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Astrophysics is a branch of astronomy that mixes chemistry and physics to study celestial objects, including stars, planets, and galaxies. It differs from astronomy in one key factor: on top of observing and recording, it’s also a predictive art, forming theories on the birth, death, and movements of the small to medium structures within the universe. Cosmology handles the largest structures. Astrophysics is largely only available as a field of study at the doctorate level, but there are a limited number of baccalaureate degrees. The field is considered very competitive.
While not the most commonly offered degree, there are several institutions that offer a Bachelor’s of Science in Astrophysics. The curriculum at this level will be math and science heavy, including in advanced calculus, chemistry, and physics. Programs will also typically include computer programming and computational science. In fact, alternatives for a baccalaureate that leads to a doctorate in astrophysics include computer programming, physics, chemistry, or mathematics.
Computer coding is an integral part of being an astrophysicist, so learning it early on will only be beneficial.
A Master’s of Science in Astrophysics is typically not required to enter a doctorate program, but it can make a student more competitive. It can also further prepare for the rigors of a PhD program. The curriculum will most likely cover advanced data analysis and test research skills. There is sometimes the option to concentrate in a specific area, such as instrumentation.
A Phd in Astrophysics can take between 3 to 5 years to earn but puts graduates on-par with other astrophysicists. The first few years of the doctorate program will likely include some classes, usually centering around statistical mechanics, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, and optics. After those are completed, the majority of doctorate programs are spent on dissertation research under the guidance of a faculty advisor.
If staying in academia is the goal, and it often is for astrophysicists, a postdoctoral research appointment, or “Postdoc,” is the next step. Experience is the key factor in the astrophysics field, meaning many individuals will take on a few of these research positions, sometimes considered fellowships, until they’re prepared for an academic faculty position. Outside of academia, astrophysicists often find work in national facilities or government labs.