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Physics Realistic expectations to become an astrophysicist

  1. Dec 3, 2016 #1
    Hi I'm 27 years old, and planning to return to university as a mature student to study physics/astrophysics as major. I have gone through websites, reading materials, articles, and I have not found any satisfactory answers for the job descriptions of an astrophysicist. So what to expect to be an actual astrophysicist ?(Usually some people daydream of finding a new planet, or discovering a new thing and getting world famous in a single day, but I would like to know how the job would be in reality). My second question is 'Is it possible for a mature student/non traditional student to become a researcher in physics or astrophysics?'. And the next question is 'Can people find jobs in astrophysics field by completing masters degree without doing Phd?' I am thinking of studying upto master's, then find a job on the same topic, and would be doing a Phd as a part time.
    And my last question is 'What is the difference between astrophysicist, theoretical astrophysicist and cosmologist, and what are their job nature?'.

    I can tell that I have the scientific curiosity, I enjoy science and my interest is in science so I want to be realistic, to achieve this dream. I dont want this to pursue this as a hobby, but to follow this as my career. I am not complaining, but most of the people I met indirectly discourage my idea of pursuing my studies. Please clarify my chances.
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  3. Dec 3, 2016 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    I read this, and I thought "Great!" there was someone here a few months ago who asked very similar questions in this thread. I'll just point him there. Then I saw the person who posted that thread was you.

    Sadly, asking the same question over and over is not a characteristic common to successful students in the sciences.
  4. Dec 3, 2016 #3
    PhD part-time? You either apply for a job as a technician, or get a PhD. With a PhD you can get a job as a scientist. Contracts last two to four years, because after that the grand money has dried up. This means you won't suffer age discrimination like you would when applying for a permanent position.
  5. Dec 3, 2016 #4
    If you have independent income streams, you can become any kind of scientist you want.

    Earning a living at it is a dicier deal.
  6. Dec 3, 2016 #5


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    Let me add another hopefully related question.
    If someone studies for a degree in Astrophysics, does he somewhere along the pathway, function as a technician, and may he find a job (for pay) as a technician?
  7. Dec 4, 2016 #6
    I didn't ask the same questions, they are totally different questions.
  8. Dec 4, 2016 #7
    Sorry i dont understand what you mean, so for a scientist, is it not possible for him to survive with the earnings he get? If so then how do scientists without other income survive?
  9. Dec 4, 2016 #8
    The issue is that training in certain branches of science is more likely to lead to a job than other branches of science. For example, within physics, if you specialize in semiconductor or optical physics, there are positions available with manufacturers of semiconductor or optical devices. But if you specialize in astrophysics or string theory, the number of positions in the immediate field are much more limited; alternatively, you leverage the skills you have acquired and apply them to a different field to earn income. But if your heart and soul are set on a life-long career as an astrophysicist or string theorist, you'd better be among the elite (exceptions always apply), unless you have other income to support you.
  10. Dec 4, 2016 #9


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    You're not likely to find much in the way of a job description because a lot of what astrophysicists do depends on the particular problems they are researching and the stage of their careers. Most astrophysicists work in academia: i.e. they are professors. Typically this involves both teaching at the undergraduate and graduate level as well as doing research and other administrative duties (sitting on various committees). For tenured professors the research is largely self-directed and funded by grants that the professor is expected to obtain - so a great deal of time and energy goes into preparing grant applications. In fact, once a professor's teaching obligations are done, the grants are applied for, the committee work is done, the graduate students and post-docs are all met with and moving in the right direction, there actually isn't as much time left over for personal research that one might think - unfortunately. There's also not an insignificant amount of time that goes into writing papers, preparing talks, acting as a journal referee, and general reading to keep up with the field.

    And that's if and when you get to be a professor. You have to go through undergrad (4 years), graduate school (another ~ 6 years), and post-doctoral positions (4-6 years), and THEN you get to apply for a tenure track position. And even then you're not guaranteed tenure. You have to go through ~ 5 years as an assistant professor, after which time the university can still let you go.

    So a master's degree in astrophysics is not going to get you very far in that race I'm afraid.

    Sure. Your chances are not really any worse than for anyone else. But just remember, they're quite low for everyone. At lease as far as "mature" student goes. I don't know what you mean by "non-traditional." There are a lot of other bigger things to worry about than your age. It might be a slight disadvantage. It might also be a slight advantage - mature students tend to be a little more focused and sometimes relate a little better to their professors. There are enough obstacles in front of you that you don't have to make your age another one.

    As mentioned above, there are not a lot of jobs in astrophysics to begin with. Since most of them are university positions, they'll require a PhD. And even if a PhD is not required - there are a lot more PhD graduates than there are jobs - so you'll be competing against a pool of applicants who have PhDs. With an MSc, you might be able to find work as a research assistant for a given project somewhere, but that typically won't be a career-type job.

    Why would you aim to do the PhD part time? A PhD is very difficult to do on a part-time basis. Remember that PhD students are usually supported by some kind of stipend or research assistanceship or teaching assistanceship.

    The difference really lies in the problems that they work on. It's not like a profession where you have to pass a credential examination to adopt a legally recognized title. An "astrophysicist" is someone who works within an astrophysics group, usually within a department of physics. A "cosmologist" is someone within that group that works on cosmology problems. Sometimes the department might me organized in a different way - the cosmologist might be part of a "theoretical physics" group.

    EDIT: Sorry an earlier version of this post had a couple dragon pictures attached to it. That was just a copy and paste error from my kids playing around. Nothing wrong with dragons - just not relevant to the discussion.
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2016
  11. Dec 5, 2016 #10
    Thank you. One of the best explanation.
  12. Dec 5, 2016 #11

    thanks a lot for answering all my questions.. So is there a way to get into government agencies for research? I mean ESA, NASA, kind of agencies..
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2016
  13. Dec 5, 2016 #12


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    I'm sure there is. I wouldn't count on it as a career choice though. I suspect the number of astrophysicists such agencies employ is quite small. They likely employ a lot more engineers and technicians.
  14. Dec 6, 2016 #13
    thats not a problem.

    So typically what are the qualities university look into the Phd graduates to give him/her a position in their university? And what are the qualities should be obtained through out the degree for a astrophysics student?
  15. Dec 6, 2016 #14
    Also keep in mind that government agencies are likely to have citizenship requirements for employees, further limiting opportunities in this sector.
  16. Dec 6, 2016 #15


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    If you're talking about a tenure-track position, it's not unheard of to have hundreds of applicants. Because the market is saturated, being selected is not so much a function of being hard-working enough, or smart enough. Out of those hundreds, most will be very smart and very hard-working just to be in a position to apply. To make the "short list" typically the search and selection committees will be looking for:
    1. Evidence of outstanding research productivity. This is typically measured by the quality and quantity of your publications, although details depend on the specific field.
    2. Demonstrated ability to bring in grant money.
    3. Particular details of the research you do, how it fits into the existing framework of the department, and the department's long term vision. So, for example you could be spectacular at general relativity simulations, but if the department either has too many people working in that area you go to the bottom of the list. Similarly, if the department doesn't have anyone else working in their astrophysics group that has a lot of overlap with what you do - bottom of the list again. It's similar if the department or hiring committee doesn't see the opportunity for growth in your area of expertise.
    4. Excellence in teaching.
    5. Professional service (i.e. evidence you can work well on a committee).
    As you obtain an education in astrophysics, it's important to obtain a skill set that you can use outside of academia.
  17. Dec 6, 2016 #16

    George Jones

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    A necessary (but not sufficient) condition is a research publication track record.
  18. Dec 8, 2016 #17
    Thanks for the explanation. So if a person gets accepted into a Phd position, is it possible to afford himself/herself with the stipend given by the university? And will the stipend continue for the whole Phd duration?

    Is this applicable to all around the world? And what are the best countries around the globe that supports well on research in astrophysics? I am assesing on few countries in europe(germany, sweden, netherlands, france), UK and U.S to study.
  19. Dec 8, 2016 #18


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    Generally it's enough money to live off of if you live a pretty simple lifestyle and don't have any dependents. Details vary depending on the school and the local cost of living. And the support is usually not indefinite. Most school will only guarantee the funding for so many years, but in most cases students can finish in that time. And when they can't, alternative funding is often available.

    Well my experience is primarily in Canada, but my understanding is that it's true in most "first world" countries. Others may have more input on which countries are the better ones.
  20. Dec 9, 2016 #19

    Thanks a lot for the clear explanations.
  21. Dec 10, 2016 #20
    (a) With respect to funding/financial support in the US, refer to this recent thread and the reference cited within:


    (b) The stipend is not guaranteed for the entirety of the your PhD program. In particular, once you are accepted into a thesis research program for your dissertation, you are typically funded via your advisor's research grants. There are occasions in which an advisor runs out of research grant funds (e.g, existing grants expire, but new proposals get rejected). I've known several grad students in that situation. What happens then is very case specific. If you are within several months of finishing, e.g., and the department has discretionary reserve funds, the department may come up with funds. In other instances, you may need to revert to a teaching assistantship for support. That will keep you going, but your teaching responsibilities, of course, will take time away from your research.

    (c) US universities readily provide funding/financial support for non-US citizens. For other countries, you should check whether funding/financial support is available for non-citizens.
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