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Questions about astrophysics?

Hi, I'm looking for somebody working in astrophysics willing to answer some questions I had about that career stream (just so I know what it's like working in it).

Thank you comment icon Hey Vedant, another option is to ask your questions directly on CareerVillage! The purpose of this platform is to connect you with professionals in the fields you want to get into so that you can get advice. I'd be happy to work with you to pose and/or post you questions! Gurpreet Lally, Admin

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Pamela’s Answer

Hi Vedant,

If you have a computer, I suggest starting with a general Google Search; I did just that and as a result I found some contacts for you, in the event you do not have access to a computer. Katie Mack, is an Astrophysicist who welcomes general questions about physics, astronomy and the Universe can be sent to questions at astro-katie on line; professors at a local college or University may also be a resource if you reach out directly to them through the school network. I also went to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration website, there is an "Ask an Astrophysicist" section you can ask 1 question per email and no more than 1 question per week (expect at least 2-weeks for a response).

Good luck to you!
Thank you comment icon Thank you very much for the helpful resources Vedant
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Joseph’s Answer

I studied astrophysics at undergraduate level, although by the end of my studies, found I was personally more suited to nuclear physics so switched direction to that field for postgraduate study and my eventual career; so I don't have direct experience working in astrophysics but I think I learned enough to be of some help answering your questions. I'd recommend asking each question as a separate question on this site to get a range of different answers, but I'll try to answer the questions in your reply to Jacob.

I'll preface this with a note that most of the answers depend on what exact role you end up in within astrophysics. Perhaps the largest career path for astrophysicists is research work within a university or national lab environment, on a pathway along the lines of degree>PhD>postdoc researcher>academic faculty. However, astrophysicists can also find other kinds of roles; those with more of a leaning towards hands-on technical work might end up working more directly with instrumentation and equipment for example at a large observatory; while those leaning more toward public-facing areas often find work in science communication, at public observatories, planetariums or in the media. Also, like myself, an astrophysicist can also find work in many other areas of physics. The specifics of each of the different roles an astrophysicist might take can be quite different, but for a brief overview:

What you do day-to-day:
I recommend looking up "Dr Becky" on YouTube - Dr Smethurst is an early-career astrophysicist at Oxford, UK, who also does some great videos explaining astrophysics news and her work. See "A day in the life of an Oxford University Astrophysicist"
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XW_qIqLhPkI&ab_channel=Dr.Becky
The question has also been asked before on here: https://www.careervillage.org/questions/647194/what-are-your-day-to-day-goals-as-an-astronomer

For more instrument-focused astrophysicists, the day to day might be more about operating, configuring and maintaining the equipment, and probably sounds a lot like the sorts of things I do day-to-day (which I've described on https://www.careervillage.org/questions/756803/what-does-a-typical-day-look-like-as-a-physicist and https://www.careervillage.org/questions/727260/what-is-a-typical-day-in-the-life-of-a-physicist)

Flexibility:
Most scientific roles are somewhat flexible. Many places do still have expected office hours, but especially in a post-pandemic world, some degree of hybrid working is often an option, and reasonable requests to change your hours to fit around other commitments are usually accommodated. Of course, there can also be times where the flexibility works the other way - especially for things like telescope time. The large facilities are usually fully booked out and if you do end up having to spend time in the field at an observatory, you have to work around the time slots you're given - which can mean you have to long night shifts out in the cold at an observatory in the middle of nowhere.

Use of science/maths:
Of course, there's a lot of science and mathematics used, and some can be quite dry and abstract. The exact subjects used will depend on what area of astrophysics you go into. Relativity plays a big part in long-term cosmology and in extreme stars and galaxies - so the maths taking vectors onward to tensors is important there. Stellar structure can involve some quite in-depth magnetohydrodynamics. Understanding the fundamentals of what's going on in plasmas and nuclear astrophysics can involve a lot of quantum mechanics and some very heavy maths with that. Anything observationally you need to think about where it is in the sky so handling and converting polar co-ordinates is key.

Group/individual working:
Depends on the task. Generally a lot of tasks are individual work, but there will be colleagues and supervisors working in similar areas so you're rarely completely on your own; and you'll need to play a role as part of the larger team; bouncing ideas off each other, checking each others work, etc. Some tasks can also be more direct groupwork, especially for larger tasks that need more expertise than just one person has.

Time division:
Depends on role and seniority. Often junior researchers do more of the grunt-work in research and data management tasks; while as you gain seniority, you get dragged into more meetings, project management, and personnel management and away from doing "actual" science. As a rough guide, I think meetings probably eat away 10-20% of time. Unless you specialise in public engagement, advertising isn't really something you do. The majority of the time is research work of various kinds; a mix of literature-based research; data analysis, calculations, programming, report writing, and proposal writing. As to outside vs inside - most research astrophysicists are in a university office the vast majority of the time, and "outside" time is only at an occasional conference maybe. However, observational astrophysicists might spend more time outdoors at an observatory. For many this is probably only a few times a year when they get observatory time. Of course these places do outdoors observational work more regularly, although this is likely to be done by technicians rather than fully qualified astrophysicists, and the astrophysicists only attend for particularly important setup tasks or key observations.
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Erika’s Answer

Greetings Vedant,
I wish I knew an astrophysicist to refer you to!
I do have a couple of suggestions for you since I believe you are not far from Toronto.
The University of Toronto has an astronomy and astrophysics department and they do have events which wood put you in contact with the people in the know!
Here are two links:

https://www.astro.utoronto.ca/

https://www.dunlap.utoronto.ca/

Best of luck in your journey,

Erika
Thank you comment icon Thank you so much! Vedant
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Jacob’s Answer

Of course! I'd be happy to provide you with information about a career in astrophysics. While I'm not an astrophysicist myself, I can certainly answer general questions and provide insights into what the field entails. Please feel free to ask your questions, and I'll do my best to provide you with relevant information and guidance.
Thank you comment icon Thank you very much! I will come back to this comment with any further questions I have. Vedant
Thank you comment icon Hi Jacob, Thanks once again for your response, I appreciate your help in guiding me. Below are the questions that came to mind: What do you do in this job on a daily basis? How flexible is the schedule in this job? How do you use science/math in the job? Do you usually work in a group or by yourself? What is most of your working time spent on (i.e. meetings, advertisement, research, data management, being outside, working with people)? What aspects affect decision-making in the job? What were some challenging aspects of the job? Vedant
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