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What do astrophysicists do?

  1. Sep 21, 2014 #1
    First off I'm sorry for making another one of these threads even though I know many have been made. However most of the threads I have read deal with attacking the OP's naivety or attacking the OP's obsession with money. Instead I was hoping that some people working in the field can explain to me what it is they actually do and if they are happy with joining this field because that is what's more important to me.
    One concern I'm having is whether or not I have the aptitude to work in this field. I work terribly hard and make good grades(usually Bs with occasional As). My question is at some point in upper division course study will effort be enough? I'm not saying I'm dumb but I know they're many other people who are smarter than me that I will be competing against in graduate school and beyond. Thank you for taking the time for reading and replying I greatly appreciate it.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 9, 2016 #2
    I am not an Astrophysicist but have basic ideas about what they do. There must be many more experts in this forum who will give you better inputs. Roughly an Astrophysicist is involved in study of heavenly bodies. One needs to work in research laboratory dedicated to such studies. Needless to say that these labs/ observatory are expensive to set up so they are very few in number. One needs to have solid foundation in Physics and Maths apart from other qualifications. Above all I feel one needs to be extremely patient , should be ready to face the usual pitfalls and dedicated to the work.
  4. Aug 10, 2016 #3
    I'm also not an astrophysicist, but I have worked with some and I can say that having some background in computation is very helpful. i.e. computational physics, coding, model making, etc.
  5. Aug 10, 2016 #4


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    I am an astrophysicist. I majored in physics and astronomy in college, then earned a PhD in physics at a university with a combined physics/astronomy department. Looking back, I'm glad I did that. In my experiences applying for and interviewing for jobs, they always assume a physicist can do astronomy, but they never assume an astronomer can do physics. Having the PhD in physics gave me far more options when it came to applying for jobs, even ones where I'm doing astronomy anyway (such as my current position as a professor of physics, doing research in astrophysics and teaching the odd astrophysics course with a lot of physics courses).

    I work in both the observational and computational parts of the field. My university has no useful telescope, and that's true for most schools. You can apply for time on most telescopes, satellites, and observatories, and work with larger collaborations that do own telescopes. That's how I get my data. I used to actually spend weeks at a time at observatories in the middle of nowhere, but I was one of the few who did that, and I don't do that anymore. Most of my work is done sitting at a computer. Computer science skills (programming, Linux, etc) are a must for this field, pretty much everyone needs to be competent in programming. Actually running a telescope or instrument, not so much anymore. I spend my time teaching, doing some research, go to 1-2 conferences (in the US or abroad) each year, maybe take 1-2 trips to work with collaborators each year, and I typically accept one invitation per year to review grants for a large funding agency. I also review papers for journals, typically a few per year. Oh, and university committees. That's never-ending, and takes up far more of my time than I anticipated. Most astronomers work for universities and colleges these days.

    As far as grades go, I had a pretty constant 3.7 from high school through college and grad school, and was not the most competitive applicant by far. If you're working really hard and still only making B's, you might have to see how college goes for you before considering graduate school. In grad school, anything below a B is considered failing, and I really struggled to make B's in some of my graduate courses. Graduate level physics is neither easy nor intuitive (but necessary).

    Do I like my job? I love it. But I got lucky. I live in a beautiful area not far from where I grew up, some family nearby, nearby cities but not living in a very urban environment, lots of other people around in similar situations. My university pays far above the average and doesn't require I earn millions of dollars in grant money to keep my job. I really enjoy teaching, and it's most of my job these days. But there are very few jobs in the field, so you tend to take whatever offer you get, no matter where you end up living. You end up with very little choice as to where you'll live (even in terms of the country sometimes!) depending on your specific field and whether or not you're the superstar in your field (I'm certainly not). Keep that in mind if you're going into a very small competitive field like astrophysics. Fortunately, if I get sick of it or want/need to move at some point, a PhD in physics is a very employable degree.
  6. Aug 12, 2016 #5
    Eri, I am so happy that I read your reply. I have come across many requests from young students who are fascinated by Astronomy. What they wanted to know was about specialization required and the kind of work they will be involved with. I am surely going to share this with them.
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