What does it take to be an astrophysicist?

For example, what type of education and classes get you there? What type of interests or ambitions signal a path towards an astrophysical career?

I am asking this question because I have a huge interest for medicine but astrophysics at the same time. I am having quite a bit of conflict on deciding what I really want. I am currently a junior in high school who has taken many high-level classes.

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Asked Jan 19 '12 at 16:47
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Ricardo T.

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Two answers:

Leslie Finger Ex-Teacher, Ph.D. Student
Last updated Jan 19 '12 at 17:58

I actually think there is a lot of overlap in what types of classes you would want to be taking at the high school and college level. Both astrophysics and medicine require a lot of science knowledge, so you would be smart to fill up on things like chemistry and physics. Getting involved in science activities would also be a good idea. I know there are plenty of summer opportunities to work in labs and do research. A difference between the two disciplines is that astrophysics requires more math. To actually be an astrophysicist, you will need a Ph.D. The nice thing is that there is enough overlap so that you don't need to decide right now. Many people get a Ph.D. in subjects they didn't major in (me, for example), and pre-med classes usually do not take up your entire college schedule. Because of this, in college you could definitely take pre-med classes IN ADDITION to whatever you are majoring in, and later decide whether to go to graduate school for astrophysics. At a lot of schools medicine isn't even its own major.

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Ricardo T.
Jan 19 '12 at 17:58

Thank you very much. This really helped me a WHOLE lot. I actually never knew that premed doesn't take up your entire college schedule. I will really look forward to taking this step in college. For now, I will work with my grades in high school and give my self a good foundation of knowledge in science and math to make it easier for me when I go to college. Again, thank you very much.

Greg Roelofs Software engineer, data infrastructure at LinkedIn
San Francisco Bay Area Computer Software Last updated Feb 21 '14 at 16:57

There are also crossover fields like astrobiology (think Mars rovers, possible future Europa mission, exoplanet hunting) and space medicine (astronauts, particularly the long-term effects of weightlessness on the human body and how to mitigate the negative effects).

My dad was a neurologist, and I was a computational astrophysicist; they're both interesting fields. As Leslie noted, you don't have to make up your mind until maybe the second or even third year of college, particularly if you go heavy on the math/physics--it won't hurt in medicine (especially a strong background in statistics!), and it's an absolute requirement for astrophysics. Expect to spend 5 to 7 years in grad school if you go the astrophysics route. Med school is shorter, but the hours are more brutal, and you have internship/residency time to factor in, too.

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