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Major - Physics, Astrophysics?

  1. May 22, 2008 #1
    I am a junior in high school; and I have enjoyed Physics as well as math very much throughout my three years of high school. Very soon, I will have to know my major and the schools i wish to apply to( have to know by next week).

    When I looked at colleges, I saw that they listed Astrophysics and Physics as two distinct majors. I thought astrophysics was a branch of physics just like condensed matter or nuclear physics that you decided to study in graduate school. However, astrophysics appears to be something you declare your freshman year. I thought one declares himself a physics major, then you go into "more" narrower path such as astrophysics in graduate school.

    Anyway, my first concern is, Astrophysics or Physics? I can experience Physics, but i cannot experience astrophysics.

    This Saturday will be the first time I am going to the observatory... hopefully this will help me decide my major.

    If I declared astrophysics, would it be an easy transition to physics major because it appears astrophysics is ALL of the physics major plus astronomy courses. Is astrophysics more math rigorous(i love math)?

    If I declared physics, how would the transition be to an Astrophysics major? Can I always do astrophysics in graduate school?

    I am looking for serious opinions and advice.

    If this helps any bit, I read about Brian Greene and Michio Kaku; they deal with things from the micro to the macro but they appear to study what i really long for(such as string theory). They are both physicists, and not astrophysicists but appear to take the role of both as they explain everything from the macro to the micro.

    It seems if I declare Astrophysics, I simply chisel my name on a rock that never withers. However, if I declare physics, It seems I can go from string theory and all the way to astrophysics.

    I will try to add some more information soon... I am really in a deadlock right now.

    Please help :(
  2. jcsd
  3. May 22, 2008 #2
    Does your University or School allow for Duel Majors?

    Either way the two are probably very similar in terms of core classes (ie physics 101) so you can probably arbitrarily pick one major and not worry about switching until you have had time to explore both.

    I started out as a Computer Science major and switch the middle of my second year to math, and I didn't have to worry about making up so many classes because both majors allowed for electives, and had similar core classes.
  4. May 22, 2008 #3
    At my school Astrophysics is a special major within the Physics and Astronomy department. An astrophysics major would take the same core courses as a physics major + one earlier astrophysics class, and then upper level seminars they would take some physics and some astro. So I think if you start in astrophysics its pretty easy to switch over the physics (astrophysics, after all, is just applying physics to the macro scale that is the universe). I believe it is also relatively easy to go from physics to astrophysics, albeit a little more difficult than the other way around. I wouldn't worry about ti too much now
  5. May 22, 2008 #4
    How about math difficulty, which is more math "rigorous"? I plan to take extra math courses when possible.

    Yes, the school I wish to attend does offer dual majors. If I were to dual major, I would probably not dual in astrophysics and physics, but rather astrophysics and math or physics and math.

    Also, the sources that describe astrophysicists all seem contradictory. One source says astrophysics is a branch of Astronomy while the other one was astrophysics is a branch of physics but just including astronomy.
  6. May 22, 2008 #5
    The ambiguity that you describe seems very common and I have had some confusion with it as well. At my school I am majoring in physics with a concentration in astrophysics, which basically means I take a bunch of astronomy courses along with my physics curriculum. As far as I know, I am taking every physics course that a plain physics major would take, as well as every math course. In fact, I am planning on double majoring with math.

    Now from what I understand, astronomy, astrophysics, and physics are all basically the same thing in undergrad (perhaps you could even throw math in there). I think the main difference would come in grad school. Physics and astronomy will differ in obvious ways; however, astrophysics and astronomy are interchangeable in present terms. I think years ago astronomy was a bit different then astrophysics, but in present day I do not think there is any difference.

    In undergrad I think that comp sci, math, physics (astro or not), all follow a relatively similar curriculum and in the case of astrophysics/physics almost identical. In fact, one of my astronomy professors did a bachelors in math and a phd in astronomy. And whenever someone asks me what I am majoring I pretty much cycle through the following depending on how I am feeling. Physics, Astrophysics, Astronomy.
  7. May 22, 2008 #6
    How much extra math courses do you have to take per semester for the math degree? I am considering the same.

    Also! There is no such major called "Astronomy" in the university i wish to attend. Yet, they have a "Physics and Astronomy Department." Why not just call it "Physics and Astrophysics Department."
    Last edited: May 22, 2008
  8. May 22, 2008 #7
    At my school if you major in physics you only need to take 2 additional math courses to get a double major in math. You would have to check with your school, but physics requires alot of math so it isn't a stretch to double major with math.

    It is the same way at my school as to what you mentioned above. There is a Physics and Astronomy department yet no astronomy major. Haha that is a good question, but like I said astronomy and astrophysics are interchangeable.

    And as I mentioned earlier one nice thing about majoring in astrophysics is you have alot of options of telling people what you are doing. If you feel like impressing someone tell them you are majoring in astrophysics. If you don't feel like impressing someone and want to look relatively normal tell them you are majoring in physics. If you want to feel under appreciated and look weird tell them you are majoring in astronomy.
  9. May 23, 2008 #8


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    Yes I only did astronomy to impress women at parties - it didn't work.
    Even if you do an astronomy degree you can still say it is physics on a CV, as someone above said it's only a few courses that differ.

    Astrophysics is a subset of astronomy or physics, on the other hand since everything is 'either physics or stamp collecting' you could say they are all just physics.
    A lot of depts are adding a couple of courses on stellar structure and calling the degree astrophysics in order to attrack students when applicants to physics (and any science classes) are falling.
  10. May 23, 2008 #9
    Well, I simply have to decide now.. broad field of Physics, or narrow it down from the beginning to Astrophysics? I do not know which I like better.

    Comparing the two curricula of Astrophysics and Physics,
    1st year is the same
    2nd year - two courses are slightly different
    3rd and 4th year vary by 2-3 courses as well

    I have just found out that the university offers a minor in Astronomy.

    I've never even been to an observatory, and hopefully I am not disappointed when I go this Saturday.

    I look at Michio Kaku and Brian Greene and they evidently are great physicists; but I never really hear about great astrophysicists or famous astronomers. This is what makes me reconsider Astrophysics... It seems if I go in the Astrophysics direction, I will be screwing myself in the end to and lose the potential If I instead majored in simply Physics.
  11. May 23, 2008 #10


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    I don't think you're "screwing yourself" either way. I specialized in astrophysics in undergrad and switched over to medical physics in graduate school. As long as your program is recognized as an honours physics program that covers all the core elements needed to get into grad school, you'll be fine.

    It also sounds like you're fretting over semantics. There are lots of great "astrophysicists" and "astronomers" and if you look at their backgrounds, all they really needed was a solid foundation in physics... or patent clerkship.
  12. May 23, 2008 #11

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    First, if you are a junior in high school, you don't have to "simply decide now". No college in the universe requires you to declare a major a year and a half before you show up.

    Second, when you look at Greene and Kaku, understand you are looking at a small set of physicists who are most famous for writing popularizations. This is a very biased sample. Had you been born in your parent's generation, you would be talking about an astronomer, Carl Sagan, and would have a hard time coming up with a physicist.

    Third, most astronomy and astrophysics graduate students come in with a degree in physics. The standard graduate curriculum assumes you have the equivalent undergraduate preparation as a BS in physics. You won't burn any bridges majoring in physics and going on to astrophysics in grad school. The reverse is less true. In general, the system is set up so one starts out general and specializes later.
  13. May 23, 2008 #12
    Agreed. Which is not to say avoid those astro classes, take them all just make sure on paper it reads as B.S. Physics. To insiders, they know that the undergrad astrophysics degree is the union of physics and astronomy, but outsiders will see it as the intersection, and thus perceive you as being overly specialized and then sadly you'll be unemployable outside of academia. Perception is everything.
  14. May 23, 2008 #13
    I do think you are getting a bit caught up in semantics like stated above. There are a lot of great astronomers out there.

    I guess I would have to agree with Vanadium and David. There is no reason you can not do a degree in physics and specialize once you get to grad school instead of "specializing" in undergrad (even though its not really much of a specialization). I still don't think it would hurt you to major, in undergrad, in astrophysics and end up changing your specialization within physics later (I do not have any experience with this though).

    The only reason I decided to do astrophysics was because I wanted to take some astronomy courses and stay sane. First year physics courses can be a bit dull...
  15. May 23, 2008 #14
  16. May 24, 2008 #15
    Thanks for the all the replies.
  17. May 24, 2008 #16
    If you want to be like Michio Kaku or Brian Greene, then major in physics. Brian Greene and Michio Kaku are Theoretical Physicists, not Astronomers/Astrophysicists. Astrophysicists/Astronomers don't really study string theory, they either teach at universities or work at observatories. If you're interested in string theory/quantum mechanics/quantum gravity, then physics is the way to go.
  18. May 24, 2008 #17
    at my undergraduate institution most of the people who do physics ph.d.s specialize in nanotechnology! String Theory is one tiny sliver of physics. If I wanted to understand solid state physics, I think I would still major in physics.
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