What Does an Astrophysicist Do?

Discover the field of astrophysics, and learn what a career in it might entail. Information on the median salary of an astrophysicist, what they typically do, and what kind of education they need is gathered below. Schools offering Science, Technology, and International Security degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Pursuing a Career as an Astrophysicist

Astrophysicists are a special type of physicist who studies the basic workings of the universe at the scale of stars and planets. They pursue this knowledge using telescope observations and data collected by satellites and space probes. Astrophysics has significant overlap with astronomy, and seeks to join what physics says about how the world works with what we see in the universe around us.

Education Required Doctorate degree (Ph.D.)
Education Field of Study Physics or Astronomy
Key Skills Advanced math skills, analytic and critical thinking skills, writing and communication skills
Job Growth (2016-2026)* 10% overall (for all astronomers)
Median Salary (2017)* $100,590 (for all astronomers)

Source: *United States Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Do Astrophysicists Do?

Astrophysicists study the universe and provide explanations as to why it is. Most astrophysics research is done by universities and government organizations such as NASA. Astronomers, among which astrophysicists are often counted, usually work at universities as professors and spend most of their time teaching, alongside research using data obtained by observatories and satellites. While some astrophysicists travel to observatories and labs to gather their own data, this is often only done for a few weeks a year, leaving the rest of the year to interpret it. Theoretical astrophysicists may never perform their own observations at all. The research that astrophysicists do is eventually published in scientific journals.

What Kind of Education Do Astrophysicists Need?

To be an astrophysicist, one must hold a Ph.D. in either physics or astronomy. Undergraduates should aim for a bachelor's degree in physics as a stepping stone, although some universities do offer degrees in astronomy. Astrophysicists use advanced math, such as calculus, frequently in formulas that describe the interactions of celestial bodies. They may even need to develop brand new formulas, so a strong basis in math is critical. Internships in both astronomy and physics are available to help students acquire hands-on experience.

How Competitive is the Field of Astrophysics?

Jobs as an astrophysicist are difficult to come by, since the knowledge they acquire is rarely able to be applied to everyday life on Earth. There were only about 2,000 astronomers in the U.S in 2016 and there are only predicted to be about 200 new positions available between 2016 and 2026, according to the BLS. It could take between three and six years to land a steady job after graduating, during which time a prospective astrophysicist will be working in a comparatively low-paying postdoctoral position. While the field is growing overall, the reliance on federal funding means cuts to research budgets can alter the job landscape dramatically.

How Much Do Astrophysicists Make?

The wider group of astronomers has a median annual income of $100,590, according to BLS data from 2017. Those working at universities earned a lower a median income of $73,750, while astronomers working for the federal government take home a median income of $146,130. Astrophysicists working at universities can supplement their income by taking on research projects over the summer and may be able to earn tenure as they gain seniority.

What Other Kind of Jobs Are Related to Astrophysics?

Both the wider fields of astronomy and physics share much in common with astrophysics, naturally. Other branches of physics, such as nuclear physics, are more applicable for business needs and are more in demand as a result. Those who are interested in astronomy or physics but do not wish to pursue a doctoral level degree can sometimes find work at the same laboratories and observatories as technicians and research assistants. A bachelor's- or master's- level degree in physics could also be put to work as a science journalist, where you could help to interpret the complex scientific papers that astrophysicists put out in a way that's friendly and accessible for the layman.

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