Advice for Aspiring Astrophysicists: Q&A

I get a lot of e-mails from people asking for advice about their careers and education, hoping that I might give them insight into how to get into physics or astronomy. Many explain that they lack guidance or mentors, and that feedback from someone they see as a role model would be invaluable to them. Unfortunately, I can't provide individualized mentorship to people with whom I have no prior professional/academic relationship, and, honestly, I really shouldn’t. Part of this is about time -- mentoring done well is a big job, and I can't possibly manage it for all the people who ask. Part of it is lack of information. Without knowing your academic situation intimately, there's very little personalized advice I could possibly give you that wouldn't be likely to do more harm than good. As much as I wish I could give everyone the attention they need and deserve, most of the time I don't know what to say or how to help.

There are, however, some generalizations I can make, based on questions I've received from others and based on my experience in research science and academia. I'll put them here for general access. They may or may not be useful to you in your own personal situation, so if you apply this advice at all, please do so with caution.

(Also please note that I can't give any advice about getting into aeronautics, aerospace technology, rocket science, the space program, or the astronaut corps, because I have no experience in any of those things. Everything I say here is just about academic research in astronomy and physics, which I'll shorten as "astro/physics.")

Q: I'm just getting started thinking about doing astro/physics, and I'm not at university yet. What should I do to prepare?

A: If you already have astro/physics as a career goal or deep interest, you can get started early in a number of ways. In my case, I was fortunate enough to find research opportunities before I got to college, but this is very rare. What you can definitely do is build up your preparation in mathematics, programming, and whatever physics subjects you have access to. If possible, this should involve choosing your school courses to emphasize math and physics, but you can also do a lot of this kind of study outside of school, either through online courses or other internet resources that can help you build up your knowledge. You can also get involved in citizen science projects (check out The Zooniverse, for example), local astronomical societies, math or physics clubs, museum events, and whatever outreach activities your local university might offer. The opportunities available to you will vary a lot depending on where you are (and depending on your free time and disposable income), but if you have any extracurricular activities at all and you can make some of them about astro/physics, you'll be in a better position to advance. I mentioned coding as well for a good reason -- it's a skill you will almost certainly need (to a very strong degree) in your studies in ANY area of science or technology, so it's a good thing to get started on as early as possible. There are a lot of online resources available, as well as things like youth coding camps. You may need to look around a bit.

The coding, math, and physics preparation are good primarily because they will help you in the work you'll do if you continue in the field, but the extracurricular activities will help by giving you an idea of why this stuff all matters and what you can do with it. It'll also demonstrate your commitment and give you an opportunity to do more of what you enjoy -- it's a win all around, if you can manage it.

I should also mention communication skills as an important thing to work on. This is probably true for just about every field, but in academia you'll definitely have to do a lot of presentations and technical writing. Even applying for college and graduate school will likely require a letter in which you'll be expected to express your goals and interests in an engaging, concise, and compelling way. Getting practice with speaking and writing (both technical and non-technical) early on and as much as possible as you advance is a very good investment. English is generally the working language of the field internationally, so if you're not fully fluent in English, you'll need to work on that as well. If public speaking scares you, take steps to get more comfortable with it. If your writing skills are undeveloped, practice, seek advice, and work on it until you can express yourself more clearly. It will help a lot.

Q: What do I need to do in university and afterward to pursue a career in astro/physics?

A: First of all, there are VERY few permanent jobs in astro/physics research in academia, so before beginning any such path, be aware that the much greater likelihood is that after getting a very good education in astro/physics research you will apply what you have learned in some other industry. This is partly a numbers game -- there aren't nearly enough academic research jobs for all the people who want them -- and in any case, most people who begin study in astro/physics research find out along the way that there's something else they find more fulfilling or more compatible with their life goals and values. And there are a LOT of jobs that involve doing physics every day, or applying the methods, knowledge, and research skills you've learned in your studies to things outside of academia.

That said, virtually everyone who does manage to get a permanent job in astro/physics in academia will have done the following things:

1) Get an undergraduate degree in physics, astronomy, astrophysics, or a (very) closely related subject. In most cases, without an undergraduate degree in physics or astronomy, you will not be accepted into a physics or astronomy PhD program. It may be possible with a degree in something like chemistry or computer science, but only if you have already proven the relevance of your training by doing some kind of research project in which you have applied your skills to astro/physics, or if you have excelled in so many astro/physics classes that you have the equivalent of an astro/physics degree in all but name.

2) Carry out undergraduate research if at all possible. This kind of opportunity isn't available to everyone, either because appropriate programs aren't accessible or because they don't pay enough to make taking the job feasible, but if there is an opportunity to do research in your university, or to get into an external program (such as the NSF REU program), you should strongly consider taking it if you can. One reason to do this is obviously because it gives you a chance to demonstrate and practice your skills in research, which makes your acceptance into a research-based PhD program much more likely. Another reason is that the sooner you do research the sooner you find out whether or not you actually like it. Some people find research too open-ended for their tastes, and some just find they don't like the work for other reasons. If you're going to go through a PhD program, it's good to find out whether or not you're likely to hate it. That said, each research project is different, so just because you don't like working on one project, it doesn't necessarily mean you won't like another. Your advisors should be able to help you get some perspective on that.

3) Get a PhD in physics, astronomy, or astrophysics. This step isn't optional if you really want to carry out research in the field. (Historically, there have been a couple of people who have contributed a lot in the field without a PhD or without a relevant one, but those cases are such flukes with such special circumstances that if you're serious about giving yourself a decent chance to succeed, you should ignore them.) In some places, you'll do a master's degree first, and then apply to PhD programs. In others, you apply to PhD programs directly from undergrad, and at some point in the first few years you'll be evaluated for PhD candidacy (and usually sent off with a master's degree if that part doesn't work out). I can't give you any advice about how to choose a PhD program, but I will say that it's important to do your research on the program before you apply. In most cases, simply writing to a professor and saying "I want to work with you. Can you hire me?" will not get you anywhere. You'll need to know exactly how the admission program works, and go through whatever official channel there is. In some cases, you should contact advisors directly, but only after being very sure that you know this is the correct protocol and that you're familiar with their work. Keep in mind that a PhD usually takes between 4 and 8 years, depending on where you go, so do factor in how much you think you would be comfortable living in that place.

Once you're at the point of being in a PhD program, you should have many people around you to ask advice from. Talk to older graduate students, professors, postdocs, and, if you can, people who have left academia. Learn about what your options are, and regularly ask yourself if staying in academia is REALLY what you want to do. There are a lot of things you can do with a master's or PhD in physics or astrophysics. Some of them will offer extremely interesting and satisfying work and pay a lot better than postdoctoral fellowships. So, keep an open mind.

Q: If I'm an undergraduate now, and not on the path toward getting a degree in astro/physics, what should I do to get there?

A: This depends completely on how your university works, what courses it offers, and what it takes to switch. I'm not the one to ask whether it's too late to change direction, or how you do that. Some suggestions I can make are to talk to advisors at your own university, look carefully into what courses are required for the physics/astrophysics degree there (or at similar places), and try to position yourself in such a way that you can take those courses. In some sense, certainly, it's never too late to change direction. But this might require changing universities, starting over from scratch, or greatly extending the duration of your undergraduate education. I can't tell you if this is a good idea or not -- it depends on your situation.

Q: I'm trying to study astro/physics but I'm getting very discouraged. How hard is it supposed to be? How much should I expect to be working? Am I cut out for this?

A: This is another question I can't begin to answer without knowing your full situation. I can say generally that getting discouraged and frustrated by the rigors of the subject is very normal. Finding the subject matter difficult is definitely NOT a sign that you're "just not cut out for it." Depending on your course load, how the courses are pitched, or the research you may be involved in, feeling completely overwhelmed sometimes is likely just a very normal part of the process. The concepts and techniques you're learning are hard and mastering them is going to be very hard work, no matter who you are or how amazing your brain is. That said, you do need to be sure to look after your mental and emotional well-being. If you're finding yourself discouraged and overwhelmed all the time, or stressed out to the point of feeling the effects physically, you need to step back, take a breath, and evaluate the situation. Is it a matter of time management? Is there something going on in your life that's disrupting your ability to study? Are the classes so hard that everyone is suffering? Is there something going on with the university or your instructors (aside from the usual academic rigor) that is unfairly making things harder for you? Is it a self-confidence problem? Are depression, anxiety, or some other mental health issue affecting you?

If your university has counseling and career advising services available, please don't hesitate to make use of them, or seek external help if there's nothing on campus. If you have advisors you feel comfortable with, talk to them about what you're going through, and get more than one perspective. It's also a good idea to connect with your peers who may have gone through something similar. Ultimately, you'll need to figure out what kind of trade-offs are worthwhile to you in the pursuit of your chosen field of study. If doing astro/physics is keeping you from something else you're passionate about and that's making you unhappy, you may need to make a choice between the two. But it's important also to make sure you're in a good mindset and you're able to perform at your best before making any big decisions. Taking a bit of time off is also totally okay. In both undergrad and grad school, I went through times when I was convinced that I was incapable of getting through the program, and I sometimes needed to seek support from services within and outside the university in order to be in a good state to carry on with my work. Most of my colleagues have had similar experiences.

Q: What's it like being an astrophysicist? What is your day like?

A: There are a lot of different sub-fields of astrophysics and every one is a bit different. Because I'm a theorist, I don't tend to do things like go to telescopes, process data, build instruments, or do experiments. Most of my work involves reading papers, talking to people, writing down equations, and doing calculations via some kind of numerical method (writing and using computer programs). Some of my colleagues spend most of their time processing data (also using computers), or putting together observational tools (also using computers). A few of my colleagues rarely do any coding at all, but rather do most of their calculations analytically (i.e., with pen and paper). Even if you're primarily an observer, you'll probably spend very little of your time actually sitting at a telescope taking data. For one thing, many observations are done remotely these days, but even taking that into account, much more time is spent planning and motivating observations and then processing the data gathered. Using telescopes is usually a matter of applying to some kind of observing time allocation committee with a proposal for what the observation is, exactly how you'll use the data you collect, and what important question in astrophysics it will answer. So unless you have your own custom observing hardware, you'll spend much more time writing proposals than actually using telescopes.

Timelapse of about 20 minutes of my workday, filmed in February 2017.

If you want to know what an astrophysicist's day is like, it's hard to generalize, other than to say that just about everyone I know spends most of their time in front of a computer for one reason or another, and if things are going well, they're probably writing code or papers for a good fraction of the time. The main exception is if you're an instrument builder or an experimentalist, but even then, you're probably spending more time designing and planning than actually doing anything with hardware. Another thing common to all astrophysicists is spending a lot of time at conferences, in meetings, and at seminars. Papers and talks are the two ways we tend to communicate our work to the rest of the field, and it's important for us all to stay up to date, so we can build on the progress that's already been made. In most departments, it's normal to go to at least two talks per week (perhaps one general physics colloquium and one more specialized seminar), and as you advance in your career you'll also spend a lot of time on conference calls or video meetings with your collaborators in other places. Most departments have some kind of group meeting at least weekly where you gather to discuss your progress and the literature that's come out recently with relevance to your project or subfield. Most astronomers and physicists also attend at least one big conference per year, where people from many institutions come together to share their work. And if you're in a position that includes teaching, you'll spend a lot of your time preparing lectures, teaching, and grading. More senior people tend to be on a lot of committees, either for national/international societies or university boards. And there's a smattering of other things that will take up your time: answering e-mails, project management, financial management (when you have a grant or are claiming funds from the department for travel, etc), referee work for research councils and journals, student supervision and mentoring, reading papers (that's generally a really big one), and, perhaps, doing some kind of public engagement. Unless you're far more organized and regimented than I am, every day will be a bit different in terms of what kinds of things you use your time on. And depending on your working style and personality, some of the things will be fun and exciting and some will be a total drag, just like in any kind of job.

Astro/physics research in academia is a job, not a sacred ritual or calling. As far as I'm concerned, it's the only job I want right now, and I feel extremely fortunate to have it. Like any employee, I will sometimes feel discouraged, overwhelmed, frustrated, or inadequate. The fact that I have a deep passion for astrophysics makes a huge difference in keeping me motivated and making the hard times worthwhile, but it doesn't mean that every moment is filled with joy and wonder. But I truly love what I do, and I'm truly thrilled to be able to do it. Whatever your passion is, I hope you also have an opportunity to pursue it, and I hope you find something that is fulfilling, rewarding, and worth all the trade-offs you make to get there.