Admin and Founder of The Secrets of the Universe and former intern at Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, I am a science student pursuing Master’s in Physics from India. I love to study and write about Stellar Astrophysics, Relativity& Quantum Mechanics.
In the penultimate article of Basics of Astrophysics series, I want to answer one of the most widely asked question: How to be an Astrophysicist? Dozens of students and Astronomy enthusiasts have asked me this question. That's why I thought of including it in the series. So here is all about becoming an Astrophysicist.
Who's An Astrophysicist
Before we have a look at the way of becoming an Astrophysicist, let us understand who is an Astrophysicist. This word is an amalgamation of two words: Astro+Physicist. So a person who uses the laws of Physics to explain the properties of the celestial objects and other phenomenon in this Universe is an Astrophysicist. Physics is a tool for such a person. So a person who studies the dynamics and properties stars, galaxies, nebulae, CMBR etc. is an Astrophysicist. A person studying the structure, formation and the ultimate fate of the Universe on a larger scale is a Cosmologist.
What Should You Study?
This is the most crucial thing that students must know and here is where most of them make a mistake. Physics and Mathematics are the backbone of Astrophysics. So in the high school, make sure you choose them both, along with Chemistry. Yes, Chemistry is also important in Astrophysics. After high school, aim for a bachelor's degree in Physics. It is not advisable to choose Astrophysics at the bachelor's level. This is because the basic roots of studying Astrophysics will develop when you study Physics and Mathematics in your bachelor's degree. Solve as many problems as you can. In this 3-4 year degree, strengthen your concepts of Physics. Also start reading Astrophysics side by side, first as a hobby. You will then start realizing how important Physics is.
After you have completed your bachelor's in Physics, go for a Master's in Physics. If you are sure that all your basic concepts of Physics are strong, you may choose Astrophysics in Master's degree but most of the professionals avoid it. They advice to go for Master's in Physics. Here you will come across advanced subjects of Physics that will be used in your future pursuit of Astrophysics. At this point, if you read Astrophysics books on your own, the mathematics of the subject will start making sense to you. You will start understanding the physical phenomenon because that's Physics only, applied to outer space. So Master's in Physics or Astrophysics should be the next step.
Role of Internships And Workshops
In your Bachelor's and Master's, one of the most important things are internships and workshops. In your vacations, make sure to apply for 1-2 months of research programs in Astrophysics. There are many institutes that offer such programs. For this, you should have good grades too. So don't underestimate the importance of your grades. They may not be everything, but they are important too. You should participate in Astronomy clubs as they give you exposure to the fields of theoretical and observational Astronomy.
PhD in Astrophysics
Though a PhD is not mandatory to research in any field, it is the most important degree if you want to have a career in Astrophysics. Almost all the professionals hold a PhD in their respective fields. In PhD, one gets the exposure to research on a full scale. Here you work on problems related to your subject and learn the techniques and tools of research. Choose a topic that excites you the most and start your research under your guide. The most important thing in a PhD is patience. Have patience while doing research. Great discoveries don't occur overnight.
The role of coding in Astrophysics
This is the era of computer technology and thus Astrophysics isn't untouched with it. Almost all the research in theoretical Astrophysics requires coding and simulation. Why? Suppose you want to study interior of Sun. You can't go into it and report back what you saw. This is where simulations come into picture. Most of out knowledge of Astrophysics is a result of simulations. Also make sure you have a strong hold over some of the coding languages. The most trending is Python. Other languages include C, C++, Java and FORTRAN. Softwares such as MATLAB and WOLFRAM MATHEMATICA are also crucial to learn.
What Should You study For BEcoming an Astrophysicist?
Now comes yet another important question: What should you study? This is where the aspiring Astrophysicists need to be careful. So what happens is, in high school, students come across science fiction movies. They show hypothetical physical concepts such as time travel, wormholes etc. Then there are many pop science books that introduce Astronomy on a very basic fundamental level. So the young ones think that this field is a very "glamorous" field: Studying cool subjects such a black holes, stars, galaxies etc. In this enthusiasm, they choose to become an Astrophysicist. But the road to this is through Physics and Mathematics. Most students struggle when they come face on with these two subjects.
So what should we do? The answer is simple: It is very good to watch science fiction movies and read the popular books on Astronomy. One should, in fact, start from here as the curiosity and the zeal to pursue this field comes from these simple books, understandable by all. But besides this, another important thing is to study Physics. Make sure you build a potential to solve the problems in Physics and understand them well. If you really struggle in this subject and there is no way through which you can improve, it is advised not to pursue Astrophysics. So keep a balance of both: Popular books on Astronomy and the Physics part.
Most important subjects
In Physics, there are a few subjects that are more important than others for Astrophysics. These are the tools for an Astrophysicist. So the most important ones are: Statistical Mechanics, Spectroscopy, Electrodynamics, Optics, Quantum Mechanics, Theory of Relativity and Nuclear and Particle Physics. Since from the very beginning of this series, we have emphasized the importance of EM spectrum in Astrophysics, the subject of Spectroscopy is quite crucial. Also, for Stellar Astrophysics, the subjects of Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics are important among others. Every sub-branch of Astrophysics requires its own branch of Physics. That is why Physics is so significant to become an Astrophysicist.
Currently, I am pursuing Master's in Physics and I'm a research intern at Indian Institute of Astrophysics. I wrote this article from my own experience and after interacting with a lot of professional Astrophysicists in the world. My final message to the young and budding Astrophysicists is that they should work very hard to turn their dreams into reality. There will be many failures. But the key is to keep that passion for the subject intact. Also, make sure to balance the academics and your passion for Astronomy. Grades too are important. In this series, me and my team have tried our level best to teach Astrophysics on a very fundamental note. I am happy with the response we got. So just one article left in this series. Good luck for your pursuit!