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Going into Astrophysics (currently in 12th grade)

  1. Aug 31, 2012 #1
    Hello everyone!

    I'm currently in the 12th grade of H.S. ; starting September (here in Ontario, Canada). This means that in 3 months I'll be deciding what universities to apply for, what to do with my life etc.

    I've wanted to be an astrophysicist since I was 7. Ever since my teacher gave us a project about the solar system, it's all I've thought about and loved. I'm purely going into the field for passion, so any reference to money should be ignored (however read later on about my worry).

    I've read Greg's post on "So you want to be a physicist?". I just need to ask:

    It states that no matter what field of Physics you plan on going to, you will be required to know computer programming? => Does that mean I'll have to learn C++ this final year to ready myself for Uni?

    Anyway. The main point of this thread was to ask you guys (fellow physicist, astrophysicists, highschoolers like me) about the challenges of University and post-University life. I plan on eventually getting a PhD in my respected field and perhaps become a professor (although I postpone this one as long as possible). Working for the Canadian Space Agency seemed like a thought, however, after browsing their site it appears jobs are available to engineers, and not theorist.

    In that case, what kind of jobs are available as an astrophysicist? What will it be like? To go far in the field, do you have to be a mind boggling genius? It seems that throughout the past 10 years, I've been convinced that you have to be really smart to go into this field.

    I'm not REALLY SMART, however, I feel above-average when it comes to passion for what I want to do. Money isn't stopping me.. (that said, if I end up making $30,000/year in a physics-related career after grad school I'll be very confused).

    So to sum up, here are my questions:
    1) What will University life be like with all the math and physics courses?
    2) What should I do in advance to prepare myself for my career?
    3) Does one have to be extremely smart to get far into this field?
    4) What do employers look for?
    5) What job opportunities are available in astrophysics?

    Please note: I have already googled many of these questions, however, I want more than one source telling me a plausible answer.

    Thanks for reading this very lengthy post!

    EDIT: If it helps in anyway, I am taking Advanced Placement Calculus/Vectors/Functions, as well as Grade 12 Physics & Chemistry. Although G11 Enriched Physics seemed like a waste of time...
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 31, 2012 #2


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    No. At some point, programming skill will probably become very useful/helpful for research work especially, but you're not going to need it your first year in university. Just try to pick up a programming class or do some self-study with a good book at some point before you need it for research.
  4. Aug 31, 2012 #3


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    Hello. FWIW I'm doing my PhD in Astrophysics at University of Toronto, so feel free to ask any specific question about the program here, and I'll be happy to answer.

    You don't have to learn C++ to be ready for university. You can learn it there. But if you want to do a career in astrophysics/physics, programming will be a central part of your work. I'd recommend learning it as soon as you can. And learn a few languages too. Not just C++, but also python, matlab, and mathematica/maple.

    Lots and lots of work. When I did it, it felt like working two full time jobs. If you're passionate about it, you'll be fine, and if you're not you'll probably burn out quickly. You'll still have time to enjoy university life though. But learning how to manage your time effectively is very important.

    Well for now, learning to program would be a good start. Once in university, my recommendation would be to take advantage of research opportunities as much as you can! Also do well in your courses, of course.

    I wouldn't say you have to be "extremely smart". It helps of course, and you do have to be at least pretty smart. But hard work, passion and dedication are extremely important as well, when it comes to doing research.

    I haven't gone through the job search myself, so I'll leave the last two questions aside.
  5. Aug 31, 2012 #4
    UofT eh? I plan on going there next year for my undergrad. Interesting, I did not know programming would be a major part of being an astrophysicist. I'll have to start taking a look at programming... Would knowing PHP/HTML5/CSS3 help in the progress of learning it?

    If you don't mind I ask, did you do your undergraduate work at UofT? If so, which college did you apply for? Res or non-res? I'll have tons of more questions actually.

    I'm not a 'genius' but my grades are pretty average. My grade 11 avg was 86% (continous slacking for the first 6 months until my 1st set of exams). I'm aiming for a 95+ this year to get scholarships etc.

    I also want to do my PhD at UofT.... Would it be wise to go from Undergrad > Masters > PhD one after another? obviously I'll work.. but I hear working part-time and while at school is difficult.


    Okay. Will do. Scoping out some C++/Python courses around Toronto. Perhaps now would be a good time.
    Last edited: Aug 31, 2012
  6. Aug 31, 2012 #5
    The three major jobs right now that astrophysics Ph.D.'s find themselves in are:

    1) Wall Street investment banking (doing that)
    2) Oil/gas exploration (done that)
    3) Designing nuclear weapons (haven't done that)

    People also go into programming jobs. Now one warning is that things might be very, very different when you graduate. The way that I figure it is if I can figure out supernova collapses, I ought to be able to figure out the job market.

    Persistence is a ***lot*** more important than intelligence. If you are able to do advanced algebra or calculus right now, I wouldn't worry about the intelligence issues. You will have to get used to working with people that are a lot smarter than you are, which is a shock if you were top in your class in high school.

    For 2), I would suggest not totally focusing on physics. One thing that helped me a lot was to read about history, philosophy, literature, and other humanities in college. The reason for this is that a good liberal arts background gives you general skills that can be useful in job hunting.

    I can tell you what job opportunities exist now. However, that information will likely be useless to you sense the world will change in the next decade. Trying to figure out how the world will change is something you need to figure out for yourself which is why history is important.

    Also, as a general rule, I've found that employers are looking for people that will make them money. So I've also found that reading a lot in marketing, economics, psychology, politics, will help figure out what an employer is looking for (and each employer is different). The other thing that I've found important in general communications and sales skills.

    The thing that I think would be good general advice is that there will be huge pressures on you to study only your major, and one reason things turned out well for me is that I resisted those pressures. The part of my brain that makes me interested in astrophysics makes me interested in a thousand other things, and staying curious has been useful.

    One problem with advice to "do X" is that you have to ask yourself what happens if everyone does X. If I tell you to study python, you'd expect lots of people to do that, and you have to think about what happens if everyone does that. For example, if I tell you to "be curious and study things" and everyone in the world is curious, then good things will happen. If I tell you to "study stochastic differential equations" and everyone does that, then this will overwhelm the jobs available.

    If you get bored in your classes, you can look at OpenCourseWare for more stuff.
  7. Aug 31, 2012 #6

    Hm. Reading this thread makes me wonder if Astrophysics is what I thought it'd be. What happened to space stuff, learning about stars, supernovae etc? I don't want to do any of those you listed.. I want to research about the universe.. :bugeye:
  8. Aug 31, 2012 #7


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    I found it to be quite challenging, but I wouldn't have been happy if I hadn't challenged myself. The hardest part for me was guessing how much time certain problem sets or assignments would take. Sometimes I got them done quickly. Others dragged out for days.

    Astrophysics isn't a career the way airline pilot is. It's not a matter of obtaining the right set of qualifications and then you set out on a path. It's academic and no one can tell you what problems are going to be hot or what skills are going to be in high demand ten years from now. I would suggest reading a lot. Volunteer for research opportunities if and when you can - and they don't have to be astrophysics opportunities either. Make friends with other like-minded people.

    It certainly doesn't hurt. But in my experience, once you get over a certain intellectual threshold (defined vaguely as being smart enough to get the marks you need to get into graduate school), other factors tend to play a more significant role in your success. Many of these factors you have little-to-no control over such as whether your PhD topic goes hot or cold when you finish, how much money federal granting agencies decide to give out in a certain year, what cities your significant other is happy living in, etc.
  9. Sep 1, 2012 #8
    Lots of people telling me to volunteer whenever I can. I'll try my best.

    For a PhD.. you are basically researching and proving something to a committee who then grant you your PhD? I met a person not to long ago who told me basically her 4 years to spent to prove something to a bunch of people in a room (not just any people).

    1) How do you know what to 'pick' ?
    2) What happens if you can't prove anything?
  10. Sep 1, 2012 #9

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    1. Your advisor helps you.
    2. If you can't prove anything, you don't graduate. If your project isn't working out, hopefully you realize that before the last day and switch to something else.
  11. Sep 2, 2012 #10
    Interesting.. thanks.
  12. Sep 2, 2012 #11
    One criterion for getting the Ph.D. is that you go in front of a committee of people that are the acknowledged experts in a field, and you have to convince them that you know more about some topic than they do.

    "Prove" is a strong word. You have to discover something original. Now this original thing might be that something doesn't work. For example, I spent five years trying to study the impact of convective energy transfer in supernova, and my conclusion was that convective energy transfer has no impact on the explosion. (Yes, I know that convection and supernova is still a very active field of research, but if you look at the papers, they don't propose that simple energy transfer will help the explosions which is why it's all done in 2/3-d.)

    "This doesn't work" is a result.
  13. Sep 2, 2012 #12
    Also it's likely that you'll have to switch your topic two or three times before finishing. In my situation I started with the hopes of calculating how the "hot bubble" model of supernova explosions affected the creation of elements. It turns out that one year into my dissertation, no one (including me) could reproduce the "hot bubble" model, so it then become an issue of trying to simulate mixing.
  14. Sep 2, 2012 #13
    One thing that you should do is do undergraduate research. That gives you an idea of what astrophysics is. It might turn you off. It might turn you on. One thing about astrophysics is that I find the "political" parts of astrophysics to be fascinating. Trying to convince Congress that they should spend $X billion dollars to study Y is part of astrophysics that I find cool.

    The thing that I find cool is when you find connections that are unexpected.

    It turns out that the equations for calculating neutrino transfer in supernova happen to be pretty much the same equations as calculating the behavior of stocks and other financial assets.

    Also a lot of studying supernova involves doing lots of high performance computations. If you go to a computer manufacturer, and tell them that you want new chips to study supernova, they are going to ask you how much money they can make from this, and it turns out to be very small. However, it turns out that there are millions of people that want to play Diablo III, and so computer chip makers are churning out faster chips for that.

    Now it turns out that the equations for making realistic video games involve a lot of physics, and so when computer manufacturers turn out a ton of compute power so that the blood splatters looks realistic when you shoot a demon, this benefits science. It's the same equations.

    One thing that you could do if you are interested in computational astrophysics is to build your own gaming platform, and get super familiar with how CPU/GPU's work at the hardware level.
  15. Sep 2, 2012 #14
    If you're familiar with "The Periodic Table of Elements" channel on YouTube (scientists from Nottingham University do cool things), a graduate student completely deleted his PhD thesis and started from scratch (he was very close to finishing). So these things are expected.

    What are the chances of totally impressing the committee and being granted money to do more on the topic? I'm assuming after a person get's their PhD they move onto other things?

    Another question: You are given 4+ years to gather evidence, make charts/graphs and write it all up. Do potential PhD's succumb to the evilness of procrastination?

    Actually, video games do not interest me at all. Good thought tho.

    What is the likelyhood of me (or anyone) working on things purely astronomical and not programs/computers?
  16. Sep 2, 2012 #15


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    I think you need to come to the realization that funding for astrophysics is very limited. If you want to learn about it up through the PhD level, that's fine. Just be prepared to do something else for a living. The odds are very much against you. This is what two-fish is getting at, I think.

    If you want to do a physics PhD and continue doing science for life, you have substantially better chances in the field of, say, condensed matter.

    Also, I think, computational skills are almost a necessity in astrophysics. They are certainly a near-necessity in most of modern theoretical physics.

    4 years is short to finish a PhD. I am in grad school at a close-to-top school. The median exit time is 5.5 years. If you procrastinate, it is likely to take more, if you finish at all. Graduate school is not for the faint of heart. It is both the hardest and yet most satisfying thing I've done in my life.
  17. Sep 3, 2012 #16
    Why condensed matter?

    I understand computational skills are required... I began learning C++ yesterday and am in the process of writing a program that will quiz you and give you a final result... sounds easy but it's a challenge since I just started.

    My ultimate goal is to get a Ph.D.. really all I want to do is do something related to space and physics. This thread has opened my eye a bit about the reality of it all.
  18. Sep 3, 2012 #17


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    Condensed matter is a booming field. It has more applications. People are more willing to fund it.

    Because of this:
    More academic positions are available
    More national labs are hiring in this field
    It is in larger demand in industry.

    Thus you are more likely to continuing work in science because people are willing to pay money for your technical skills AND scientific knowledge. In other fields (particularly high energy physics and astrophysics), the science is in much less demand. This means although you will get a well-paying job, it is because people are likely to want to pay for your technical skills (likely to be computational) and not your scientific knowledge and your skills
  19. Sep 3, 2012 #18
    What other fields besides this?

    Also: NGT (Neil deGrasse Tyson) one stated in a talk show that there are roughly 8,000 astrophysicists (or something like that) in the world.

    If this were true, wouldn't job availability and demand for it be higher?

    One can only assume it's not true?
  20. Sep 3, 2012 #19


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    I started off doing research in particle astrophysics. I stopped because I wanted to continue work in science later and knew I wasn't good enough to continue work in particle astrophysics. I discovered I really, really like condensed matter!

    My suggestion is to get your feet wet in an undergraduate program and see how you like it. I think you will discover that physics has a multitude of fun areas to do work in.
  21. Sep 3, 2012 #20
    This 'discovery' came during University yes? I'm assuming going into the 12th grade I won't fall inlove with anything, in fact, given who my teacher is I'll end up hating it all.

    Jokes aside, define 'good enough'.
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