So, You Want To Be An Astrophysicist? Part 0: redux

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

Reworked from a rework from an oldie.
Something prompted me to think it is time to lightly update and republish this series, possibly with added bonus parts!

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.

Astrophysics is a mathematical science.
In principle, you can pick up the math you need as you go along, but in practise it is better to be as fluent as possible first, and most all math is of some use.
My anecdotal observation is that a primary factor limiting peoples' ability to progress in astrophysics is inadequate math preparation and insufficient capacity to get up to speed with the additional math needed when it is needed.

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.

There are great physical scientists that were English Majors (seriously)!
But, that is not the optimal way to proceed for the average student.
Figure you are better off taking physics early if you can, and that more is better, as long as it is not so dreadful as to permanently put you off the subject...

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.
Lower grades can be overcome, there is no permanent record, but it makes it harder to get over the next hurdle, or even be allowed to attempt the next hurdle, if you go into it with below average grades.

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.

7b) - per comment in previous iteration-
Get good at writing.
Practise writing.
You'll need it.

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 called SATs.
You may have heard of them.
Do well on them.
The SAT 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.


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This is the best advice for students that I have read in, well, a long time. One can't go wrong with it. I'd say that it is good advice for engineers of all stripes, computer science, economics and business majors too. No harm would befall any future political science, history, women's studies or fine arts major, if he or she were to follow these suggestions prior to college entrance.

You're correct about understanding calculus and basic physical sciences at a nearly rote level. It instills confidence when one knows that at least that much is correct, that the edifice is sound, when doing more advanced work in graduate school or the world outside of academia. The same is true for acquiring proficiency in written form. I couldn't find a single grammatical error in this post. Your style is good; concise, with light humor throughout. It wouldn't hurt me to be more like that!

You also made a good point about graduate school. It *is* more difficult. The jump from high school to university pales in comparison. Oh, this is embarrassing! I am using Star Trek and Star Wars metaphors.

None of what you suggest is easy. I predict that this will not be your most wildly successful and acclaimed post. I will do what I can to see that it gets some wider distribution.

Thank you for the status update on goings on at Lebanon Valley College. I am delighted that they have found their way back to the fold. Your summary of the situation was very amusing, I'm smiling, again, as I write this.

By Ellie Kesselman (not verified) on 19 Dec 2013 #permalink

I really agree with all this advice. I ended up with a MSc in Electromagnetics from a good school, but the math became more and more painful for me just because of my preparation in high school. The problem is that a lot of high schools (in the US at least) only offer one physics course and don't do very advanced math. I was from a pretty poor area and this was my situation. All I can offer to students in that situation is try to search and look for after school support programs run by volunteers. This is much easier these days with the internet, so try it out! The other thing is don't get pulled into the game that students who are from the 'international' class high schools play in college. They somehow act as if they were responsible for paying their way through high school, just find your own crew to run with.

I strongly agree about the math part: most other subjects can be picked up later if needed, but math is inherently cumulative in a way that most other subjects are not. One doesn't need a deep understanding of the Carolingian Empire or of the Southern Song Dynasty to study Eighteenth Century Germany, but one does need considerable facility with algebra to understand a paper that employs the tensor product of two vector spaces. Young readers, no matter what your field of study please learn as much mathematics as early as possible. You cannot predict what field you will eventually enter, but many fields (not just in the exact sciences) are getting more quantitative all the time.

By Matthew D Healy (not verified) on 20 Dec 2013 #permalink

PS: however, if you do not at least have a vague notion of what the Carolingian Empire and the Southern Song Dynasty were then I fear your general education has been sadly deficient. Much of what is still core to European culture was created in one of these ancient polities, and much of what is still core to Chinese culture was created in the other.

By Matthew D Healy (not verified) on 20 Dec 2013 #permalink

Go to a university with a Physics Department. Even better if it is Physics and Astronomy. Sadly a place with only a natural or physical sciences department just ain't gonna do it.

What you can do, if you do well in Calc and Physics, is take Calculus Physics at a local community college.

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 30 Dec 2013 #permalink