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Questions About Becoming an Astrophysicist or Astronomer

  1. Jul 30, 2014 #1


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    Hi, I am a recent high school graduate, and my whole life I have been interested in astronomy. I have always stared in marvel at the night skies and read various books about constellations, etc. When my parents bought a telescope, that only spiked my interest further! I have, also, gained an interest in physics throughout high school. Of course, this lead to my interest in astrophysics and astronomy.

    Because of my interest in becoming an astrophysicist, I have been studying physics independently and keeping an astronomy journal of my various observances of celestial bodies/events with my telescope. My reasoning for doing so has been to make sure that my interest didn't subside (to avoid switching majors in school).

    Anyway, I have a couple of questions. Please bear with me. :)

    1. With the information that I provided, do you think that I should study astrophysics or astronomy? I know that are closely related, but (to my understanding) astronomers do more of the observation and astrophysicists do more analytical work. I, personally, want to be able to observe AND analyze. Is that any way to do this?

    2. Are the two fields both practical in terms of salary. No, I'm not in it for the money. Please don't get that impression of me. What I mean is: Can I make a living of of these degrees without having to live paycheck to paycheck?

    3. Is a PhD useless? I want to go for a PhD, but I have read other forum posts that they are a waste of time. That kind of discourages me, but I wouldn't want to waste my time doing something that isn't needed.

    4. What jobs are available to you besides being a professor (with and without PhD), and how hard is it to work with NASA? I heard the amount of jobs in astrophysics versus the competition makes it hard to get jobs in that area. Apparently, that causes most astrophysicists go into engineering.

    5. As for schooling: as far as I understand you go to school for physics and get your bachelors degree. Then, you go to graduate school where you focus on a specific field. Is that correct? Also, I heard that graduate school is usually paid for if you become a professor. How does that work?

    6. Is there any way I can tour NASA, a school, an institution, etc. to look at their labs and speak with astrophysicists/astronomers? Also, are there any of you who currently work or study as an astrophysicist or astronomer who could to speak with me more about what you do, so I can gain a deeper understanding?

    Thank you for your time! Even an answer to just one of these questions would be great! :)
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 30, 2014 #2


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    1) You would be hard pressed to find a pure astronomy major these days. Most everybody in astronomy is actually in astrophysics. You need physics to be able to analyze almost all of the results in astronomy. When applying for school, I was unable to find any that offered a degree in astronomy.

    2) See point 1) above. There are almost no pure astronomers out there, so I don't think they derive much of a salary.

    3) PhD is very useful if you want to pursue astrophysics as a career. But you still have time to figure out what you want to do.

    4) Astrophysics has some job prospects outside of academia. But to be honest, most people work in an academic institution of some sort, or otherwise other research institutes. But of course, you can branch out. You don't have to stick with pure astrophysics, as you may find your interest shifting to other areas of physics or sciences.

    5) There are some schools that offer astrophysics degrees. But in grad school you will focus down even more, in e.g. astro-particle physics, or cosmology, or more likely focus down to even just 1 or 2 specific open problems that you will work on your thesis for. Graduate school is usually paid for if you become a PhD candidate. Most master's programs will not pay for you. A PhD candidate usually has his tuition paid through either a scholarship, or being a teaching assistant or a graduate student researcher.

    6) Yes, just look at their respective websites. Most universities have special tours that you can attend. If you want to focus on the physics areas, you can also ask about it.
  4. Jul 30, 2014 #3


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    Thanks for the reply! It was very informative! Just one last question:

    By "PhD candidate", do you mean I apply to be considered to have my tuition paid? Sorry for my ignorance on the subject.
  5. Jul 30, 2014 #4


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    You can apply for graduate school for a Master's or PhD degree. If you apply for the full PhD degree, they usually will give you funding options if you are accepted.

    By the way, this thread probably more belongs in the academic guidance or career guidance forums than here. This forum is for questions about the subject itself.
  6. Jul 30, 2014 #5


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    Ah, gotcha! Sorry, I'm a newbie (if that wasn't obvious). Thanks again for the help!
  7. Aug 1, 2014 #6


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    1. There's really no difference between these fields anymore. It just comes down to what you study and what it's traditionally been called. All astronomers / astrophysicists need to be able to take observations, reduce data, do computer modeling, some theory, a lot of math, and so on.

    2. Science won't make you rich, but most scientists live comfortably.

    3. A PhD is pretty much required to work in astronomy. There are very few jobs in the field, and almost all of them require a PhD, especially if you want to do research.

    4. Most astronomers work for colleges and universities; that's where the jobs are. Not all of them teach, but most will. You can also work for observatories or organizations like NASA, ESO, Max Planck, etc. No job in astronomy is easy to get, and those for NASA tend to pay better than colleges, but most astronomers would rather work for a college or university (more leeway in when you work and where you work).

    5. Grad school in the sciences is free if you teach classes and/or do research for your department while in grad school. This is regardless of future job (and you don't have to pay them back if you drop out).

    6. NASA centers are not open to visitors (except the visitor center) so you'd need to know someone who works there to get in. Colleges/universities would be happy to give you a tour of their facilities.
  8. Aug 25, 2016 #7
    I just want to say that I'm really glad I came across this info. I'm a neuro nurse of 5 years that has sustained enough injuries to take me away from bedside nursing. This has given me the opportunity to revisit my high school dreams of astrophysics and working for NASA figuring out the deep cosmology questions!
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