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Determining the Right Degree

  1. Jan 7, 2017 #1
    Hello, I'm currently a junior in high school and I've been thinking about what I want to do for a while now. Since my freshman year I've wanted to go into astrophysics but, as you all know, that is far from uncommon. I plan on primarily pursuing astrophysics, but I don't want to graduate without any job prospects. As of right now my plan is to get a BSc. in Physics and a PhD. in astrophysics.

    Like I said earlier I'm worried about job prospects. This is not to say I'm going to abandon my plan purely because of it, but I do want to have an informed backup plan. I love, love, love math and I feel the same way towards physics. I know I definitely want to do something with math in my career and I'd really prefer the math didn't involve finance or accounting or something like that. I want to do something in science. As of right now my backup plan is to go into engineering (I know, not exactly a science, but I love the idea of seeing my work physically come into reality and it is predicated on both physics and math) but I'm not sure how feasible it is. Assuming the worst case scenario, I'll be nearing the end of or even finished with my PhD. and realize I simply don't cut it as an astrophysicist - what would I have to do to transfer into an engineering program/become a licensed engineer? How much more schooling would it require (I'm primarily concerned with tuition here)? Alternatively, what are some fields of physics with good prospects moving forward? Even if I do become a successful astrophysicist I'm worried about geographical freedom (I'm also slightly concerned about economic freedom, but it seems like astrophysicists make some pretty good money. Besides, most of my happiness comes from being around others and that doesn't require too much money - does it?)

    I know a lot of people say just pursue what you love but I think it would be stupid and naïve of me to not have some realistic backups. This is my first post to the forums (although I have lurked for quite a while) so if I did anything wrong just let me know. Thanks everyone!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 7, 2017 #2


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    Staff Emeritus
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    You need to figure out a way to include skills, and I mean practical skill, that can be of value elsewhere.

    There is an area of study that is called particle astrophysics. Now, you may think that I'm nuts trying to push two areas of study that are often associated with a career an academia, and thus, no better than doing astrophysics. But if you go into, say, the detector aspect of it, then you'll be also gaining skills in electronics and particle detection. You will be doing engineering to some extent, and these skills that you acquire will certainly have more viable applications outside of physics and astrophysics.

    I'm not saying that this is what you should go into, but this is what you need to look out for as an example. You may still pursue what you believe is something you strongly want to do, but you can still sprinkle it with relevant skills that may be of value later on. This is where choosing the appropriate graduate school, appropriate graduate advisor and research project will all matter in the level of skills and expertise that you will acquire by the time you complete your education. In fact, when you start college, if you indeed want to go into the area I gave an example above, try and focus early on with electronics classes if you are able to. This type of skill is seldom a waste of time, no matter what you finally go into.

  4. Jan 7, 2017 #3
    You are very wise for considering job prospects. A lot of people just do what they love, and they might end up with a nice PhD in the climatology of exo-planets, and nobody to hire them.

    First, it is important to realize your desires are subject to change. Yes, sure, you want to do an astrophysics PhD now. But that might change. You might suddenly deeply fall in love with something else. So keep your options open. Do not specialize to astrophysics immediately. Also do classes that might not be relevant immediately.

    Zz is right, it's about acquiring skills. So pick your classes wisely. You should definitely want to include classes that are more applied, such as electronics. Also consider programming classes. If you're good at programming, this will open up a lot of avenues in your PhD research and in jobs. This does not mean knowing a lot of programming languages, but being able to understand and apply the logic of it.
  5. Jan 7, 2017 #4
    That's actually exactly what I was looking for - a field of study where there's a real chance of a career in research but also fallbacks if it doesn't pan out. Do you have any idea what the prospects are for research jobs for particle astrophysics? I already know there are too many astro majors but is this one of the more demanded fields of astrophysics? If not, which ones are? Thanks for the response!
  6. Jan 7, 2017 #5
    Oh, I'm well aware my interests are likely to change. It's just that when it comes to something as important as college - my future - I want to have a plan and as of right now that plan is to pursue physics. I'll definitely be sure not to pigeonhole myself though. I already have a couple of deep interests outside of math/astronomy/physics (namely psychology and military history) but the days of polymaths died with von Neumann so I'm spending a lot of time trying to figure out what I enjoy most. Again though, I haven't completely shut out any topics in physics/math yet. It would be stupid if me - I haven't even really started learning about them! I mean, the furthest I've gotten in math is Calculus I AP and for physics I've still only taken Physics 1 AP which is Algebra based.

    Aside from electronics, what are some other good classes to take? Also, I've heard Python is a good language to pick up. I'm hoping to learn it this summer (if I get into a certain research program it's actually a part of the curriculum but the acceptance rate is 10% so...). Do you think a different language is better for an introduction to get a better grasp of the logic?

  7. Jan 8, 2017 #6


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    Assuming you're in the US, keep in mind that undergraduate physics degrees here are not specialized to the extent of particle astrophysics etc. No matter where you go for your undergraduate degree, you'll take more or less the same set of core subjects (classical mechanics, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, along with calculus, differential equations and linear algebra), and have a choice of electives for your junior and senior years. You'll get some research experience, which does not need to be in the field that you actually end up in when/if you go to graduate school; it's mainly to give you exposure to research so you can decide if you really like the process or not, and to allow some professors to observe you in depth so they can write well-informed letters of recommendation for you.

    As far as programming is concerned, the main thing at your current stage is to learn and become comfortable with the basic concepts and skills of programming in general, that apply regardless of the language. Python is a perfectly reasonable choice. So is C++. So is Java, although it's not as widely used in scientific programming; I think it's still widely used in intro programming courses in high school and college, so there are a lot of textbooks for it. Whichever one you end up starting with, learn how to program well in it before taking up other languages. You'll find that other languages will be much easier to pick up, after you're fluent in your first one.
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