Throughout the years, I have received wonderful emails from students all over the world, asking for advice on how to be an astrophysicist, what to do when classes are hard, or how to deal with stress. I love getting these emails and they mean the world to me. However, I recognize that it's not easy for everyone to reach out and ask these sorts of questions. So, to make things simpler on everyone, below I answer some of the more common questions that I get. I've also uploaded some answers here, for students who are asked to "interview a scientist."
But if you -- or someone you know -- would like to talk to me, please don't hesitate to send me an email or submit a question below.
How do I become an astrophysicist?
~ Focus on your math, science, and computer programming skills! These are super important in astrophysics.
~ Learn how you learn (see "How do I study?" below).
~ The schools you attend (undergrad or graduate) will not make or break your career. Sure, going to some place like Harvard or Caltech is nice because of the opportunities, but not going to those schools is also okay. I went to a small liberal arts school and not only learned a lot, but enjoyed myself and made the best friends of my life.
~ Do research as an undergrad. If there isn't a lot of research at your undergrad, the National Science Foundation has a huge number of internships (called "Research Experience for Undergraduates" or REU) at a variety of universities. They are incredibly useful for discovering what fields you want to explore and which you don't. For example, I thought I would love studying star formation and in reality, but it wasn't my cup of tea! When/If you apply to graduate schools, they will be looking more at your research experience than the name of the undergrad you attended.
~ Learn how to program. Most of astronomy is dependent on using computers because 1) we have a ton of data that needs to be analyzed and understood, or 2) we have no/little data and need to make models/simulations to make sense of what we have.
~ Take classes outside of math/physics/astronomy as an undergrad. You might receive pressure to only take specialized classes, but making myself more well rounded has proved hugely beneficial in ways I couldn't foresee.
~ Depending on your age, you may be able to look over published, professional papers. Here is a list of papers recently published or submitted to astrophysical journals. New papers get added every evening. Read over some of them, focussing on the introductions, the figures, and the conclusion (in that order). Then, keep an eye out for those people or institutes if you go to conferences. That is where you should apply for graduate school.
--- returning or
~ For the returning students, first of all, good job taking this step! It takes a lot of guts to change your career and go back to school. But that also means that you are driven to do this work -- and everyone knows it. Hands down, every time, people who come back to school will always be dedicated, motivated, and responsible. They know that this is what they want to do and they make sure that they get the work done. So while you might not be "traditional," you have a lot of great things going for you! So, for you, the first thing that you'll need is your bachelor's degree, if you don't have one. If you can get your degree in astronomy/astrophysics -- that would be better than physics, but getting a minor in astro is still good. If you are a returning student with coding experience, this is also amazing since much of astronomy is code-driven.
~ Next for returning students, work in the field, most likely by working with a university faculty member. The biggest things you need to learn are 1) the background and 2) how to research, and an advisor is best for this. S/he can teach you how to read papers, build physics models, reduce/ calibrate data, or put together standard ways to analyze data in the field.
~ For both returning and older students (i.e. who have a bachelor's degree), the next step is graduate school. Picking a good grad school advisor is important, since that pretty much dictates the project that you work on for your dissertation. And, full honesty, it's more likely than not that you will need to move to go to a grad school (and have an advisor) that meets your needs/requirements. Grad school takes 5-6 years to get a PhD. Getting a PhD is what 90% of astronomers do since anything less (i.e. a Masters in Astronomy) means that you are more limited in the job market. My suggestion is always to find a place that has multiple faculty members who do what you want to do, since you never know how well you will mesh (or not) with your advisor. And it's always better to have options. With that in mind, assuming that the universities are mid-ranked, you should:
1) have good grades as an undergrads -- the more A's the better,
2) have some research experience under your belt (likely with your undergrad advisor),
3) it would be amazing if you already have a paper published. A published paper would really help you get into a grad school because it shows that you already know how to do the research. However, a published paper is a high bar and it will depend on your undergrad advisor and whether s/he is actively researching. However, these are the things to keep in mind as you work on your bachelor's degree.
~ The next steps, once you get a PhD, are postdocing i.e. 1 or 2 short-term (1-3 year) positions (which will likely require more moving) to learn some advanced skills, network, and get your name known in the field, and then a faculty/research position somewhere.
--- current grad
I taught a class at Vanderbilt University on "Graduate Student Professional Development" to tackle those subjects that are rarely taught: how to put together a good CV, how to write a talk, how to give a talk (not the same thing), dealing with mental health, what it means to network at a conference, etc.. I have made all of these materials available online.
How do I study?
Math is a big part of astrophysics -- it helps us explain the motion and nature of the world around us. If math has been easy for you up until now, than the obstacle that you're facing is the line where your natural talents aren't quite cutting it anymore. Nearly everyone (except for maybe the top 0.001% of mathematicians) hit this obstacle at some point in their career. This doesn't mean that you can't go on to be an an astrophysicist, all it means is that you now have to figure out the way that you learn best and how to study. Therefore, if you are having a hard time, you really need to put in the hours to make sure that you understand what's going on in your classes.
The first thing I'd suggest doing is going to ask your teacher for help. I had a fantastic Calc teacher and she really showed me what I needed to focus on, what kinds of problems that were giving me trouble, and then she walked me through them. And I kept asking questions until I really understood what she was showing me. I realized that (especially for Calculus), if I couldn't envision a problem -- like, really picture it in my head -- then I wasn't able to solve it.
The next thing to do is to practice on those problems that are giving you difficulty. If your teacher often assigns the even numbers for homework (i.e. the ones that don't have the answers in the back of the book....if that's the way math textbooks still do it), do the odd numbers (and then check that you got it right). Read through the chapter of the textbook again to make sure that you understand what it's telling you. Draw out the problem so you can see it. If you're really desperate (and I did this quite a lot) go and get another Calc book so you can see a different perspective on the same material. Overall, you have to figure out what you need to do in order to make things click in your brain.
With that being said, don't be too hard on yourself. I'd say, to be successful in academia, 30-40% is raw talent and 70-60% is determination and perseverance. You need the brains to be able to understand some of the more complex math, physics, and overall phenomena in the universe. But you absolutely need that drive in order to make it through the tough parts. And this is a tough part. But, once you get over this hurdle, you will have the skills that you need to keep going forward. You'll definitely pick up new skills, other ways to study or keep yourself organized, but this is the first challenge to get to your dream.
How do I deal with feeling insecure (i.e. imposter syndrome)?
Believe me when I say that everyone...honestly everyone....feels like this at some point. You are not alone. I went to very competitive schools, especially my undergrad, and I struggled to see myself as something unique. I was never the best in any of my classes. In fact, I did not get straight A's when I went to college -- which was difficult to accept at first. However, I realized something -- thanks to the encouragement of my father, who is also a scientist in geology: you do not have to be the best or the smartest in order to be a good scientist. If anything, it is better to cultivate a variety of skills, which are equally as important in the field. For example, you will also need writing skills (since you'll have to write papers), communication skills (since you'll have to give talks), and interpersonal skills (since you'll often work with collaborators or have students). I have met many brilliant scientists who lacked one or more of these "additional" skills and it was very noticeable, both in their personalities and their careers. During my studies, particularly as an undergraduate, I took upper level English/Literature courses, I did many years of theater, and I took art and dance classes. All of these areas have helped me to be a better scientist and this is what has made me unique.
I truly believe that everyone can find the path that makes them shine the brightest. It might not be "traditional" but it doesn't need to be. Overall, remember that you can do this, i.e. get your physics degree and go on to do awesome astrophysical research. You are not an imposter -- you can get where you want to go through hard work and persistence. Remember that you aren't alone.
General advice from my experiences.
Celebrate the victories as hard as you mourn the losses or rejections. You get a lot of rejections in academia -- you apply for schools, for grants, for jobs -- and a lot of times you get told "no," which makes sense in a statistical way. But the no's always hurt, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. And you end up digging in yourself to ask "why didn't I have what it takes?" or "why wasn't I good enough?" However, in a lot of ways, these decisions are based on luck: the right people at the right time were looking at your application in the right way. Which sucks, but it's true. So don't be too hard on yourself about that. Conversely, celebrate the hell out of something that you get! It is really easy to have something big and meaningful happen (like you did well on a test you studied hard for, you got a good internship, or a paper was accepted) and then you move on to the next thing. People do this because these successes are expected in a lot of ways. But screw that, you worked really hard -- so go have a nice dinner and talk about how excited you are, get a few drinks with friends (if you're of-age) to toast to your victory. Talk it up and be proud. You earned it. I even have an email folder I call "feelgood" where I put emails from people that were really meaningful to me, acceptance letters to jobs, nice emails from people, etc. So, when I'm feeling bad about some rejection or something, I can look there and see all the good things I've done. And then I'm not so hard on myself.
Do what you love and ignore people, including yourself, who tell you that you can't. That's really the important thing. The best motivation to accomplish something is because of love, so if you love it, do it.