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

Reworked from an oldie.

Yeah, it is cheap blogging, but moderately timely and fills space…

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.

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.


  1. #1 Lou Jost
    January 12, 2012

    I have one other bit of advice–try to learn something interesting that most astrophysicists don’t learn. Some obscure but powerful branch of mathematics or physics or chemistry, or philosophy of science, or who knows what. In any science, interdisciplinary cross-fertilization often leads to new insights. Having a unique mix of knowledge can help you make breakthroughs, and distinguishes you from the pack.

  2. #2 Andrew
    January 12, 2012

    My daughter is 3 and a half and loves Astronomy more than you can imagine. She goes around saying, “When I grow up, I am going to be an astrophysicist” (which evolved from, “scientist for the stars!”). The amount that she has already learnt about Astronomy blows my mind – it’s a hell of a lot for her age.

    So, I know she’s young and this is not exactly the point of your post, but do you have any suggestions on books or resources for children?

  3. #3 JohnD
    January 12, 2012

    I’d also add something else–in addition to reading, engage in creative writing, acting, graphic design, or singing. As an astronomer you will be put in pressure situations where you need to quickly communicate your ideas either in writing or in front of groups of people. It is relatively easy to get this experience early, and it doesn’t require too many math chops, but it will make you a well-rounded person and give you some tools to excel at disseminating your science and competing for grant money.

  4. #4 Steinn Sigurdsson
    January 13, 2012

    @Andrew – show her the sky, at night.
    If you have a smartphone get StarWalk.

    Show her NASA images – planets and Hubble images, lots on the web, use Astronomy Picture of the Day.
    Get NASA posters and cards and stickers etc – how to get those depends on where you are. Lot of places hand them out for free.

    Go to local university or astronomy club events, especially telescope observing, when she is a bit older – anything hands on.

    There are some good PBS/Discovery channel videos out there.

    There are some good books, but even though my kids have several no particularly outstanding ones spring to mind.

  5. #5 Andrew
    January 13, 2012

    @Steinn – All great suggestions – thank you so much!

  6. #6 JohnD
    January 16, 2012

    @Andrew. Also show her tons of women being scientists. Cultural biases start early!

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