Physics/Astrophysics Major FAQ

I get a lot of questions as a physics and astrophysics major, so I’m using this post to give some answers to some of those burning questions. 

1.       What is astrophysics?

I like to describe physics as the study of the way the world works. Astrophysics is the same thing, except for its geared towards phenomena beyond the Earth. A physicist may study how electrons are affected when placed in an electric field in the lab, for example. An astrophysicist may study the evolution of stars by observing various stars in different stages of life. Both of those are very, very broad generalizations, of course, but hopefully you get the idea of the difference between the two. I started out as an astrophysics major, but then I found out I really enjoy the physics of our world, too, so I switched to a physics/astrophysics dual major.

2.       How different is a physics major from an astrophysics major?

Adding a physics major to my astrophysics degree was actually quite simple. The freshman and sophomore years are practically the same for both, minus the couple of space sciences classes required for astrophysics. Then for the upper level classes, adding four more physics classes was all that was required: electronic measurement techniques, subatomic particles, solid state physics and complex variables. I thought it sounded like an extremely sweet deal to basically get two degrees by just adding four more classes to my undergraduate schedule! (These details are subject to change from year to year, so make sure to check the university catalog).

3.       How do I switch to a dual major and when should I do it?

Switching to a dual major is not a very complicated process. When the two majors are so similar, filling out one form will do the job and you just work the other classes into your schedule. Usually the sooner you decide to do this, the better, so you have more time to fit everything in. I made the decision at the end of my sophomore year, which is when many people do it. Because of some interesting circumstances with my math and physics classes when I first got to Florida Tech, I am now planning on staying an extra semester in order to finish all the classes I need for the dual major. But this was more of a personal choice; if I had really wanted to cram everything, I could have made both majors in the four years. However, this would have required a few summer classes and about seventeen to eighteen credits for each remaining semester, and with the upper level classes being a good deal harder, I didn’t want to overwhelm myself. Always take that into account when planning your future schedules!

4.       What technical electives should I take?

Even with a dual major (meaning all the extra classes you take for one degree count as technical electives toward the other degree), there is still one technical elective l have to take, specifically in either math or programming. Personally, I usually find math easier than programming, so that was originally my choice. But people from the last few conferences I have been to have really stressed the need for programming in both physics and astrophysics. Many wished they had learned more programming while they were an undergraduate because when they got to graduate school, they had to teach themselves code on top of their classes and labs. So I am seriously considering taking at least one more programming class before graduating.

5.       What can I do with a physics or astrophysics degree?

After receiving a bachelor’s in physics and/or astrophysics, you can always go to graduate school. But that is not the only option out there! It is quite possible to be hired with just a bachelor’s if trying for a Ph.D. just is not your thing. The most common piece of advice I have had about this, though, is that when job searching, you cannot type in “physicist” and expect a lot to pop up. Not many people are actually looking for a physicist specifically, but a physics degree is widely applicable and very often a job without “physics” in the title will still take applications from someone with a physics degree.

For example, at this year’s SPS Zone 6 meeting, all of us were given The Careers Toolbox for Undergraduate Physics Students, a binder full of advice on how to find a job, get an interview, write a resume and cover letter, etc . . . One section is titled “Common job titles of physics bachelor’s degree recipients” and here are some jobs reported in the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Phyiscs, most of which do not have “physics” in the title:

  • Electrical Engineer
  • Design Engineer
  • Project Engineer
  • Optical Engineer
  • Laser Engineer
  • Application Engineer
  • Field Engineer
  • Research Engineer
  • Test Engineer
  • Development Engineer
  • Software Engineer
  • Programmer
  • Systems Analyst
  • Web Developer
  • IT Consultant
  • High School/Middle School Physics Teacher
  • Research Associate
  • Lab Technician
  • Accelerator Operator
  • Physical Sciences Technician

So there you have it. Being a dual major requires some extra schedule planning and hard work, but it’s definitely worth it in the end!


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