions of workers in the United States, and some of the smartest people in the world can't figure out who to get 300 people a year gainfully employed. I think this is unreal.
  12. Dec 15, 2009 #11
    Absolutely. Companies hire physics Ph.D.'s because they work cheaper. But working cheaper doesn't mean poverty. A physics Ph.D. will do for $125K what a finance Ph.D. will want $300K to do, so seen from that point of view physics Ph.D.'s are a bargain.

    I should point out that this is a bad year. New Ph.D.'s aren't getting jobs in industry, because no one is getting jobs in industry, but things should be better next year.

    Personally, I think it's better if people stop thinking about academia as a career. If you want to teach astronomy, then you can moonlight as an adjunct instructor for the University of Phoenix (or if you don't have time for that you can hang out on physics bulletin boards and answer questions).

    One of the big mistakes that I made was that after I got my Ph.D., I was so angry that I let my professional contacts waste away, and had I played my cards differently, I would have *easily* been able to devote about 10-20 hours a week working on my computer code, and become a semi-professional astrophysicist. Personally, if you want to do astrophysics, I think that doing it semi-professionally is a lot more promising a route than doing straight academia.
  13. Dec 15, 2009 #12
    Also I do find that fresh Ph.D.'s go out into the market seriously unprepared for job hunting (i.e. no one has ever told them how to write a resume or cover letter), but I think this is a serious problem with Ph.D. education and an even more serious problem with some very dysfunctional attitudes within the scientific community. I think the one contribution that I can make is to give people "permission to think certain thoughts." If you go out for an MBA while you are getting your Ph.D., some people (most people) in academia will think of you as some sort of traitor, but at least I'll be thinking that you are doing what you should be doing.

    The other thing is that supply is very mismatched with demand as far as academia goes. The huge areas of demand are in community colleges and in adult education, and it's trivial to get an adjunct position in a CC or in University of Phoenix. However, it's really important to look at those positions as "semi-paid charity work" and not as something that will support a family.
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