What should a high school student do to get on a track to become an astrophysicist?

Reworked from an oldie.

So, you’re in high school wondering what to do with yourself, and you think: “hey, I could be an astrophysicist!”

So, what should YOU do, wanting to get into a good university and an astro/physics major?

1) Take all the math that is offered, and do well in it.
The limiting factor for most students wanting to do astronomy or astrophysics is poor math preparation in school. You need to get as far and as fast in calculus as you can and be proficient and comfortable with advanced mathematics.

2) Take all the science on offer, and do well in that.
In particular, take physics classes.
One year of high school physics is Not Enough.
Take physics, take as much physics as is offered and you have the opportunity to.
The more and earlier exposure to introductory physics, the better. You need to have basic physical concepts deeply ingrained and intuitive and that is best done through overlapping repetition over time. It can all be done in the first two years of undergraduate study, but most people have a hard time getting comfortable when crammed with too many new concepts too rapidly.

3) Get good grades overall; preferably straight A, but B+ will do. It will get you far enough to have a chance to see if you can hack it at the next level.

4) Do all of this without overextending yourself; university is harder with much more intense workload, you need to be able to step up the pace (and again at grad school).

5) Jump through whatever hoops are needed, try to enjoy the process, or just grit your teeth and do it; the real world is worse that way.

6) Enjoy life.

7) Read. Lots. Of everything.
Seriously. Read. People do not read enough. Read what you enjoy reading.
If you don’t know what to read, I’ll tell you:
read science popularizations, detective stories, science fiction, military fiction, tiresome libertarian tracts, romance a clefs about academia, thrillers, historical fiction.
Read.

8) Apply broadly, and aim for good universities, even if teachers and counselors advice you not to.
Worry about funding after you find out where you got into.
If you don’t apply you definitely won’t get in.

Not all universities are created equal. In fact very few offer astronomy majors and those are basically all good solid places. Most of the places that offer physics majors are also good solid institutions.
If you want to go into astrophysics, make sure you got to a university that offers majors in mathematics and physical sciences – places that do not do so will generally not provide you with an education that will get you any further in the field.

9) Go to a university you feel comfortable with, but that is academically strong. Reputation does count unfairly or not. Academic reputation is poorly correlated with sport reputation.
And try to get out of your hometown.

10) There’s these whacky things calles SATs. You may have heard of them.
Do well on them.
The exam sucks, the way they are used sucks, and they can be gamed; so they are unreliable indicators; but, they do correlate with performance (at least in academic mythology) and beancounters on committees love them because they are an “objective quantifiable indicator”. Admission staff can cut the application list based on them and reduce the time spent thinking about peoples’ lives, almost guilt free.

I’ve seen many criteria used for university admission, and the US fascination with multiple choice exams is the worst. But it works, in the sense of being functional and arguably not much less fair than all the others.

PS: I know the list of majors at some universities is reeeaaallllyyyyy long.
If you’re an “ABC student” – someone who started flicking at the beginning and gave up and picked a prospective major from somewhere in the A/B/C lists, can you PLEASE not stop at Astronomy!
Agronomy is even earlier. Or persist through to Chemical Engineering, that’s always a laugh.
Or, you know, start at the back – Zoology needs more people.

Comments

  1. #1 8MinutesOld
    August 20, 2008

    I attended a talk some time ago by Duncan Forbes, about how to get a job in astronomy after your studies. You probably know his paper: http://arxiv.org/abs/0805.2624
    It might be interesting for those who have already followed your advices.

  2. #2 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 20, 2008

    In the first minutes of my lectures in Introduction to Astronomy, to 100 students (2 classes of 50 each, a dozen of whom were also in my Astro/Physics lab) at Cypress College, I projected a newspaper cartoon onto the big screen.

    Frame 1: Student in packed lecture hall asks professor “What is the difference between Astronomy and Astrology?”

    Frame 2: Professor says “A whole lot of Math.”

    Frame 3: Professor stands before empty lecture hall.

  3. #3 The AstroDyke
    August 20, 2008

    An English prof at Caltech lamented to me her freshmen’s impatience with gen ed composition: “Why waste time writing? We’re scientists!” I was amazed, because I spend much of my day writing (proposals, papers, talks, emails to collaborators, to-do lists). But them I remembered, as a student, that I’d loved lit & writing classes, but thought I’d be wasting those talents when I went into a scientific career.

    So, I wonder if #7b) might be “Write. Learn to understand your audience & write clearly.” Join the debate team, pen some sci fi stories, write a letter to the editor — just write.

  4. #4 Steinn Sigurdsson
    August 20, 2008

    Ah, yes. Writing is also important.
    School system I went through emphasised a lot of writing so I didn’t think of that.

    Jonathan – that is brilliant. Do you have a digital copy of the slide you’d share?
    I could so use that.

  5. #5 jj
    August 20, 2008

    About 7 years ago, starting my senior year in High School, I went through this very process. I remember being one of the only seniors who was actually trying to do well in math and physics that year. Needless to say, I got into a UC school with a pretty decent astrophysics department. Sadly, it became a bit much for myself to remain in the major. Although in the end, a Marine biology major isn’t that bad! But I learned loads in the classes I did take, and oddly some of the pre-reqs for both majors were the same – calculus and physics. Would have been nice to not take Organic Chemistry, I assume that’s not needed in astrophysics (I could be very wrong [P-Chem?]). Anyway, we need more students interested in these hard sciences!

  6. #6 mihos
    August 20, 2008

    “One year of high school physics is Not Enough.”

    Nah, one year is enough. More is better, of course. But most high school systems only offer one Physics course, and so that’s often pretty much all you can take. It’s all *I* took, anyway. Don’t scare the high school kids by making them think that if they can only take one physics class, they won’t be able to cut it majoring in Astronomy.

    And I can’t stress good writing enough. If you can’t write, people won’t understand your papers. They won’t be interested in reading your fellowship or job applications. They won’t approve your grant applications. Don’t wimp out and take the regular English class if you can take an AP English class. Don’t load up on science courses so much that you can’t do well in your English/writing classes.

  7. #7 mihos
    August 20, 2008

    Astrodyke: was it Jenijoy La Belle? One of my favorite courses as an undergrad at Caltech was her Shakespeare course…

  8. #8 Craig Heinke
    August 20, 2008

    Agreed that one year of high school physics can be enough–it’s certainly all that was available to me. Of course, if you can go to a high school that offers more than one year of physics, you should do that.

    In some cases, a high school student may have the opportunity to actually do some scientific research (a class, a summer program, etc.). I had that chance, myself–it was organic chemistry, but very useful for just getting a sense of how unpredictable and interesting actual research is. So I recommend for students to get a taste of actual research as soon as possible.

  9. #9 mihos
    August 20, 2008

    Oh yeah, and I forgot: when choosing a school for your undergraduate studies, definitely look into a) what kind of astronomy course offerings they have (some places have lots and some have few), and b) what kind of research opportunities there are for undergraduates to get involved in (ditto).

  10. #10 Charon
    August 20, 2008

    While it’s true that typically only one year of physics is offered in HS, it would be very beneficial to take are more advanced course as well (AP, course at a local community college, etc.). I wasn’t able to do that (well, no AP offered, and decided not to take the community college course because it conflicted timewise with AP French), and was very unhappy my first year in undergrad with my physics performance. (This was also the honors course at one of the most challenging physics departments in the country, but the moral still stands.)

  11. #11 The AstroDyke
    August 25, 2008

    Seconding — students at small-to-medium-sized US high schools don’t have the option of taking more. That’s fine, they can catch up in college (I did.) In a given hick town, you may be able to find AP biology, or community college nightschool Calc, but not AP physics. Fine, just take whatever will challenge & prepare you the most.

    Mihos: No, the English prof quoted is the current Master of Student Houses at Caltech, Dr. C. Jurca.

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