How to Become an Astrophysicist

Astrophysics is a demanding field, but if you have a passion for the stars and love unraveling the mysteries of the universe, it can also be a highly rewarding career path. You will need plenty of education and formal work experience before you can land a permanent position, though.

Part One: The Early Stages
Learn about the field. The earlier you can start the learning process, the better off you’ll be. Do as much as possible to learn about astrophysics as a subject. You should also learn about what to expect as you work your way to a career in the field.
Generally, astrophysicists can either be theoretical or observational. Observational astrophysicists study the physical processes of the universe, while theoretical astrophysicists use mathematical models and computer simulations to explain astrophysical phenomena.

Regardless of your specialization, you’ll need to develop and explain theories about the workings of the universe, analyze related data, test hypotheses, and publish scientific papers for publication.

Take the right classes in high school. If you are still in middle school or high school, tailor the classes you take around subjects relating to the field of astrophysics. You may not be able to take any classes dealing directly with the field, but you should stock up on math and science courses to give you the sort of groundwork you’ll need for a college astrophysics program.[1]
While all science classes can be helpful, physics and chemistry courses will be especially beneficial. You should also get as much experience with advanced mathematics as possible.

Keep your grade point average high and take advanced classes when possible. Doing so will make it easier to get accepted into a high-quality astrophysics program at the university level.

Join local clubs and go to local events. Community classes and clubs generally don’t get too deep into the field of astrophysics, but if you’re just starting out, these resources are a great way to learn the basics of astronomy as early as possible. There are a range of possible opportunities to consider.
Look for astronomy clubs at school or within the community.

Purchase a membership at your nearest planetarium.

Attend free or cheap classes at a local library or community college.

Go to special astronomy-related events hosted by planetariums, universities, or other organizations.

Part Two: Higher Education
Earn a Bachelor’s degree. Ideally, you should look for a university with an undergraduate program in astrophysics. These programs can be rare, though, so you may need to pursue a degree in physics or astronomy, instead. You could double major in both physics and astronomy, but doing so will increase the number of years you spend at the undergraduate level. Instead, consider majoring in one subject and minoring in the other.

Also consider taking computer science courses since these may help you develop the skills you’ll need for astrophysics research.

A B.S. degree in physics or astronomy will only allow you to qualify for entry level positions. Instead of research positions, you can expect to find work as technicians, research assistants, or observatory assistants.

Go for your Master’s degree. While a Bachelor’s degree will get your foot in the door, you will need a Master of Science degree in astrophysics, at minimum, if you want anything beyond an entry level job.[2]
Typically, a Master’s degree will qualify you to work as a research assistant for a more prominent source or as a consultant.

If you want to advance as far into the field of astrophysics as possible, set your sights on a Doctorate degree instead of a Master’s degree. The former will advance your career much further..

Complete a Doctorate. If you want a high level job in the field of astrophysics, you will need a Ph.D. in the field. Look for a Doctorate program specifically tailored to the field of astrophysics instead of settling for a related field.
Expect to complete a lot of coursework in physics, astronomy, mathematics, computer science, and statistics. You will also need to complete original research and a dissertation.

Doctoral programs can take five years or more to complete. You may wish to join the work force while simultaneously working on earning your Ph.D.

Generally, you will need a Ph.D. if you want to work for a university as a teacher or researcher. You will also need this level of education to perform research for the federal government.

Most graduate programs will actually require you to concentrate in a sub-field of astrophysics, like cosmology or radio astronomy.

Part Three: Formal Work Experience
Do summer internships. During your undergraduate years, look for research programs, internships, and similar opportunities that only last for the summer.
Find out if the physics or astronomy department at your university can help place you with a fitting program. Some schools also have “career services” offices that can help, as well.

Check with major organizations for competitive research internships, too. Possible sources to consider include the National Science Foundation and NASA.

Take advantage of research programs. Even after you earn your Ph.D., you will still need to spend time in temporary positions before landing a permanent job. Most postdoctoral research positions last for two to three years. During this time, you will work with more experienced scientists in the field as they advance in their own specialties.

Initially, your work will be carefully supervised. As you gain more experience, however, you will usually have more independence.

Network as much as possible. Since astrophysics is a competitive field, you will need to gain as much experience as possible and make as many contacts within the industry as you can. Make a good impression with everyone you work for and work with. These contacts may later recommend you for a competitive permanent position, and that recommendation could make the difference between acceptance and rejection.
Consider looking for opportunities outside of the country. Most research programs you’ll find will be within the country, but if you really want to give yourself an edge over the competition, try not to limit yourself to staying within your country’s borders as you gain formal work experience. Some research programs in other countries may only be open to native citizens of those countries, but oftentimes, they are open to international applicants, too.

Part Four: Finding a Job
Choose between research and education. You will be involved with research no matter what career you choose as an astrophysicist. While some permanent positions focus strictly on research alone, others combine research with teaching. The former are usually easier to find, while the latter are mostly limited to universities.[3]
Research is often self-directed, but sometimes you will need to perform research within the confines of a larger collaboration.

Strict research positions tend to have flexible hours, while teaching positions have set hours.

In addition to formal teaching positions, you may also have opportunities to give public talks about new advancements and similar topics. If you work for a planetarium or similar organization, you may also teach the public informally from time to time.

Know where to look. Since astrophysics is a fairly specialized field, you do have a somewhat narrow field of possible employers. In general, look for organizations that performs any work in the field of astrophysics. Positions tend to be limited, so you may need to search for quite a while before you find an opening.
Colleges and universities are among the most common employers of astrophysicists, followed by government agencies like NASA.

You can also find work at public and private research facilities, science centers, and planetariums.

Know what to expect. You’ll usually spend most of your time in offices and laboratories. While there is room for growth in the field, there are a fairly limited number of positions, making the workforce a competitive one. Based on statistics gathered by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), the median pay for astrophysicists as of May 2012 was around $106,360. If you work for the federal government, you may earn around $111,020. Private research facilities may pay around $104,650, while university jobs often pay around $81,180.[4]
Expected job growth between 2012 and 2022 is about average when compared with all other occupations, according the the BLS. In other words, employment is expected to grow by about 10 percent over that period of time.

Keep your skills up to date. If you want to keep your job or advance further in the field, prepare to approach education as a life-long ambition. You’ll need to keep up on regular changes and new theories in astrophysics as they arise.[5]
Rather than completing new degrees or certifications, continued education as a professional in the field will require you to participate in lectures, seminars, and conferences. As you advance in your own specialty, you may be asked to speak at some of these events. More often than not, however, you will interact at these events as active audience members.

Sources and Citations
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