The Requirements to Be an Astrophysicist

Most astronmers fall in love with the stars and space at an early age.

Most astronmers fall in love with the stars and space at an early age.

Astronomy and astrophysics are closely linked. Both disciplines involve the study of extraplanetary phenomena, and many of the tools and methods used are the same. Furthermore, according to Physics Today, most professional astronomers today have one or more graduate degrees in physics. Research in astrophysics is often theoretical and relative to the research of other astronomers, as it is often extremely difficult to actually test the theories. Astrophysicists are typically employed in academia or by government-funded or public-private research organizations.

Doctorate Required

Virtually all astrophysicists have earned a doctoral degree. Only a few academic institutions, such as Arizona State University, California Institute of Technology and Princeton University, offer a doctorate in astrophysics, so many astrophysicists end up with graduate degrees in physics, astronomy or math. Completing a doctorate requires 2 years of graduate coursework and writing a dissertation based on original research.

Postdoctoral Fellowship

Most astrophysicists accept a 1- or 2-year fellowship after completing their doctorates. Academic jobs are hard to come by, so a post-doc fellowship gives a new astrophysicist a chance to do some creditable research and make a name for herself in the field. Major colleges and universities, think tanks and quasi-public research consortia typically offer post-doc fellowships.

Original, Substantive Research

Astrophysics is the study of the physical characteristics of stars, star systems and interstellar material. Major areas of study within astrophysics include astrobiology, astronomical instrumentation, computational astrophysics, cosmochemistry, cosmology, dark matter and dark energy, galaxy formation and evolution, particle astrophysics, planet formation and evolution, star formation and evolution and stellar explosions. Professional astrophysicists are expected to conduct original research in at least one of these areas, as well as present at conferences and publish the results of their research in peer-reviewed professional journals.

Women in Astronomy and Astrophysics

The field of astronomy was dominated by men until the 1960s. Women such as Annie J. Cannon (1863-1941) and Henrietta S. Leavitt (1868-1921) were hardworking and talented researchers, but their contributions were marginalized by the male-dominated profession. Female astronomers were not given access to the largest telescopes until the 1960s but are actively recruited today. Sidney C. Wolff is one of the most well-known female astronomers. She was elected president of the American Astronomical Society in 1992 and was the director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories for a number of years. Jill Tarter is a well-known female astrophysicist who has been in involved in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence -- SETI -- project since its inception.


About the Author

Clayton Browne has been writing professionally since 1994. He has written and edited everything from science fiction to semiconductor patents to dissertations in linguistics, having worked for Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Steck-Vaughn and The Psychological Corp. Browne has a Master of Science in linguistic anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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