In the first 26 articles of the Basics of Astrophysics series, we covered a wide range of topics, from stars to galaxies to black holes to supernovas and so on. I kept the last 4 articles for general topics. Since the start of the series on April 10, our team received many queries on how to become an astrophysicist? That’s why I thought of including it as a part of the series. So here is all about becoming an astrophysicist.
Who’s An Astrophysicist?
Before we have a look at the way of becoming an astrophysicist, let us first understand who is an astrophysicist. This word is an amalgamation of two words: astro+physicist. So a person who uses the laws of physics to explain the properties of the celestial objects and other phenomena in this Universe is an astrophysicist. Physics and mathematics are tools for such a person.
So a person who studies the dynamics and properties stars, galaxies, nebulae, CMBR, dark matter, gravitational waves, etc. is an astrophysicist. A person studying the structure, formation, and the ultimate fate of the Universe on a larger scale is a cosmologist.
What Should You Study?
This is the most crucial thing that students must know and here is where most of them make a mistake. Physics and mathematics are the backbones of astrophysics. So in high school, make sure you choose them both, along with chemistry. Yes, chemistry is also important in astrophysics.
After high school, you must aim for a bachelor’s degree in physics. It is not advisable to choose astrophysics at the bachelor’s level. This is because the basic roots of studying astrophysics will develop when you study physics and mathematics in your bachelor’s degree. Solve as many problems as you can. In this 3-4 year degree, strengthen your concepts of physics. Also start reading astrophysics side by side, first as a hobby. You will then start realizing how important physics is. Without physics, there’s no astrophysics
After you have completed your Bachelor’s in Physics, go for a Master’s in Physics. If you are sure that all your basic concepts of physics are strong, you may choose astrophysics in a Master’s degree but most of the professionals avoid it. They advise you to go for a Master’s in Physics. Here you will come across advanced subjects of physics that will be used in your future pursuit of astrophysics.
At this point, if you read astrophysics books on your own, the mathematics of the subject will start making sense to you. You will start understanding the physical phenomenon because that’s physics only, applied to outer space. So a Master’s in Physics or Astrophysics should be the next step.
Role of Internships And Workshops
In your Bachelor’s and Master’s, one of the most important things is internships and workshops. In your vacations, make sure to apply for 1-2 months of research programs in astrophysics. There are many institutes that offer such programs. For this, you should have good grades too. So don’t underestimate the importance of your grades. They may not be everything, but they are important too. You should participate in astronomy clubs as they give you exposure to the fields of theoretical and observational astronomy.
Internships actually help you explore different sub-fields of your subject. I will share my own experience here. When I started studying astrophysics (in my undergraduate years), I always loved stellar astrophysics. Stellar evolution always fascinated me (that’s why I wrote all the articles of stellar astrophysics in this series!). But I had limited myself to it.
When I got an internship at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, I was assigned a project on extra-galactic astronomy. But, little did I know anything about galaxies. In those two months, however, as I started reading about galaxies, researching on them, and completing my project, I started liking extra-galactic astronomy more than stellar astrophysics!
I learned so many research techniques that are relevant to my field. That internship really was a milestone in my career. It gave me confidence. So an internship really helps you explore new fields and of course, you get to meet so many like-minded people. (You can read my project report here).
PhD in Astrophysics
Though a Ph.D. is not mandatory to do research in any field, it is the most important degree if you want to have a career in research. Almost all the professionals hold a Ph.D. in their respective fields. In Ph.D., one gets the exposure to research on a full scale. Here you work on problems related to your subject and learn the techniques and tools of research.
Choose a topic that excites you the most and start your research under your guide. The most important thing in a Ph.D. is patience. Have patience while doing research. Great discoveries don’t occur overnight.
Another thing most people fail to understand is that a Ph.D. is not a classroom degree. It’s a job where you get paid for what you do. If you go into academics in the future, then in Ph.D. you are actually doing what you have to do all your life – research. It’s indeed a great experience.
I remember, once a scholar who just completed her P.hD. told me: it’s not your end result that matters after your P.hD. It’s the person you become after all those years that matters the most. P.hD. taught me so many things that I could not have learned elsewhere.
Even one of the co-writers of this series, Dr. Yashika Ghai, holds a P.hD. in plasma physics. Currently, she is working at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US.
The Role Of Coding In Astrophysics
Days are gone when professional research was done with just a pen and paper in hand. Today, research in astrophysics has changed a lot. Almost all the research in theoretical astrophysics requires coding and simulation. Why? Suppose you want to study the interior of Sun. You can’t go into it and report back what you saw. This is where simulations come into the picture. Most of our knowledge of astrophysics is a result of simulations.
Also, make sure you have a stronghold over some of the coding languages. The most trending is Python. Other languages include C, C++, Java, and FORTRAN (a little outdated, though). Analytical software such as MATLAB and WOLFRAM MATHEMATICA also play an important role in research. Recently, I found a great paper that teaches the basics of python for astronomy. You can download the arxiv version from here. Python is very good for data analysis and hence, it finds many applications in astrophysics.
The software that will be widely used in your career depends a lot on the field that you choose to study in astrophysics. There are different software for different areas of research in astrophysics.
What Should You Study For Becoming an Astrophysicist?
Now comes yet another important question: What should you study? This is where aspiring Astrophysicists need to be careful. So what happens is, in high school, students come across science fiction movies. They show hypothetical physical concepts such as time travel, wormholes, etc.
Then there are many pop-science books that introduce astronomy on a very basic fundamental level. So the young ones think that this field is a very “glamorous” field: Studying cool subjects such a black holes, stars, galaxies, etc. In this enthusiasm, they choose to become an Astrophysicist. But the road to this is through physics and mathematics. Most students struggle when they come to face on with these two subjects.
So what should you do? The answer is simple: It is very good to watch science fiction movies and read popular books on Astronomy. One should, in fact, start from here as the curiosity and the zeal to pursue this field comes from these simple books, understandable by all.
But besides this, another important thing is to study physics. Make sure you build the potential to solve the problems in physics and understand them well. If you really struggle in this subject and there is no way through which you can improve, it is advised not to pursue astrophysics. So keep a balance of both: popular books on astronomy and the physics part.
The Most Important Subjects
In physics, there are a few subjects that are more important than others for astrophysics. These are the tools for an Astrophysicist. So the most important ones are statistical mechanics, spectroscopy, electrodynamics, optics, quantum mechanics, the theory of relativity, and nuclear and particle physics.
Since from the very beginning of this series, we have emphasized the importance of the EM spectrum in astrophysics, the subject of spectroscopy is quite crucial. Also, for Stellar Astrophysics, the subjects of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics are important among others. Every sub-branch of astrophysics requires its own branch of physics. That is why physics is so significant to become an astrophysicist.
Engineering And Astrophysics
There are many students who have a deep interest in astrophysics but due to some reasons, had to pursue a degree in engineering. I received many emails from engineering students and graduates regarding becoming an astrophysicist. Is there any way that they can “switch” the field?
Well, the doors are not completely closed for engineering students. Though becoming an astrophysicist requires a stronghold of many other subjects of physics and mathematics, today, astrophysics is not just limited to these two subjects. Engineering plays a crucial role to decode the universe.
All the technology, including the big space telescopes, a baseline of radio astronomy, rovers, labs such as LIGO are built by engineers to be specific. So the engineering students, who want to pursue a career in astrophysics can do that by using their technical skills in this field.
I’ll give a simple example. Suppose there is someone who has a degree in electrical engineering or in communications. Can that person switch to astrophysics? Yes! The field of radio astronomy will be perfect. This is because radio astronomy is very close to electrical engineering and deals with communications, antennae, signals, etc. So this person can prove to be an asset for such a field.
I have seen people who had a master’s degree in the field of instrumentation and now they are with a research group of cosmology. There, that person contributes to the engineering part of the research that is required.
Currently, I am pursuing a Master’s in Physics. I wrote this article from my own experience and after interacting with a lot of professional Astrophysicists in the world. My final message to the young and budding Astrophysicists is that they should work very hard to turn their dreams into reality. There will be many failures. But the key is to keep that passion for the subject intact.
Also, make sure to balance the academics and your passion for Astronomy. Grades too are important. In this series, my team and I have tried our level best to teach astrophysics on a very fundamental note. I am happy with the response we got. So just three more articles left in this series. Good luck with your pursuit!
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.
My email: firstname.lastname@example.org