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So I'm in year 11 and have an aspiration to be an observational astronomer but I'm worried that if I study astrophysics I won't be able to be an astronomer in particular. It probably sounds like a really dumb question. I am open to doing any job in astronomy/astrophysics but I just need to know. Thanks :)

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I don't think there really is a difference between "astronomer" and "astrophysicist". Both are physicists using their knowledge to learn about the Universe. Their is perhaps a tendency to call yourself an astronomer if you're doing observational stuff, and an astrophysicist if you're more theoretical/numerical. If people ask me what I do, I use "astronomer" if I want to sound romantic, and "astrophysicist" if I want to sound clever. :)

So, you are interested in doing observations, rather than doing simulations or pure theory. But in all cases, you start by gaining basic knowledge of both observational astronomy, "normal" physics, theory, and coding. Depending on which country you study in, at some point you will probably have the opportunity to have more influence on the courses you take, so that you could skip courses of, say, particle physics and general relativity, in favor of data analysis and, even better, observing summer schools (which I would recommend even for students planning to do theory, because it's a fantastic experience). Finally, your Master's thesis (to a small degree) and eventually your Ph.D. (to a large degree) will have an impact on the path you choose for your career. But many astro*s have been known to switch.

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    $\begingroup$ To your point about people asking you what you do, there's the old joke that if you're on an airplane and your neighbor asks what you do for a living, if you want to talk to them about it, you say you're an astronomer. If you don't you say you're an astrophysicist. The idea being that people find astronomer much more accessible than astrophysics, despite both of them being essentially the same thing, and will be excited to talk to an astronomer but too intimidated to talk to an astrophysicist. $\endgroup$ – zephyr Jun 1 '17 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ Exactly, @zephyr! PhD Comics made a comic on exactly that, but I couldn't find it. $\endgroup$ – pela Jun 1 '17 at 15:27
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This is mostly semantics, but I would say that Astronomy is the umbrella term for both space physics and astrophysics. Space physics essentially involves studying things like plasmas, heliophysics, magnetospheres, heliospheres, planetary atmospheres, ionospheres, aurora, space weather, etc. Astrophysics involves studying things like black holes, stars, the Universe (e.g., cosmology), exoplanets, galaxies, interstellar dust, etc. Observational astronomy could fall under either space physics or astrophysics, depending on what you want to observe. But honestly, it doesn't matter much.

During your undergraduate education, you'll likely have a career path nearly indistinguishable from a physics student, with the exception that you may take a handful of more astronomy oriented classes. You'll still need all the basic physics courses. During graduate school is really when you focus on what your future career will be, and even then, not until you start your PhD dissertation. You'll have a good one to two years of classes at the graduate level that will be just more advanced astronomy/astrophysics.

For now, my advice is study physics as best you can and point your education towards astronomy, but don't get bogged down in future career paths just yet. You still have a good 5 to 7 years before you really have to start tightening your scope.

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