Astronomy

How to be an astrophysicist?

How to be an astrophysicist?


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For a high-school students, what are the ways to become an astrophysicist?

What should he/she take in college?

What is the career path to become an astrophysicist?


In addition to the answer of James K, who outlines the most straight forward way into astrophysics, there's many paths. Some others include:

There are people who did a BSc and/or MSc in Engineering subjects (rocket science of course being a favourite one), and then changing into astrophysics via instrumentation - or just simply switching to astrophysics directly in their PhD.

Another popular approach is via geo sciences, especially geophysics, geology, etc. From where knowledge and methods can be applied and generalized to other bodies in the solar system.

You can get there from a mathematical or computer science background while looking for applications… The necessary simulations in theoretical (astro)physics and especially cosmology are far from easy math and simple algorithms, so a sound mathematical and algorithmic understanding will get you very far there.

Generally, it's science. And you can only really do science, and be good at it if you love what you do. That includes learning, being curious, inventing, combining and applying methods and approaches on a problem and generally being not shy of mathematics is somewhat a pre-requisite.


Different education systems differ, however

At school you would take maths and physics courses, at least covering calculus.

As an undergraduate, taking (or majoring in) physics. Also probably doing some more maths and perhaps some astrophysics courses.

As a postgraduate doing Masters study in astrophysics leading to PhD research in astrophysics. By now you could say that you are an astrophysicist.

Then working at a university or similar institute.

This makes it all sound easy, but I think I should add a warning. Getting a permanent (research) position at a university or similar institute in astronomy is highly competitive, and to get there takes a combination of hard work, high competence, high motivation, and luck. Many highly competent people end up moving out of astronomy and use their skills elsewhere, for the simple reason that society does not spend enough money on astronomy to employ all highly competent people who want to spend their life on astronomy.


Other answers have mentioned engineering as a possible pathway, however, they seem to have had mostly instrumentation in mind, which is why I would like to specifically point out software engineering.

I work at a theoretical institute and a very large proportion of the work done here is based around simulations. Unfortunately, however, in my experience many astrophysicists write their first lines of serious code when they start their PhD.

So programming/software engineering classes are definitely something to consider. Even if you do not want to become a simulation specialist. And it could also be possible to switch from something like a software engineering Master's to an astrophysics PhD (although as of yet, as pointed out by @RobJeffries in a comment, this seems uncommon).

I did much more programming in my physics Master's than the average student and still I spent countless hours at the beginning of my PhD writing very bad code that I just ended up throwing away in the end, while the mathematics education I received was easily sufficient.


I came across this video a few days ago that I thought gave a nice, quick perspective on one person's path: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8cEZM1lN5g.

Matt, the host, discusses how he turned his interest in the workings of the universe into a physics undergrad degree, followed by a grad program at the NASA Space Telescope Science Institute, and then a couple of post-doctorate programs, finally becoming a professor of astrophysics.

It seems that higher education with a focus on math and physics is the most predictable path toward an astrophysics career.


If it isn't a duplicate, then neither is this!

My career path:3-year Bachelor's degree in "Physics with Astrophysics"; PhD in X-ray astronomy; 5-years as a postdoctoral research assistant (two separate posts); got a lectureship at a UK university doing teaching and research in Physics and Astrophysics.

This is reasonably typical. These days, the content of the first degree is not so important - Physics, Astrophysics, Applied Maths all would be ok. "Astronomy" would put you at a disadvantage, since the implication is a non-physical, observational approach; but you would have to look at the course content.

A masters degree or 4-year first degree is usually necessary to get onto PhD programmes in the best places (this has changed since my day). Doing your PhD quickly and writing several publications is usually necessary to proceed any further.

The normal next step is to get a postdoctoral position; preferably somewhere other than your PhD institute. Then after 2-3 years of producing more research papers (2-3 per year), you could try for personal research fellowships. If you can get one of these, or perhaps a second/third postdoc position, and your research is going well and is productive, then there is a few year window in which to get into a tenured or tenure-track position. Getting some teaching experience at this stage is probably important.

For someone on a "normal" career path, it would be unusual to get a University position before the age of 30 (i.e. 8-9 years after your first degree). The large majority of people with a PhD in Astrophysics do not end up doing that for a living.


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Astronomical Opportunities

The number of Astronomy related Internships/Summer Schools/Camps/Conferences are endless, thus this will provide a beginning to your search of things to do in those long summer holidays (or simply if you just want to go off and explore another country). I’ve tried to make sure that most of the opportunities listed are available to everyone regardless of citizenship, if not, I’ve hopefully stated otherwise.

The following opportunities are mostly for undergrads and master students, but there are also some for high school and PhD students too! If you happen to be a PhD student, look here for tons of conferences and schools. On the other hand, if you are interested in space and engineering events see here.
Otherwise, read on…

Astronomy Camps – Undeniably a great way to make friends for life, whilst getting to do a lot of practical Astronomy.

Conferences – A perfect opportunity to meet other students from all over the world, and practice those presentation skills!

Summer / Winter Schools – If you only have a week to spare and want to focus on a specific field of Astrophysics, this is a great way to learn from the experts.

Internships/Programmes – This is the best way to really get a feel for what research is like, spend 2-3 months working on a project of your very own.

Volunteering – Taking part in outreach can be a very inspiring and rewarding thing to do with your time, that I think everyone should experience.

Workshops – Get your hands dirty with some hands-on Astronomy related experience.

Hackathons – Work intensively with people from all sorts of backgrounds in a short amount of time! Lots of experience to be gained.


Astrophysicist requirements

Astrophysicists will need to complete certain education and training requirement, which include:

Education

You need at least a master’s degree to become an astrophysicist, though many employers require a doctoral degree. Students can expect to take courses in engineering, physics, astronomy and other science courses. 

Students need to first complete a bachelor’s degree with a major in astrophysics or a similar field. Then, students complete a master’s degree or Ph.D. in astrophysics or astronomy. Some students may choose to first complete a master’s degree, whereas others will choose a program that combines both the master’s and Ph.D. programs. 

Students in Ph.D. programs need to create and defend a dissertation. A dissertation is a document that presents all of the research a student performed throughout the program and their findings. They typically need to offer a presentation of this document to a panel who accepts or rejects it. 

Training

Aspiring astrophysicists will receive training both in their educational programs and on the job. Depending on the educational program, students may complete an internship where they develop important astrophysicist skills. Entry-level astrophysicists can expect to work closely with their supervisor as they gain experience in the industry. Astrophysicists should keep up with the latest findings in the industry through research to apply it to new projects.

Certifications

Certifications are not usually required to become an astrophysicist. Instead, astrophysicists can expect a competitive education that requires the completion of internships and a dissertation.

Astrophysicists can become a member of the American Astronomical Society. The AAS has several classes of membership that astrophysicists can choose, depending on their field and experience. Some memberships require applicants to receive an endorsement from an active member. Membership with the AAS can help astrophysicists make valuable connections with fellow professionals in the field. 

Skills

There are a few hard and soft skills that assist an astrophysicist in their role, including:

  • Analytical. Strongly developed analytical skills are important when working as an astrophysicist. Astrophysicists conduct numerous research projects, and analytical skills assist with gathering, interpreting, analyzing and reporting data.


How to be an astrophysicist? - Astronomy

What kinds of skills are important for astronomers?

Astronomers need to be good at physics and math that's what they do! Don't fall into the trap of thinking that astronomy is one of the "easier" sciences! Astronomers work a lot with computers so good computer and programming skills are helpful. Some astronomers build their own instruments, so they learn about electronics, materials fabrication, and machining, and other skills.

Astronomers need good teaching skills as well, since they teach as much as they learn. They also need good writing skills so they can write grant proposals to get money and telescope time for their projects, and they share their research by writing articles for journals. They must have good communications skills as well. Very few papers in journals have just one author, since astronomers generally work in teams with various colleagues, so they need to be able to share information and get along with different people.

Page last updated on June 19, 2015.

About the Author

Britt Scharringhausen

Britt studies the rings of Saturn. She got her PhD from Cornell in 2006 and is now a Professor at Beloit College in Wisconson.


At a minimum, you would want to start off by attaining a bachelor’s degree in astronomy, physics, math, or electronics. Then, at a master’s degree, you would want to continue your studies and take space science courses as well as differential and integral calculus while continuing with your courses in astronomy and physics. You would then gain your Ph.D. to become an astrophysicist. For employment, you may be asked to showcase any published scholarly works you may have written or discuss any conferences you may have presented at.

Astrophysicist Job Posting

Let’s look at a job description posted by the Smithsonian Institute. This job announcement is looking for a person to perform the following responsibilities:

This is the position of Astrophysicist in the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. The employee will undertake a significant technical role in the Chandra X-ray Center (CXC) working with CXC staff and NASA to maximize the scientific return of the ACIS instrument on the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The work will include generation of commands to the ACIS instrument, review and verification of spacecraft command loads to ensure the proper ACIS configuration, monitoring of the space radiation environment and staffing the ACIS instrument when appropriate, monitoring the health and safety of the ACIS instrument, and the analysis and interpretation of flight data to ensure the quality of the scientific data.

The position is charged with technical and scientific responsibility for formulating and conducting developmental research in the area of X-ray Astronomy and High Energy Astrophysics. The work may include the planning and designing of necessary experiments, the analysis and interpretation of experimental data, the proposing, planning, and designing of observing programs, the analysis and interpretation of observations, and the publication of significant results.

  • Undertake a position as a CXC Instrument Scientist for the Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS), with responsibility for the operation of the ACIS instrument.
  • Propose and carry out specific investigations of ACIS performance and procedures, including solutions to unanticipated spacecraft or instrument events.
  • Conduct and oversee the analysis of these studies, developing computer algorithms as necessary and supervising their implementation. Interpret the results of these investigations, doing theoretical calculations when appropriate.
  • Review ACIS observing programs and advise Observers using the ACIS instrument on optimal configurations to achieve the scientific goals.
  • Monitor the health and safety of the ACIS instrument as part of a rotating weekly schedule of the ACIS Operations Team. Monitor the realtime and dump data from the ACIS instrument to identify possible issues with the instrument performance and take action as necessary. Monitor the space radiation environment, calling telecons as needed, and take appropriate staffing actions as needed.
  • Conduct research with X-ray satellite observations and with other space and ground-based facilities.
  • Serve on committees, if/when invited, for purposes of scientific proposal review, scientific planning activities, as an advisory resource, and for establishing future directions of astronomical standards and in defining standards for astronomy.
  • Determine the most relevant and fruitful areas for research, and conceive, propose, and carry out observational and data analysis efforts directed towards a wide range of astrophysical systems utilizing X-ray and other spectral and imaging data and other ground-and space-based facilities.
  • Formulate plans and hypotheses in areas which are new and unexplored, or which have presented critical obstacles in the past, and carry them through to completion.
  • Determine the applicability of findings to activities and interests of the Division and Observatory.
  • Participate in overall astronomy programs of the Chandra X-ray Center (CXC), the High Energy Astrophysics division, and in overall scientific programs at SAO.
  • Interact with scientists at SAO and other institutions to coordinate activities such as scientific observations and analysis, software development, and overall planning in astronomy.
  • Prepare papers presenting research results for publication in scientific journals and presentation at scientific meetings and conferences.
  • Attend professional meetings for the purpose of presenting new results and participating in the discussion of related efforts by other scientists.
  • Referee papers submitted to scientific journals and participate on NASA peer review committees, if/when asked.

This position was posted to run 09/13/2018 until 01/31/2019 with a salary range of $81,077 to $148,108 per year on USAjobs.gov (link opens in a new tab). USAjobs.gov is an official website of the United States government and part of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.


Most astrophysicists accept a 1- or 2-year fellowship after completing their doctorates. Academic jobs are hard to come by, so a post-doc fellowship gives a new astrophysicist a chance to do some creditable research and make a name for herself in the field. Major colleges and universities, think tanks and quasi-public research consortia typically offer post-doc fellowships.

Astrophysics is the study of the physical characteristics of stars, star systems and interstellar material. Major areas of study within astrophysics include astrobiology, astronomical instrumentation, computational astrophysics, cosmochemistry, cosmology, dark matter and dark energy, galaxy formation and evolution, particle astrophysics, planet formation and evolution, star formation and evolution and stellar explosions. Professional astrophysicists are expected to conduct original research in at least one of these areas, as well as present at conferences and publish the results of their research in peer-reviewed professional journals.


How do I become an Astrophysicist?

I’m am currently a freshman in Highschool and have recently taken an interest in pursuing a career in Astrophysics. I am strong in math and science and I get mostly As and Bs. Any help would be appreciated.

You'll want to work towards studying Physics / Astrophysics in University after high school. So keep up the good grades, make sure you meet your university entry requirements. When you get to post-secondary you will get a clearer idea of the field, be able to attend conferences or events, start doing research.

That being said, grades and school aren't everything Just have fun and enjoy your youth ❤ Pursue your interests and see where they take you

Do I need to get a master degree before I get a PhD or can I pursue a PhD right garter I finish my bachelors?

Try to find some work experience, maybe do some research into relevent people or facilities in your area and send some emails expressing your interest

I'm still on the path myself but keep the grades up, pick up some basic coding if you can (doesn't matter what language, just learn one- python is probably the most used right now), learn some stats for God's sake, and that'll be a good start (side-note: see if you like bio or chem too they're great pairings and having some experience there will help you stand out).

Most astro-related work won't consider you until you've gotten a year of undergrad under your belt so don't stress about that. Do extracurriculars (they keep you sane and make you a well-rounded student) and spend time learning about space: Do stars interest you? What about planets? What aspect of space is the most fascinating to you? The field covers a lot of things. Keep a little log of stuff you find interesting and questions you have and see if you can find pop-sci books in the field- they won't teach you the subject but you'll get an idea of the kind of work involved and a conversational understanding of the topic. If you're in an area with a space science lab, observatory, or university Department of Astronomy you should reach out to any scientists there that work in a field you're interested in and ask them questions. Going into science is a very different career from most and knowing what you're getting into is a very good idea. Plus we really like answering questions about getting into the field :).

In terms of university, if you know you're doing Astro try for an astro degree plus another related major that isn't physics (I did the physics/astro double and regret my decisions since the fields are ridiculously similar) if you end up at a university with an astro department. If you have to do a physics degree don't get discouraged if the department or field's vibe doesn't work for you or if you find it slightly obtuse (astro is a good bit physics but the needed background is more specialized, less confusing, and often less pretentious than what you'll find in a physics department).

Try to apply to schools that have good astro programs, particularly research universities with good astro programs as getting research is super important to getting into grad school. I'm in the specific field of planetary astro but good astro schools in general that I'm familiar with are UC Berkeley, UCLA,Brown University, Rice University, Boston University, University of Arizona, University of Washington, Caltech, Cornell, Stanford, and John Hopkins. College admissions are their own conversation but check out those and see what schools you like when you get closer to junior year. With some luck you'll get in in a place that you feel like you belong that has the program of your dreams.

In terms of getting research at university, look for Research Professors in the space science labs- they literally live off of grants that you can get paid through over a summer plus they almost never meet undergrads as they almost never teach. If your university has a program for getting research feel free to apply but honestly you'll have an easier time just cold emailing people- they will notice the initiative and with a little luck (and having relevant experience) you might find yourself doing research in the field. If you don't like a particular research experience, that's ok- you got research skills and now know what field you don't want to do.

Grad school is it's own conversation and I'm sure you'll have folks around you who can answer questions by the time you get to thinking about it. In the meantime, best of luck out there and remember the best part of being an astro person: you get to dress and decorate your room like a kid who likes space and no one judges you because, in the end, that's who we all are.


Admissions Requirements

The Department of Astronomy does not require the GRE General test. The Physics Subject GRE is optional. In the additional academic materials section of the online application, prospective students must also upload a list of their four most advanced courses in astronomy and their two most advanced courses in mathematics, indicating textbooks (and authors) used in each course.

The department expects candidates for advanced degrees to develop professional competence in a chosen area of research and to acquire sufficient general knowledge to understand and follow important developments in other areas of astronomy and astrophysics. Candidates are admitted directly to the PhD program. Students are not accepted for a separate master's degree program. The duration of graduate study should not ordinarily exceed five years, and students in their sixth year are encouraged to finish promptly.

Prospective candidates are always welcome to visit the Center for Astrophysics to meet the faculty and students. More information is available from the Department of Astronomy and GSAS Policies details specific program requirements.


Answers and Replies

The best thing is to get your goals as early as possible. Then concentrate.

Look for the thing that glimmers. The subject that, when you are working on it, you don't mind the time or effort. You get stuck in and find you have been working hard and productively for hours and look up and have not noticed the time. The work that draws you back even when you are supposed to be studying something else.

If you can work in a subject like that, nobody will have to push you. You will just naturally work hard at it. And it will be rewarding.

Maybe comp eng is your thing. Maybe astronomy is your thing. There is some overlap, especially now with radio astronomy and digital signal processing and various things. Observational astronomy could possibly fit very well with comp eng.

While you are in undergrad, be searching around on the net for the school you might want to do your grad work in. See if you can find their entry requirements. See if you can make the undergrad degree match, and still satisfy your requirements for the undergrad degree. Contact the potential grad school profs directly and ask what they think.

You have still some time before things are rigid. You will have significant choice on what classes to take.


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