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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?

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    $\begingroup$ I moved this question here because meta is not the right place for it. That said, I have a feeling this may be too broad, but we'll see what the community says. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Mar 1 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ and astronomy.stackexchange.com/questions/21166/… $\endgroup$ – Rob Jeffries Mar 1 at 21:57
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    $\begingroup$ Want truth? You have to be born in a rich country like United States. Also your parents somehow should be highly educated and paid a lot of money (which is a total contradiction) to allow you spend hours over learning instead of spending hours over serving meals in kfc. All of it really does not really depends on you, your talent means nothing. Real talents like G. Perelman mean nothing in this world and dumb society. $\endgroup$ – sanaris Mar 3 at 4:07
  • $\begingroup$ As for part of being real astrophysicist, is being able to write articles. Could be really done by anyone in finite period of time, the only problem is that only some people will be fast enough, because science is competition. But to obtain position in astrophysics is easy, you just pay a tonns of money and they allow you to call yourself whatever you want. $\endgroup$ – sanaris Mar 3 at 4:10
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    $\begingroup$ @sanaris I'm sure we can agree that people's life chances are greatly affected by where they live and what their background is; but to say "to obtain position in astrophysics is easy, you just pay a tonns of money and they allow you to call yourself whatever you want" would very likely be defamatory if you were to dare to name someone who you think this applies to. It certainly doesn't apply to me or anyone I know. $\endgroup$ – Rob Jeffries Mar 3 at 17:16
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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.

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    $\begingroup$ You can get there via math... $\endgroup$ – Michael Harvey Mar 2 at 19:38
  • $\begingroup$ computer science would be another one that fits this answer. Astrophysicists need lots of advanced computer programs to run their simulations. $\endgroup$ – craq Mar 3 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ yes indeed. I amended my answer with that $\endgroup$ – planetmaker Mar 3 at 20:52
  • $\begingroup$ Luck also plays a big part. There are a lot more applicants than positions available. Going to a high reputation school, and getting great results out of your undergraduate research is very helpful. Apparently the total number of astronomers has increased from 2000 some in the 1970's to 10000+ today; astronomy.stackexchange.com/questions/6328/… That's still not very many. Expect competition. $\endgroup$ – Wayfaring Stranger Mar 4 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ While a good complement answer, this shouldn't be the accepted answer. The best bet is to study pure physics. $\endgroup$ – Maxter Mar 4 at 18:28
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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.

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    $\begingroup$ And, when in doubt, a bit of engineering won't hurt either. It helps to understand the possibilities and limitations of instrumentation of both space- and ground-based observatories should help. Even if it's just to realize the complex world of mechanical, thermal, optical and other kinds of engineering behind it. $\endgroup$ – Mast Mar 2 at 8:58
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    $\begingroup$ This makes it all sound easy, but I think you should add a warning to the final line. 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. $\endgroup$ – gerrit Mar 2 at 12:29
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    $\begingroup$ I've incorporated that comment verbatim. $\endgroup$ – James K Mar 2 at 22:28
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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.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure that not a single student has entered our PhD programme in 20 years with a degree in software engineering. Of course the landscape is changing (a bit). $\endgroup$ – Rob Jeffries Mar 3 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ @RobJeffries true, I have never heard of such a case either. But I do know of software engineers (although with a physics education) that switched from industry to an astrophysics PhD. And having seen quite a few astrophysics codes, I'm willing to say it would certainly not hurt the field (at least as far as numerics is concerned) if this were more common. $\endgroup$ – user35915 Mar 4 at 9:23
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    $\begingroup$ Sure, software engineers can get jobs in astrophysics. Not quite the same thing. $\endgroup$ – Rob Jeffries Mar 4 at 10:16
  • $\begingroup$ As a software engineer I pity people who have to write complex software and handle large amounts of complex data without a solid SW engineering background. The thing is, almost all even very material fields these days gravitate towards software development -- automotive, entertainment, transportation, manufacturing. The senior experts in these fields with their indispensable domain knowledge really struggle. Climategate was partly an IT failure (no backups, no documentation, no reproducibility) -- which compromised the quality and credibility of the science. $\endgroup$ – Peter - Reinstate Monica Mar 4 at 18:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Peter-ReinstateMonica "which compromised the quality and credibility of the science." Except it didn't. According to all independent reviews of the evidence. "Eight committees investigated the allegations and published reports, finding no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct.[15]" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climatic_Research_Unit_email_controversy $\endgroup$ – Rob Jeffries Mar 5 at 21:34
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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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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.

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  • $\begingroup$ It would be good if you could provide a brief summary of the video; a couple dot points is all, as it means if the link goes dead there is still value to the answer. $\endgroup$ – Barry Jenekuns Mar 3 at 2:11
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the advice @Hug, summary added :) $\endgroup$ – Casey Mar 3 at 4:01

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