Which Major Should I Choose for Astrophysics Professor Career?

In summary, if you want to be an astrophysics professor, you should focus on getting a strong foundation in physics and taking electives in math.
  • #1
Thai
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Summary: Should I major in math, physics, or astrophysics?

Hello. I want to be an astrophysics professor someday. Does anyone have experience on whether I should be a math major, or a physics major, or an astrophysics major? And whether I should get B.A or a B.S? Thank you.
 
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  • #2
Here's a question to consider:
How do you know you want to be an astrophysics professor if you haven't even studied the subject at the university level yet?

There's no single optimal route to a career in academia. I'm sure if you look hard enough, you can find examples of people who've successfully managed to obtain such a professorship from all of those backgrounds. Moreover, the curriculum of those subjects and BA/BSc can be very school-specific.

Ideally, you want an undergraduate program that's going to give you a solid foundation in physics and prepare you well for graduate school. In my experience (though admittedly I'm in medical physics, not astrophysics) it's better to stay as general as you can for a long as you can. The idea being to keep as many doors open as possible. You might find, by your senior year, for example that you have a passion for condensed matter, or theoretical quantum computing problems, or some other area that doesn't even exist yet.

The other dimension to consider is a backup plan. Careers in academia are extremely competitive. The odds are that even if you successfully complete a PhD, you won't end up as a professor. That doesn't mean you should give up, just to make sure that when it comes time to earn a living, you've got some skills that you can market in the corporate/industrial world.
 
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  • #3
I too am not a big fan of over specialization in undergrad. That's what grad school is for. Most astrophys grad programs don't even require a previous foundation in astrophys. What you will need is a strong general Physics foundation. You can use a few of your elective courses to take some astrophys courses just to get your feet wet and be sure that that's truly the field you want to pursue.
 
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  • #4
Choppy said:
Here's a question to consider:
How do you know you want to be an astrophysics professor if you haven't even studied the subject at the university level yet?

There's no single optimal route to a career in academia. I'm sure if you look hard enough, you can find examples of people who've successfully managed to obtain such a professorship from all of those backgrounds. Moreover, the curriculum of those subjects and BA/BSc can be very school-specific.

Ideally, you want an undergraduate program that's going to give you a solid foundation in physics and prepare you well for graduate school. In my experience (though admittedly I'm in medical physics, not astrophysics) it's better to stay as general as you can for a long as you can. The idea being to keep as many doors open as possible. You might find, by your senior year, for example that you have a passion for condensed matter, or theoretical quantum computing problems, or some other area that doesn't even exist yet.

The other dimension to consider is a backup plan. Careers in academia are extremely competitive. The odds are that even if you successfully complete a PhD, you won't end up as a professor. That doesn't mean you should give up, just to make sure that when it comes time to earn a living, you've got some skills that you can market in the corporate/industrial world.
Thank you for your reply. I'm leaning toward a math major as being the most general/useful, but wondering if one or the other would help me be a better astrophysics professor. Math? Physics? Astrophysics?
 
  • #5
gwnorth said:
I too am not a big fan of over specialization in undergrad. That's what grad school is for. Most astrophys grad programs don't even require a previous foundation in astrophys. What you will need is a strong general Physics foundation. You can use a few of your elective courses to take some astrophys courses just to get your feet wet and be sure that that's truly the field you want to pursue.
Thank you. How do you think focusing on math would be different from focusing on physics in helping me become an astrophysics professor?
 
  • #6
Thai said:
Thank you. How do you think focusing on math would be different from focusing on physics in helping me become an astrophysics professor?
The mathematics you see as a physics major is different from the math a mathematics major sees. Particularly, pure mathematics.

If you are genuinely interested in math, then take electives in mathematics, or even minor in it. If you want to do Physics, then major in physics. Why overcomplicate things? Moreover, your answer about becoming an astrophysics professor was already answered.
 
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  • #7
A B.S. is what you should get if your long term goal is academia.

I majored in physics but looking back I wish I had studied more math because I’m hitting a wall. Then again, hindsight is 20/20. You just have to start.
 
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  • #8
MidgetDwarf said:
The mathematics you see as a physics major is different from the math a mathematics major sees. Particularly, pure mathematics.

If you are genuinely interested in math, then take electives in mathematics, or even minor in it. If you want to do Physics, then major in physics. Why overcomplicate things? Moreover, your answer about becoming an astrophysics professor was already answered.
Would majoring in math be too general for becoming an astrophysics professor?
 
  • #9
That's where I am. If I major in math in order to stay genera, then I miss the physics; If I major in physics then I miss the math.
 
  • #10
Thai said:
That's where I am. If I major in math in order to stay genera, then I miss the physics; If I major in physics then I miss the math.
Could one assume or expect that any or all astrophysics professors learned many, many Mathematics course, and that such professors must have had the equivalent education in Physics courses to that of some graduate degree? I would say, "yes".
 
  • #11
I'm afraid I could change my mind about becoming an astrophysicist in the future, but I'm trying to head for that and leave as many other possibilities open to me as possible, so I'm wondering if majoring in math instead of physics would work well for that.
 
  • #12
Physics and math are really very different degrees. If you want to go into astrophysics, you need to major in physics. Unless you take a bunch of electives, a math degree won't give you the necessary background to prepare you for work in astrophysics. Moreover, if you decide to change majors, I'd say it's easier to go from physics into math than going the other way.

You could always double major as well. Is there something stopping you from doing that?
 
  • #13
PhDeezNutz said:
A B.S. is what you should get if your long term goal is academia.
No. To expand on what Choppy wrote above, the issue of BS/BA depends on the particular school. I don't know what the practice is for non-US countries, but in the US there are three possibilities that I'm aware of:

(1) Many liberal arts colleges grant only a BA, regardless of what the major is (e.g., physics or art history). This does not imply that a BA in physics is somehow less rigorous than a BS in physics. I served as an industry mentor to an undergrad at Wellesley and another at Carleton. Both are elite liberal arts colleges with strong undergrad programs in physics. BA shows up on their diplomas.

(2) At many universities, you get a BS or a BA, depending on the major. E.g., a BS for science and engineering, and a BA for humanities.

(3) And then there are some universities that offer a BS or a BA in physics. Here a BS is more rigorous than a BA. E.g., a BS might require more advanced physics courses, a senior term paper, or a real senior research thesis. In other schools, instead of a BA/BS distinction, there is a BS/BS Honors distinction. For (1) and (2), you have no choice between a BA or a BS. For (3), you want the more rigorous program.
 
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  • #14
CrysPhys said:
No. To expand on what Choppy wrote above, the issue of BS/BA depends on the particular school. I don't know what the practice is for non-US countries, but in the US there are three possibilities that I'm aware of:

(1) Many liberal arts colleges grant only a BA, regardless of what the major is (e.g., physics or art history). This does not imply that a BA in physics is somehow less rigorous than a BS in physics. I served as an industry mentor to an undergrad at Wellesley and another at Carleton. Both are elite liberal arts colleges with strong undergrad programs in physics. BA shows up on their diplomas.

(2) At many universities, you get a BS or a BA, depending on the major. E.g., a BS for science and engineering, and a BA for humanities.

(3) And then there are some universities that offer a BS or a BA in physics. Here a BS is more rigorous than a BA. E.g., a BS might require more advanced physics courses, a senior term paper, or a real senior research thesis. In other schools, instead of a BA/BS distinction, there is a BS/BS Honors distinction. For (1) and (2), you have no choice between a BA or a BS. For (3), you want the more rigorous program.

I wasn’t aware of of situations (1) and (2). I was referring to situation (3) mainly.

But thanks for specifying and elaborating. I see your point.
 
  • #15
Thai said:
Would majoring in math be too general for becoming an astrophysics professor?
Yes, you need a Physics major. You will take all the math you need for graduate school as part of your Physics program and it will be targeted to the types of math needed. If you want you can take additional math courses as electives or do a minor, but fundamentally you need to cover all the basic Physics courses which requires a Physics degree.
 
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  • #16
vela said:
Physics and math are really very different degrees. If you want to go into astrophysics, you need to major in physics. Unless you take a bunch of electives, a math degree won't give you the necessary background to prepare you for work in astrophysics. Moreover, if you decide to change majors, I'd say it's easier to go from physics into math than going the other way.

You could always double major as well. Is there something stopping you from doing that?

gwnorth said:
Yes, you need a Physics major. You will take all the math you need for graduate school as part of your Physics program and it will be targeted to the types of math needed. If you want you can take additional math courses as electives or do a minor, but fundamentally you need to cover all the basic Physics courses which requires a Physics degree.
Thank you. I'm just trying to keep options open for as long as possible because I might change my mind. I'm also thinking I'd like to use my imagination which the math would allow me to do.
 
  • #17
Thai said:
Thank you. I'm just trying to keep options open for as long as possible because I might change my mind. I'm also thinking I'd like to use my imagination which the math would allow me to do.
That's fine if that's what you want to do so long as you realize that it won't lead you to graduate school for astrophysics.
 
  • #18
gwnorth said:
That's fine if that's what you want to do so long as you realize that it won't lead you to graduate school for astrophysics.
Thank you. What do you think would be the best way for me to get into Astrophysics well-prepared to use my imagination?
 
  • #19
Thai said:
Thank you. What do you think would be the best way for me to get into Astrophysics well-prepared to use my imagination?
I've scored off the charts on school tests in fluid reasoning.
 
  • #20
Thai said:
Thank you. What do you think would be the best way for me to get into Astrophysics well-prepared to use my imagination?
Not a big matter. If you have imagination, you can choose Mathematics, or Physics, or Astrophysics, or many other fields. If you lack imagination, then you are stuck whatever you choose.
 
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  • #21
Thai said:
I've scored off the charts on school tests in fluid reasoning.
What does this mean? Is this a topic, or is this how one thinks?
 
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  • #22
@Thai,
Bit of online searching about success and intelligence (no links kept to show you) plainly listed that success (sciences, and like that) depend on Imagination and Curiosity.
 
  • #23
symbolipoint said:
What does this mean? Is this a topic, or is this how one thinks?
How one thinks. I see it more as creativity. The ability to solve problems without prior knowledge.
 
  • #24
Thai said:
How one thinks. I see it more as creativity. The ability to solve problems without prior knowledge.
Thai said:
I've scored off the charts on school tests in fluid reasoning.

symbolipoint said:
What does this mean? Is this a topic, or is this how one thinks?

Thai said:
How one thinks. I see it more as creativity. The ability to solve problems without prior knowledge.
I believe this is known as "intuition"; but I am not completely certain.
 
  • #25
symbolipoint said:
I believe this is known as "intuition"; but I am not completely certain.
I think intuition could be a broad definition; I think Fluid Reasoning could apply more specifically to solving problems.
 
  • #26
Thai said:
Thank you. I'm just trying to keep options open for as long as possible because I might change my mind. I'm also thinking I'd like to use my imagination which the math would allow me to do.
Just see how you do in intro physics courses, then go from there... You are thinking too hard.
 
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  • #27
MidgetDwarf said:
Just see how you do in intro physics courses, then go from there... You are thinking too hard.
But I'm only in Calculus ll. I don't need more tools for Intro Physics?
 
  • #28
Thai said:
But I'm only in Calculus ll. I don't need more tools for Intro Physics?
To reiterate a previous question someone else asked you, but you never answered: If this is your state of knowledge, how are you so convinced you want a career as an astrophysics professor? If you don't answer, given some of your other replies, I'll suspect you of being a troll.
 
  • #29
symbolipoint said:
@Thai,
Bit of online searching about success and intelligence (no links kept to show you) plainly listed that success (sciences, and like that) depend on Imagination and Curiosity.

CrysPhys said:
To reiterate a previous question someone else asked you, but you never answered: If this is your state of knowledge, how are you so convinced you want a career as an astrophysics professor? If you don't answer, given some of your other replies, I'll suspect you of being a troll.
I didn't answer because I thought it was a leading question. I don't know that I want to be an astrophysics professor--I just think and feel I do at this point. That might change which is why I'm asking about majoring in math or physics in the first place.
 
  • #30
Thai said:
But I'm only in Calculus ll. I don't need more tools for Intro Physics?
You DO NEED MORE TOOLS. With that, you already have enough of 'them' to begin studying Physics. Being only in Calculus 2 is not a limitation for beginning your studies of Physics.
 
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  • #31
Thai said:
I didn't answer because I thought it was a leading question. I don't know that I want to be an astrophysics professor--I just think and feel I do at this point. That might change which is why I'm asking about majoring in math or physics in the first place.
Let that be an INCLUSIVE OR. Do some of both of them. Either will help the other, so you may do well to choose Physics, and study as much Mathematics courses as you need or like.
 
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  • #32
symbolipoint said:
You DO NEED MORE TOOLS. With that, you already have enough of 'them' to begin studying Physics. Being only in Calculus 2 is not a limitation for beginning your studies of Physics.
Thank you. I think I like the idea of some physicists in other places online saying to get the math before you get the physics and to stay one semester ahead in the math.
 
  • #33
symbolipoint said:
Let that be an INCLUSIVE OR. Do some of both of them. Either will help the other, so you may do well to choose Physics, and study as much Mathematics courses as you need or like.
What do you think of the idea of getting the math before the physics and staying one semester ahead in the math?
 
  • #34
Thai said:
What do you think of the idea of getting the math before the physics and staying one semester ahead in the math?
I have no argument with it. One can choose to follow the guideline if he wants. The normal prerequisite information for "Physics 1" at community college or university is "Calculus & Analytic Geometry 1" either as a co-requisite or prerequisite. In fact, ones Trigonometry basic skills must also be strong in order to begin or to continue in Physics.
 
  • #35
symbolipoint said:
I have no argument with it. One can choose to follow the guideline if he wants. The normal prerequisite information for "Physics 1" at community college or university is "Calculus & Analytic Geometry 1" either as a co-requisite or prerequisite. In fact, ones Trigonometry basic skills must also be strong in order to begin or to continue in PhysicI
 

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