Colleges

Answers to Big Questions: The Advantages of Majoring in Astrophysics

There was a TV show that originally ran on PBS for just 13 episodes in the final months of 1980, but it’s been seen by more than 500 million people in 60 countries. The host of this show, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, was neither a famous comedian, nor a talk-show star, nor a legend of stage and screen. It was Carl Sagan, an astrophysicist. This article will present the advantages of majoring in astrophysics.

Like Sagan, today’s astrophysicists tackle some of the biggest questions in—and about—the universe. How big is it? How old is it? Does life (and if so, what kinds of life) exist beyond our humble little planet?

There aren’t too many degrees to pursue that allow you to announce you’re going to college to understand the universe and our place in it. But that’s the simple task of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) Astrophysics Division, and with an astrophysics degree, you can join that quest—or find a number of careers that also aim high.

When one compares the role of an astronomer with that of an astrophysicist, the stars often align: degrees in either can lead to similar jobs, and some colleges and universities combine the two disciplines in a single major. But to split hairs (or atoms), imagine two people staring at the stars. The one who observes the motion or position of the celestial objects (planets, stars, etc.) leans toward astronomy.

But if you’re more interested in the actual properties (that is, the physics) of those celestial objects, as well as the origins of those objects, you’d be thinking like an astrophysicist. Here’s what you need to know about launching a career path the begins with an astrophysics degree.

How are you with numbers?

As mentioned above, you might find astrophysics programs within an astronomy or physics department, rather than as a standalone program, so it’s important to review the offerings of each college or university to ensure you’re enrolling in a program with the right focus.

If you have an interest in astrophysics, you’ve likely been a stargazer since an early age, and you took very seriously those solar system diorama assignments. It behooves you to have taken advanced math and science classes, because astrophysics programs begin with a heavy workload of algebra, calculus, and physics.

Of course, you’ll also be immersed in astronomy. This includes not just what you’d expect when you study stars, galaxies, and black holes, but related topics including astrostatistics, the analysis of astronomical data.

Further down the line you’ll take advanced science classes covering quantum mechanics, particles and waves, and magnetism.

Your college experience will likely include a research project. Some universities offer extensive summer programs with NASA or at observatories all over the world, and a universe of opportunities are offered by the American Astronomical Society (AAS). You’ll participate in real-world (or otherworldly) field study while receiving valuable mentoring to help you choose a career path.

High pay, but a bachelor’s degree is only the beginning.

Salaries for graduates with a degree in astrophysics are in the higher stratosphere—physicists and astronomers earn a median of almost $115,000 per year as of 2016—but the typical entry-level job requires a PhD.

The job outlook is on the positive side, with 14 percent expected growth between 2016 and 2026. Academia and observatories are the typical landing spots for jobs, but you can use your background to pivot into a number of different fields, including a wide range of engineering disciplines, computer programming, and space technology.

You can also shoot for the moon (and other places) in the search for life on other planets and galaxies at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).

And you might even find success outside the laboratory. After all, one of America’s best-known living scientists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, is an astrophysicist who educates, inspires, and entertains millions through his books, talks, and the rebooted Cosmos documentary series.

He was inspired and mentored by Carl Sagan.

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