Who is an Astrophysicist?
Astrophysics is a branch of astronomy that applies the laws of physics and chemistry to study the nature of celestial bodies. It focuses on more than just their positions and motions in outer space. It actually proposes theories on the workings of the universe.
As an astrophysicist, you may typically work in an office or observatory on theories and research papers. Your primary role will be to observe celestial bodies using a telescope and other instruments. You will also study radio and gamma waves, infrared light and X-ray signals from various extra-terrestrial bodies. Based on your findings, you will be required to write research papers and form theories on the operations of the universe.
What will you do?
Developing astronomical theories
Astrophysics applies the principles of physics and chemistry to study the nature of astronomical bodies. As an astrophysicist, you will explore the physical properties of objects like stars, planets, and galaxies. By investigating the properties of dark matter and black holes, you will form hypotheses on various subjects – from time travel to multi-verses – and determine the origin and future of the universe.
Implementing research techniques to test theories
An astrophysicist spends a lot of time observing celestial bodies. You will have to keep up with astronomical research, and contribute your own data and research. Based on your findings, you will be able to propose theories on the operations of the universe. Your job could also involve raising funds to facilitate your research.
Developing instruments and tools for research
To study celestial objects, astrophysicists use telescopes and other scientific instruments that radio and gamma waves, infrared light and X-ray signals from various extra-terrestrial bodies. Your job could also involve creating and developing tools and software that aid in astronomical observation and analysis. For this, you need to have an acute understanding about the kind of research involved in the field.
Writing papers for scientific journals
You will be contributing your data and research to further astrological research and formulate new theories. Thus, you will be required to present your research findings to other astrophysicists and astronomers through conferences and forum discussions, or write papers for numerous scientific journals. Additionally, in order to fund your research, you may also be required to write proposals to scientists to aid in your theories.
Working with astronomers on research projects
You might not always work on your own astronomical theories alone. There are times when you will be assigned to help a senior or fellow astrophysicist with their research. Here, your job could be limited to observing celestial bodies and recording your findings for the person in charge. You may have the additional task of formatting your own theories on the basis of your findings.
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Where would you work?
Several government affiliated and private organisations such as the BARC, ISRO, as well as NASA employ astrophysicists across various academic levels to conduct research programmes from their observatories.
Planetariums and Museums
Other than research laboratories and observatories, several private and public planetariums and museums also employ astronomers and astrophysicists for their knowledge and expertise of celestial bodies.
Astrophysicists can find lucrative career opportunities in educational institutes as university professors, scientific journalists or data scientists in the Astronomy and Astrophysics departments. The Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology, Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and Osmania University are top colleges in this field.
How do you get there?
What skills would you need?
Analytical and Data Skills
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Attention to Detail
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How do you make it to the top ranks?
Pursuing your career locally VS abroad
There is a high demand for astronomers and astrophysicists in the country and not enough resources. This makes it a lucrative career for astronomy aspirants who also enjoy subjects like physics and chemistry. That being said, an astrophysicist requires many years of observation, training, and hard work. It’s not for those who want a full-time job in their early 20s.
Most astrophysicists have to continue studying until they obtain a PhD or a postdoctoral degree. At the most basic level, subjects like maths and science are a must till 10+2. At an undergraduate level, a B.Sc. in Astronomy or Astrophysics is the most common route, while degrees in physics, maths, or computer science are also good options. The average course fee for a B.Sc. in Astrophysics is INR 5000 to 5 lakhs, depending on the educational institute. The top colleges in India for this degree are Osmania University, Andhra University, and Punjab University. Additionally, students can pursue a postgraduate course while being involved in research projects at top institutes like Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences, Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology, Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Physical Research Laboratory, and Indian Space Research Organisation. Students must pass the Joint Entrance Screening Test to gain fellowship into these reputed institutes.
Another lucrative opportunity in this field is the International Astronomy Olympiad, held in Russia. The Astronomical Society of India selects top candidates in the field to apply for the programme, which includes detailed study in theoretical and observational astronomy, astrophysics, plasma physics, space science, and more.
Just like in India, many developed and fast-developing nations have a high scope for careers in astronomy and astrophysics. To get a job in astrophysics, students must have at least a Master’s degree, while some educational institutions offer Master’s degree and a Ph.D. in the field. Students can pursue this course while also working part-time or as an assistant on a research project, as a Ph.D. will require them to create and defend a dissertation before a panel of professionals. Some institutes might also offer an internship for this purpose, wherein students work alongside industry experts and record their research findings to apply to new projects.
Some of the best institutes for this field are in the US and the UK, viz. CalTech, Princeton, UC Berkeley, Penn State, Harvard, Colombia, Cornell, Ohio State University, Johns Hopkins, Yale, UCLA, Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester, Imperial College London, and ENS Paris in France. Students studying in the US can also become a member of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), which requires an endorsement from an active member. Thus, it is essential to keep up with the latest in the field and network with professionals during the training stages. A membership with the AAS can help aspiring professionals make a significant contribution in the field of astronomy.
How much would you get paid?
The salary of an astrophysicist varies depending on the place and nature of work. Private institutions have a higher salary for its professionals while those working at planetariums and museums might have a lower annual income. Some astrophysicists also tend to work in the field while others work in more academic settings. The standard salary of an astrophysicist in India is about INR 5 lakhs.
What are your career options?
Since astronomy and astrophysics heavily depend on math, statistics and computer programming, a number of astrophysicists also find lucrative career opportunities in the field of data science. Like astrophysicists, data scientists analyse raw data and derive objective conclusions from it. For this, they must identify the model that helps them interpret data correctly, identify solutions, and revolutionise systems and processes.
Astrophysicists can even find jobs in fields like aerospace engineering, which requires professionals who have an acute understanding of astronomical instruments and expertise in computer programming. Here, the astrophysicist focuses on the detailed design and execution of mission concepts and also engages in work related to research and development such as thermal engineering, navigation control systems, mechanisms, etc.
An astronomer’s role is very similar to an astrophysicist and requires students to begin at the same basic level – an undergraduate course in astronomy. While astronomy is the study of celestial bodies, astrophysics is a branch of astronomy that applies the laws of physics and chemistry to study the nature of these bodies. Modern astronomical research often involves work in the realm of theoretical and observational physics, which is a bonus for students in astrophysics.
Astrophysicists are required to have thorough knowledge and understanding of computer systems. Many astrophysicists are involved in the creation and development of tools and software that aid in astronomical observation and analysis. Thus, they veer towards a career in computer engineering. These professionals design, test, implement and maintain computer software and hardware systems that are used for research.
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