How to become

How to Become an Astrophysicist

How to Become an Astrophysicist


Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Care to enter into such lofty ranks with a career as an Astrophysicist?

These are just a few of the notable figures who have dedicated their lives to understanding how the universe works.

Astrophysicists analyze how the laws of chemistry and physics explain the life cycle of galaxies, stars, solar systems and planets (including our own). Put simply, astrophysicists seek to understand the nature of life.Nebula, black holes, worm holes, dark matter, and anti-matter. These concepts are part of the daily language of an astrophysicist.

Thanks to the work of people like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson (both of “Cosmos”), we are familiar with these concepts. They have become part of our culture thanks to movies (“Star Wars”) and television (“Star Trek”).

Most of us cannot follow in the footsteps of Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking. However, if you are a curious, intelligent person who loves science and mathematics, and you’re prepared for a lengthy and (at times) solitary intellectual journey, becoming an astrophysicist may be an ideal career choice for you.

Before we have a look at the way of becoming an astrophysicist, let us first 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 phenomena in this Universe is an astrophysicist. Physics and mathematics are tools for such a person. So a person who studies the dynamics and properties stars, galaxies, nebulae, CMBR, dark matter, gravitational waves, etc. is an astrophysicist. A person studying the structure, formation, and the ultimate fate of the Universe on a larger scale is a cosmologist.

Astrophysicist Job Description

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Physicists and astronomers study the ways in which various forms of matter and energy interact … and the nature of time and the origin of the universe.”

Modern astronomy applies the laws of physics to the study of celestial objects. It is an observational science (as opposed to an experiential science such as chemistry or biology).

  • Astrophysicists can only suggest theories based on data supplied from “incoming radiation from space. Observations over the entire electro-magnetic spectrum (gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet, visible light, infrared, microwave and radio waves) are collected with both earth-based and space telescopes.” 
  • The astrophysicist interprets that data and proposes a theory. After that, other astrophysicists try to prove or disprove that theory; each refinement of the theory advances human knowledge to some degree.

Occasionally, such as with Albert Einstein, this work even makes a “quantum leap” (another expression we use thanks to physics) in human knowledge.Many Astrophysicists seek careers in the federal government or postsecondary schools.

  • Using a variety of techniques and technological equipment, Astrophysicists observe the universe to draw conclusions about its behavior and why it performs the way it does by also using the principles taken from physics.
  • Astrophysicists performing research use a variety of advanced technologies to gather information and data to fulfill their projects.

Some typical technologies may include the following types of equipment:

  • Telescopes
  • Lasers
  • Microscopes
  • Satellites
  • Astrophysicists in research will also analyze the information gathered during the research and establish conclusions using that information.
  • These professionals will also document their findings by writing research papers and be responsible for presenting their new findings by attending seminars, conferences and lectures and dictating on the newest findings in the field.
  • Astrophysicists working in the postsecondary field will be responsible for teaching their students on the basics of astrophysics, astronomy and physics, testing their students on the material and grading term papers and exams assigned to their students.
  • Some Astrophysicists may also perform both research and instruction for universities.
  • These professionals may also provide a glimpse of the most recent research since they are involved in this area as well.

Skill Set You Need to Become an Astronomer

There are a few hard and soft skills that assist an astrophysicist in their role, including:

  • Analytical. 

Strongly developed analytical skills are important when working as an astrophysicist. Astrophysicists conduct numerous research projects, and analytical skills assist with gathering, interpreting, analyzing and reporting data.

  • Reporting. 

Astrophysicists are an important part of furthering the research of astrophysics. The ability to not only test but also report data in a way that other professionals in the industry can use is critical. However, they must also be able to express those results to others. Therefore, good communication and writing skills are important for grant applications, reports, and requests for funding.

  • Mathematical.

 Astrophysicists often use advanced mathematical skills to test theories and report data. Mathematical skills in courses like calculus and physics can help the astrophysicist in their role. “Mathematics is the language with which God wrote the Universe,” said Galileo Galilei.

Very strong mathematical, analytical and problem-solving skills are a must for the budding astrophysicist. They must be able to understand problems, research the results and express those results in mathematical terms.

  • Problem-solving.

 Many astrophysicists solve a variety of problems related to their research. Skills in problem-solving allow them to identify the problem, create a hypothesis and take the necessary steps to prove or disprove the theory.

  • Astrophysicists must also be able to collaborate with others on research projects. Successful astrophysicists cannot be complete loners, tinkering over the perfect calculation in a tucked-away laboratory or paper-strewn office.

Education and Training Requirements

You should follow the same path as described under how to become an astronomer until the undergraduate stage. Astronomy and astrophysics often blend elements of biology, chemistry and other sciences to better understand phenomena in the universe. So, Math and Science are essential till 10+2. Additionally, start becoming involved in a small way even in elementary and high school, by joining astronomy clubs, attending local astronomy events, taking free online courses in astronomy and astrophysics, and keeping up with the latest news on websites like NASA, Science Daily, Spacecom etc.

You could pursue the following at the Undergraduate level:

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Earth Sciences
  • Physics & Math
  • Computer Science
  • Liberal Arts

You will need to complete certain education and training requirements to become an astrophysicist. You can become an astrophysicist with the following steps:

  • Complete a bachelor’s degree. 

Completing a bachelor’s degree is the first step toward your career as an astrophysicist. You can expect to take coursework in mathematics and science to prepare you for your master’s program. Take advantage of any internships or fieldwork experiences that will make you a more competitive candidate when applying for advanced degree programs in astrophysics.

  • Complete a master’s and Ph.D. degree. 

Some students may complete a master’s program and then a Ph.D. program, whereas others may prefer to complete a program that combines the two. You will want to major in astrophysics and earn high grades in all math and research classes. Complete as many internships and appointments as possible to develop important skills. If you want to work in a specific industry, like education or with the government, consider completing an experience appointment in this industry during your education.A PhD in astronomy or astrophysics from an accredited university is generally the basic academic criteria for becoming an astrophysicist. A master’s degree is suitable for those wishing to pursue a career in the field of applied research and development. Those with a bachelor’s degree can be employed as research assistants and technicians. The degree should, however, be preceded by a strong academic background in physics, mathematics, chemistry, and astronomy. It is also necessary to have good computer skills. In addition, good communicative and writing skills are required, since researchers must be able to prove their conclusions through well-drafted research papers.

Several colleges and universities offer degree programs in astronomy and astrophysics. These programs teach students about relativity, quantum mechanics, nuclear and particle physics, statistical mechanics, atomic and molecular physics, thermodynamics, and electromagnetism. One can also opt for laboratory courses, since these courses provide the opportunity of working with different sophisticated scientific equipment. Aspiring astrophysicists should carefully select their college or university based on its astrophysics curriculum as well as its labs and scientific equipment.

  • Prepare your cover letter and resume. 

Your cover letter and resume are important as you begin your career search. Create a new cover letter with each application and highlight your experience and passion for the industry. Use your resume to highlight experiences that will assist you in your role as an astrophysicist.

  • Apply for astrophysicist positions. 

After you have completed all educational requirements and have prepared your resume, you are ready to apply for astrophysicist positions. Review your college coursework and prepare for any interviews by completing a mock interview with a trusted friend. Consider what type of environment you would ideally prefer to work in and choose positions that meet these characteristics.

Best Programs and Courses to Become Astrophysicist

1. California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, CA) 

Caltech’s astronomy program emphasizes giving students the tools for a successful career in research. The curriculum boasts a wide range of physics, computation, math, and astrophysics courses based on each student’s interests. In addition, the program requires writing and oral presentation courses so astronomy students graduate as effective communicators.

Every astronomy student at Caltech performs multiple research projects. Past research theses include various astronomy subjects such as black holes, infrared sky, surface water on Mars, galaxy alignment, numerical relativity, and galaxy spectroscopy.

Targeted to launch in 2023, SPHEREx is a NASA mission managed collaboratively by Caltech and JPL. The center aims to map the large-scale structure of our universe using infrared spectroscopy. Students working with the center will be at the cutting-edge of space exploration.

2. Princeton University (Princeton, NJ)

While at Princeton, astronomy majors are part of a relatively small department with 15 – 20 students each year. The close-knit program allows for a supportive atmosphere and strong relationships with faculty members. 

Despite the small size, students have access to some of the most advanced technological facilities in the nation.

The university is home to the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, the largest center for space science studies in the United States. Supported by the US Department of Energy, the laboratory aims to explore fusion and the plasma universe. The facility is home to advanced computational simulations, vacuum technology, and high-voltage power systems.

Each summer, astrophysics students participate in the Undergraduate Summer Research Program. Students complete an intensive workshop on computer programming and astronomical statistics, followed by an independent research project. Some students write research articles on the work completed in this program.

3. Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA) 

At Carnegie Mellon, the physics department provides a deeper understanding of what the world is made of and how it works. 

The McWilliams Center for Cosmology helps students to understand the makeup of the universe better. Using an interdisciplinary approach, researchers employ observational, experimental, theoretical, and computational approaches. The facility brings together researchers from many disciplines, from physics to software engineering.

Carnegie Mellon physics graduates go on to find success in the astronomy and astrophysics fields. Alumni of the program work in the industry at renowned companies such as NASA, SpaceX, and Boeing. Others go on to top graduate schools from Stanford to UChicago to further study astrophysics.

4. UC Berkeley (Berkeley, CA)

Since the 1870’s, Berkeley has been an active member in astronomy education and discovery. The astronomy department is recognized for its work on discovering comet orbits and asteroids. Today, Berkeley houses over 30 astronomy faculty and many passionate students.

The courses in the astronomy program are taught by faculty experts, ensuring a more thorough education. At Berkeley, astronomy students gain valuable research experience, computational abilities, and an analytical mindset. This education prepares them to act as a leader and drive innovation in their field.

Astronomy students can participate in research at unique centers, such as the Berkeley SETI Research Center. This program aims to detect electromagnetic signals from other planets. As an intern, students can work alongside scientists and engineers to analyze data from Green Bank Telescope, the world’s largest steerable radio telescope.

5. University of Arizona (Tucson, AZ)

The University of Arizona has one of the nation’s largest astronomy enrollments for non-science majors. Students from all majors can learn directly from astronomy professors, making the program an outstanding option for both the serious aspiring astronomer as well as the student with a basic interest.

During the academic year, undergraduates can participate in paid, part-time research opportunities through the UArizona NASA Space Grant program. Students work alongside practicing scientists to perform innovative research. Topics include zero-gravity effects, mining atmospheric fuel, climate effects, and the development of lunar rovers.

The astronomy club at the University of Arizona aims to foster a passion for astronomy in all students. They provide an array of opportunities to work on astronomy projects with peers and astronomers. Regardless of major, this organization engages undergraduates through astrophotography, model rocketry, planetarium building, stargazing, and more.

6. Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD) 

Johns Hopkins is home to the Maryland Space Grant Consortium (MDSGC), selected for its unique role in Maryland’s astronomy education. The group is made up of other institutions in the area who collaborate closely with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. In order to strengthen scientific education, MDSGC is committed to solidifying Maryland’s visibility as a center of space science.

The flexible astronomy program at Johns Hopkins prepares students to achieve their career goals, whether it is further study, medical school, or technological careers. Students gain a strong understanding of basic subjects, then further specialize in condensed matter physics, particle physics, astronomy and astrophysics, or plasma physics.

Astronomy students can participate in department workshops to discuss a variety of relevant topics. These are hosted by a rotating body of institutions, including Johns Hopkins, Chalmers University, and the University of Florence, 

7. UC Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz, CA)

UC Santa Cruz leads the field in both observational and theoretical research. In 2017, the university was ranked as #1 for research influence in the physical sciences and #4 overall. This is the result of an impressive number of citations by other astronomy researchers.

Along with leading research, students in the astronomy department learn from the top experts in the field. UC Santa Cruz faculty members have earned impressive recognitions, such as the Gruber Cosmology Prize, Benjamin Franklin Medal, and National Medal of Science. Other professors are members of professional societies relating to astronomy and astrophysics.

The university manages the UC Observatories, including the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton. Designed by UC Santa Cruz scientists, the Keck Telescopes on Mauna Kea are the world’s largest optical and infrared telescopes.

8. University of Colorado at Boulder (Boulder, CO)

CU Boulder is recognized for its distinctive program that combines education in both astrophysics and planetary sciences. 

The astronomy department has access to state-of-the-art facilities, such as the Sommers-Bausch Observatory. Conveniently located on campus, the center offers hands-on training in astronomical observations. Astronomy students also gain experience with telescopes, optics, instrumentation, and image processing throughout the curriculum.

In order to keep students engaged, the astronomy department at CU Boulder hosts a variety of events. These include networking opportunities, guest lectures, and open houses. The department colloquia provides a forum to discuss new topics in astronomy with other members of the program.

9. Penn State University (University Park, PA)  

While at Penn State, students learn from over 60 faculty members. 

These educators are committed to helping students understand the universe using an interdisciplinary approach. Alexander Wolszscan, discoverer of the first exoplanets, is just one of the impressive faculty members that astronomy students interact with.

Astronomy students learn how to solve quantitative problems throughout the astronomy and astrophysics field. Courses focus on a wide range of topics including exoplanets, observational cosmology, radiation, space instrumentation, astrostatistics, and astrophysics. In their final years, students can choose whether to focus on physics or computer science to complete their education.

Along with educating college students, Penn State has an active collection of public outreach programs. The astronomy department promotes an interest in science for younger students and other members of the community. 

Through public lectures, workshops, planetarium shows, and stargazing, Penn State encourages an appreciation for astronomy.

10. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Champaign County, IL)

At Illinois, astronomy students have access to unique learning experiences. The university is a leader in observational astronomy, cosmology, and theoretical astrophysics. Courses throughout the curriculum provide modern datasets to give hands-on experience analyzing real data.

Astronomy students at Illinois have access to leading facilities, including the South Pole Telescope, Hubble Space Telescope, and state-of-the-art supercomputers at NCSA. 

From Arizona to Antarctica, students learn on industry-leading equipment. Many undergraduates take advantage of the school’s facilities to complete research projects outside of the classroom.

Illinois is at the forefront of astronomy research, exposing students to groundbreaking discoveries. A new study led by an astronomy department student and professor found a definitive relationship between black holes and their distinctive light-flickering patterns. 

Their work was published in Science.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Astrophysicists generally start their careers as a fellow or intern in a research institute. Modern laboratory and research techniques can be learned while assisting advanced scientists during such internship programs. Those with a post doctoral degree and relevant work experience can apply for permanent positions in government laboratories.

Career advancement in this profession is directly tied to greater levels of independence in research. Over the years, one can move onto bigger, well-funded projects. Those working in managerial positions can rise up to the position of natural science managers.

Both the wider fields of astronomy and physics share much in common with astrophysics, naturally. Other branches of physics, such as nuclear physics, are more applicable for business needs and are more in demand as a result. Those who are interested in astronomy or physics but do not wish to pursue a doctoral level degree can sometimes find work at the same laboratories and observatories as technicians and research assistants. A bachelor’s- or master’s- level degree in physics could also be put to work as a science journalist, where you could help to interpret the complex scientific papers that astrophysicists put out in a way that’s friendly and accessible for the layman.

Astronomy and astrophysics majors represent a small percentage of all physical science majors and an even smaller percentage of college majors throughout the country. The workforce in any relevant organization tends to be exceptionally diverse, as companies tend to recruit the top graduates from academic institutions all over the world. In North America, there are only about 150 job openings for astronomers per year. So, you should be open to other careers as well. Read more about the core job opportunities in astronomy.

As Natalie said, a PhD in Astronomy or Astrophysics open up several lucrative career opportunities. You could become a university professor, a full-time researcher at an observatory, scientific journalist, aerospace engineer or data scientist at an institute.

Since astronomy and astrophysics heavily depend on Math, Statistics and Computer Programming, Data Scientist could be an ideal job profile. Alternatively, you could also switch to the Aerospace (space technology) domain.

In space technology institutions, the focus is on the detailed design and execution of mission concepts. R&D roles are often split into architect and analyst positions, with architects defining the complex infrastructure of a system and analysts undertaking the in-depth analysis and development of individual areas, including:

  • Structural and stress engineering
  • Guidance and navigation control systems
  • Thermal engineering
  • Mechanisms
  • Antennae and telecoms
  • Power system
  • Full system-level simulators

Other job positions (non-R&D) include:

  • Atmospheric Scientist
  • Plasma Physicist
  • Mechanical Engineer
  • Aerospace Engineer
  • Computer Hardware Engineer
  • Electronics Engineer
  • Metereologist
  • Engineering Technician
  • Photographer
  • Technical Writer
  • Public Relation (PR) Specialist

Working Conditions

The work schedule for an astrophysicist depends on the employment setting. Researchers may need to spend long hours at work, while those working in laboratories enjoy regular 40-hour weeks. On the other hand, astrophysicists handling ground-based telescopes doing observatory research may work at odd hours and in external settings. Observational astrophysicists may also be required to travel frequently.

How Much Do Astrophysicists Make?

The wider group of astronomers has a median annual income of $119,730, according to BLS data from 2020. Those working at universities earned a lower a median income of $86,530, while astronomers working for the federal government take home a median income of $152,230. Astrophysicists working at universities can supplement their income by taking on research projects over the summer and may be able to earn tenure as they gain seniority.