Monday, March 14, 2005

So you want to be an astrophysicist? Part I

First things first: Sean Carroll has a pointer to a "should academics blog" discussion percolating around. The answer is "don't know", "don't care". So why am I doing this. And is it really a blog if no one reads it? And will my dean^H^H^H^Hdept head really kill me if he finds this? (No, I have tenure, he'd just make my life miserable if he decided I had crossed some movable line).

Well, this is an unofficial private blog, which I am doing basically to see what is involved, the time committments, difficulty of keeping a topic flow and how blogs surface (or not) in the blogosphere. If this works out, then maybe it becomes some official or pseudo-official outreach effort. Or it vanishes and a completely unaffiliated bloggy thing appears somewhere else (eg if the consensus is that I choose boring topics and my writing is bad). Is it really a blog if no one reads it...?

So todays topic:You want to be an astrophysicist - 1?

This will be done in several pieces over time, lets start at undergrad, and slowly work our way to grad school and beyond (particularly since I'm on the admissions committee - this may be a good way to get relieved of that particular responsibility, what they call a win-win scenario...).

Should you do astronomy as an undergrad? (the following is in part shamelessly cribbed from prof Charlton's freshman seminar for our majors):

  • Do you like stars and stuff? If not, you probably should look for an alternative, on the general principle that at this stage of life you should at least try to do things you actually like.
    If you do, good for you. Now, do you have the aptitude?

  • Professional astrophysics/astronomy is not about looking at stars (except at occasional star parties, for outreach or as a sideline hobby - and a fair fraction but by no means all astronomers are enthusiastic amateur astronomers). Nor will you need to learn about constellations, or speculate about the meaning of it all, or the origin of the universe or other sophomoric philosophical issues (except over occasional beer sessions - except for the constellations bit).
    What you will need to do, is at least 75-80% of a physics major (and preferably all of it, physics double majors are a common path, as is just doing an all physics or math/physics (me!!!) path, and adding astro later). That's four years of 2 classes per semester, calculus based physics. You will also need at least 3 years of university level calculus, and if you find yourself taking as little math as possible, then your career options will rapidly shut down and you might want to rethink. Some computer science or electronic engineering wouldn't hurt, though most of the practical computing you need you will be expected to pick up through self-study. So, you would need, for example, to be able to look at HTML sample code, or a "how to web page", or in a pinch a book, and figure out in few hours or days how to do adequate HTML coding, as a minimum. Most astrophysics types are expected to know one major compiled language (C++ or Fortran most common), several macro/mark-up languages (like TeX/LaTeX, IDL or Perl) and higher level languages as needed.
    Most people find this to be hard work. You should be ready for hard work.

  • Do you like to read? Cause you'll be doing a lot of it. Books, papers, web pages, class notes; and, whether they admit it or not - science fiction (ok, not all astro types are sci fi fans, just most of them, secretly, open Trekkies, whatever).
    What do I mean by lots? (For an undergrad.) Mean output of a professional astronomer is 3-4 papers per year. Each paper has 30-40 cites to the literature on average. You have to have read those, all of them! Now, if you work in a single sub-field (not uncommon) there'll be a lot of overlap between cites in successive papers, but you'll also have to read 2-3 papers for each one you cite. And, you need to keep up with the literature, new papers every day... So, we're talking 1-200 papers per year.

  • Exams. Yep, we have those. Some people can't handle them. Don't know what to do about that, they include brilliant people. Same with essays and projects. Different people can't do those. Don't know what to do about that either.

  • Research. It is generally a good idea to try to get into some research if you can, typically summer after the end of your junior year, earlier if you can. It looks good on a resume, helps you get letters for grad school (if you still want to go) and lets you know if research is the sort of thing you want to do. Some people hate it. Better to find out before you spend ~ 5 years in grad school. That's a big opportunity cost if you just want to go out and earn money (or a wonderful life experience if you have the luxury to have those). Some people hate doing research.

  • What university should I go to? Well, the one you can. The "best" one if you have a choice.
    Does it help to go to a "name" university (top private, Big high profile State, or a high rep liberal arts college) - you betcha (analogous situation for other countries, I know the deal for some, not others).
    What does it buy you? 1) a shot at a good education. In the US there are maybe 50-100 universities where you can get a very good education in astrophysics; the other few hundred are "good in parts", but your odds go down sharply. 2) a second look at the next stage, the committees will look twice at people from places they know (and conversely if you do badly, they know too). 3) at some level you get what you pay for - there is not a perfect correspondance, but high correlation.

    So - the top private places (Ivy Leagues, Stanford, Caltech, MIT) - will give you a strucured, superb education, with access to top faculty (half of whom may not care about you). For a price. If you're willing to take advantage of it. And there's significant in-house competition. Not matter how good you are, you're going to meet someone better at those places.

    Big State: well, they're relatively affordable, they are big, so there's a broad range of courses and people, and they're well enough known that if you do well you'll get a look for grad school. The catch - you have to self-motivate, the place is big and you can all too easily vanish. Embed yourself in the department, not the dorm or the frat/sorority. Interact with the faculty, go to talks, talk to people. Profs are PAID to be there at office hours, and without exception they have a unique weakness, they love talking about "their research". Suckers. So go bug a prof. Lots, repeatedly. Oh, and get good grades and have natural math aptitude. If you do well academically (B+ GPA or higher AND a consistent good performance in the "hard" classes) and if you hook up with people to work with, you're set. But YOU have to take advantage of the opportunities. If you're lucky someone will reach out to you once, maybe twice, but beyond that it is up to you.

    Lib Art: small, fabulous teachers (on average, at the good ones, except when they're fabulously bad) and lots of personal attention. A disproportionate fraction of top researchers come out of majors at these places (like Reed, Vassar, Swarthmore etc) and they produce a disproportionate fraction of science majors, compared to their size (US state universities have an appallingly small fraction of science majors, and vanishingly few physical science majors). Catch, there a a lot of mediocre and bad ones...

    A bad university, in the physical sciences, is a career end, unless you have exceptional persistence. What to look for is a sequence of hard calculus based classes - look for advanced electromagnetism, or advanced quantum, with 2 physics prereqs and a high number math dept calculus based prereq. A lot of places let this slip, and you get soft, non-calculus based classes filling the major requirement. Fun, but you don't learn the basics you'll need later. The US "modular" course structure is particularly bad in this respect (more on that in another thread, but think about how much more in-sequence engineering and other serious professional majors tend to be... I'm biased, I was educated at a UK university. Viva la difference).

  • Publishing a refereed research paper as an undergrad always helps, but is not essential. Getting into a national summer intern/REU program helps, but is not essential. Having good solid grades, and doing well on the GREs is what matters.

    Grad school next. Then I'll iterate at some point to refine the ramblings.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi. I enjoyed your undergrad advice, but I'm starting grad school. I'm still flirting with the notion of Astro. Is your grad collum coming soon?


2:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm, interesting. I guess that someone who doubles in math would think thats more important to add to physics than astronomy, even though you'll get a more astro-centric idea of what to expect in your eventual career, or at least what areas need to be strong in the grad school you apply to. The thing ive learned ... from my own REU and then transferring to Umass for astro from a small liberal arts school, is that the things that are shown externally are perhaps an indicator only of people who like being thought well of (85% of the time) and only sometimes of the people who really love the subject. (as someone who gets ok grades and has all the external research and hates physics half the time). And that when in doubt, throw the data out!!!

10:26 PM  
Blogger Lost in Space said...

Hi, I'm interested in astrophysics. I did a four year tour in the Marines, and now I'm in Jr. college. I've been taking the general ed courses successfully but without any sort of real direction. Well, a couple of semesters ago I took an astronomy class and liked it; and yes I did read that thing about astrophysics not being about pseudo intellectual star-gazing. I'm no stranger to hard repetitious work, so I doubt I'll have problems with research; I'm somewhat anal about things so I assume research will suit me. I do have a couple of concerns to ask you about though: First, I'm colorblind, and I was wondering if that would be a major problem in the field. And next, I've never been too serious about academics; in spite of this I've managed about 40 units so far with a 3.76 GPA. Now, I'm a pretty smart guy I guess, because I've been getting these grades with limited studying, but now I'm taking Chem. 102 and Calc. I, along with a couple of extracurriculars,a part time job, and my grades are slipping. When I got worried about the colorblindness thing in Chem. lab, I went to the net and read your blog. It's inspired me to study on a Friday for a quiz on Monday, that, and like I mentioned, my grades are slipping. Also I've been battling with the feeling of hopelessness and aimlessness recently, but I've resolved to do this school thing whole-heartedly now. Oh yeah, and I'm a little worried about getting into one of the colleges I want to i.e. Berkley or Caltech, of course I'll apply to others though too. Well, any comments and/or advice, in addition to any answers to my situation, would be super. Thanks Steinn.

9:03 PM  
Blogger Steinn said...

Colourblindness should NOT be an issue at all, in any situation for an astronomy or physics major.

Calculus is an issue: if you're looking to transfer from a jr college to a UC major, you want 2-3 years of calculus and you want to get an A in every class if you can - they'd look very hard at that and you need all the calculus you can handle.

Being able to work hard helps - ex-armed forces with the technical background often do well because of their expectation that hard work will be required.

UC, as I understand it, will take jr college transfers by pre-arrangement, if you have the necessary grades.
Caltech has no such arrangements, and does not generally, far as I know, take junior transfers into their BSc programs. They do take UC majors with good grades and GREs into grad school...

11:11 PM  
Blogger Lost in Space said...

Thanks for the reply; I'm glad I don't have to worry about the colorblindness anymore. Now I can focus all my worrying on the calculus.

12:34 AM  
Blogger nameless creation said...


i'm going to be an undergrad. freshman next year and am sort of interested in astrophysics. i didn't get into the schools i wanted to (Berkeley and waitlist at U Chicago.) i live in oklahoma so now i'm going to OU. will my school choice hurt me in the long run? is there any hope for me getting in to berkeley's grad school? oh, and is it hard to learn all that computer stuff you were talking about, like html?

9:24 PM  
Blogger Steinn said...

Any of the big state unis, like OU are fine for getting into a good grad school IF you make use of the opportunity.

You need a strong curriculum- the full sequence of math/physics appropriate to the major + into and senior level major classes.
Grad schools want to see GPA > B+ ideally, Berkeley would probably want to see A/A-
Grades in "hard classes" can be more important than in Gen Ed classes - if it comes to it, admission tends to look at grades in advanced calculus and E&M classes, not intro psych.

Get some summer research experience if you can, hook up with a local advisor or apply to REUs at other unis. Get a feel for what it is like, maybe even get a paper. To get through grad school you have to like to do research.

And, you need to do well on the Physics GRE (and the general GRE, but that is expected of astro applicants by default). Place like Berkeley would like to see a score well over 50th percentile, typically.

4:11 PM  
Blogger KSutherland said...


I'm looking at Master degrees, and would love something like astrophysics, but i am in the Air Force and would have to do an online college. Any suggestions of schools to look at, or similar programs? Thanks!

9:13 PM  
Blogger Steinn said...

The only MSc Astro online courses I know of are the one at the Open University (UK) and Swinbourne University in Australia.

The BA/BSc remote courses the Open University offers are generally good, but I am not familiar with their MSc offerings.
The Swinbourne MSc course has a very good word-of-mouth reputation.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Sobia said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:14 AM  
Blogger Sobia said...

Hi..I'm a senior in high school in Pakistan, and I'm currently doing my A-levels. I wanna be an astrophysicist, and I'm applying to the US fr undergrad. I'm confused...should I apply to universities that have a specific astrophysics undergraduate major, or major in physics OR major in astronomy. Which do you think gives me a best shot at getting into a good grad school? I'm a really good student, with straight A's and I'm pretty sure I can handle being an astrophysicist...

6:16 AM  
Blogger Steinn said...

@Sobia - if you go to a good university with an astro major you'll be fine, but a lot of astro major double major in physics, since there is a lot of overlap between the two. You would also be fine just majoring in physics and looking to pick up the astro in grad school if that is what you end up doing.

11:20 PM  
Blogger SUNDAR ANINDYA DAS said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:40 PM  

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