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Astronomy vs Astrophysics


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#1 mooeypoo

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Posted 11 January 2012 - 06:21 PM

I am looking around for graduate programs to plan my Master's / PhD. My interest is space research, and I'm still getting my bearings in it. I'm thinking exoplanetary research is really interesting, but so is radio astronomy and/or instrument design.

What I noticed, however, is that schools offer two types of degrees in general: Astronomy and Astrophysics.

It seems to me that astrophysics is "categorized" under "Physics" while astronomy is its own category. When I asked some professors about the difference, it struck me that the answer depends on their orientation. Physicists tended to lower the value of the astronomy degree(s) and astronomers told me the difference is mostly about concentration.

I can't believe astronomy is "simply" "collecting data". I know astronomers that do more than that.
On the other hand, I can't believe the division is about "theoretical" and "experimental" since I saw a few graduate degrees that offer experimental astrophysics and others that have theoretical astronomy. The division, then, is different.

Quite a lot of sites also divide them up either by departments ("Astronomy" and "Physics" are different departments, and astrophysics is under physics) or by categories. "Physics and Astronomy" sounded to me as repetitive at first, but apparently it's not....

So... what's the difference?

How do I know which program to look for? Do I really "compromise" if I go for astronomy on the "expense" of physics? Do I stop being a physicist is I take "Astronomy" grad program (while I keep being a physicist if I take the 'astrophysics' one?)

This is all very confusing...

Thanks!

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#2 StringJunky

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Posted 11 January 2012 - 10:14 PM

I found this blog run by an English professor of theoretical astrophysics discussing the difference that might give you a clue.
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#3 DrRocket

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Posted 11 January 2012 - 10:46 PM

I am looking around for graduate programs to plan my Master's / PhD. My interest is space research, and I'm still getting my bearings in it. I'm thinking exoplanetary research is really interesting, but so is radio astronomy and/or instrument design.

What I noticed, however, is that schools offer two types of degrees in general: Astronomy and Astrophysics.

It seems to me that astrophysics is "categorized" under "Physics" while astronomy is its own category. When I asked some professors about the difference, it struck me that the answer depends on their orientation. Physicists tended to lower the value of the astronomy degree(s) and astronomers told me the difference is mostly about concentration.


I think you will find that the terms vary with the school. I know of schools at which the astronomy PhD is the same as the physics PhD, the only distinction being the research topic chosen and the advisor. Others have separate departments, but one might well find astrophysics being handled in the astronomy department.

I don't know of any serious distinction at this point in time (as opposed to a century or so ago) between astronomy and astrophysics as far as ongoing research is concerned. Certainly hobbiest astronomers are not astrophysicists, but at the professional level I doubt you can find many non-physicist astronomers.

I am not sure what you mean by "space research". That could cover a lot of territory, from cosmiology to stellar astrophysics to planetary geology to astrobiology. As with most interdisciplinary topics, you would do well to get a firm foundation in a fundamental science, and then apply that foundation to the interdisciploinary topic that interests you, likely as part of a team with diverse training.

Bottom line -- find a school and a faculty member who conduct research in an area that interests you. The fit between you, the school, and the specific faculty are more important that terminology.
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#4 mooeypoo

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Posted 11 January 2012 - 10:51 PM

Hmm. I don't want to start a "war" between the fields, but these things confuse me a lot. He makes good points, but he's also a physicist. He seems to define astronomy not quite as astronomers define it.

See, something like this, for instance:

So astrophysics is regarded as a subset of astronomy which is primarily concerned with

understanding

the properties of stars and galaxies, rather than just measuring their positions and motions.


--Is confusing. It makes it sound like astronomers gather data, and astrophysicists work to understand it. That's not really what I see out in the "real world".

And then you have sites that do astronomy that define astronomy:

What Do Astronomers Do?
Most astronomers concentrate on a particular question or area of astronomy: for example, planetary science, solar astronomy, the origin or evolution of stars, or the formation of galaxies. Observational astronomers design and carry out observing programs with a telescope or spacecraft to answer a question or test the predictions of theories. Theorist work with complex computer models of a star's interior, for example, to understand the physical processes responsible for the star's appearance.

Astronomers no longer look through an eye-piece on the telescopes but instead use sophisticated digital cameras attached to a telescope, computers to gather and analyze research data. The actual time spent at a telescope collecting data for analysis isonly the beginning.. Most of their time is spent in an office analyzing the data, creating computer programs that allow them to more efficiently search through the data, writing research papers, and completing other administrative tasks like attending meetings. There are many variables that shape an Astronomer's time, so many work flexible hours the meet their unique job environments.


Source: http://www.noao.edu/...-astronomer.php




So if I want to study exoplanets, I won't just need to "search for them", I will also need to observe stars and understand the behavior of exoplanets so I *can* detect them. Is this astronomy or astrophysics?

What about the subjects that are "in between", like equipment design? Who works on designing telescopes, or things like Kepler mission -- astronomers (it gathers data) or astrophysicists (it examines stars so we can understand them better).

Lastly, he makes the point that astrophysics is a subset of astronomy, but if that's the case, why is it that most Astrophysics programs are in the PHYSICS department of the school while astronomy is its own department?

Is this a "status" thing?

I'm so confused.

Bottom line -- find a school and a faculty member who conduct research in an area that interests you. The fit between you, the school, and the specific faculty are more important that terminology.


That's a good point.

Since my interest is for now still general, I wanted to try and get into a department that will give me the most chances of finding what I like in. In general, cosmology and the more 'theoretical' subjects don't quite interest me as much as the observational and experimental stuff. Radio astronomy, equipment design, exoplanets, supernovae, etc.

But I don't have a specific subject I want to do just yet, so the point is to try and pick. And I'm getting very confused with all those distinctions. I get the feeling that there's a line between astronomy and physics (which actually makes me annoyed sometimes) as if astronomers are not physicists, even though all astronomy graduate departments require physics BS education.

Maybe I'm just stuck on the irrelevant issues, though... I should keep researching.
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#5 timo

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Posted 12 January 2012 - 12:00 AM

I would think it's more a historical thing: If a university had an Astronomy department for ages, then it still may have. If they hadn't, then they may be more likely to install an Astrophysics chair in the physics department. That's just a guess of an outsider who cares little about the Astro hype, though.
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#6 ajb

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Posted 12 January 2012 - 10:30 AM

When looking at undergraduate degrees there seems little difference in my opinion between astronomy and astrophysics. There is always some element of marketing here. Both degrees will also have lots in common with a straight physics degree, there will be core physics modules. My advice would be to check the modules offered in each course in all the universities you have in mind.

Same thing for taught masters degrees really. Check the modules offered rather than go on just the name. For my masters some of the core modules were attended by people interested in astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, "straight" physics and theoretical particle physics.

For PhD I would hardly worry about the exact name of the award. It could be "Physics", "Astronomy", "Astrophysics", "Applied Mathematics" or something else. The main thing is to find a topic to work on that you find interesting and you see yourself working on very hard, even when it all seems to be going wrong.

I would not worry too much about the exact name of the department either. You want to do something "spacey", well depending on exactly what you have in mind, the research could be conducted in Physics & Astronomy, Engineering, Chemistry, Earth Science, Mathematics, and so on. Find out what research interests you and worry about the name later. You will always be free to talk to anyone you like about research at any time, including people not in your department.

Other advice I will offer is find a department with very health seminars. Not just exactly what you are interested in, but other things also.
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#7 swansont

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Posted 12 January 2012 - 11:09 AM

For PhD I would hardly worry about the exact name of the award. It could be "Physics", "Astronomy", "Astrophysics", "Applied Mathematics" or something else. The main thing is to find a topic to work on that you find interesting and you see yourself working on very hard, even when it all seems to be going wrong.

I would not worry too much about the exact name of the department either. You want to do something "spacey", well depending on exactly what you have in mind, the research could be conducted in Physics & Astronomy, Engineering, Chemistry, Earth Science, Mathematics, and so on. Find out what research interests you and worry about the name later. You will always be free to talk to anyone you like about research at any time, including people not in your department.


I agree. My degree is in atomic physics, but as a postdoc I was in the chemistry department at Simon Fraser and an astronomer at USNO. Titles matter to the bean counters more than the scientists.
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#8 mooeypoo

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Posted 12 January 2012 - 04:34 PM

So technically speaking and overall/generally, there should not be a massive difference between Astronomy grad progam (Masters or PhD) or an Astrophysics one?

I can get into positions either way, or is the "Astronomy" grad program really does have this "reputation" of being "less" physics?

I'm worried about that because it's a notion I've been getting from some of my professors and from readings I've been doing in forums online. It's less about the "reputation" as it is about what that reputation might do to a potential future in the field...

Does this make sense?

Thanks for the replies!

~mooey
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#9 timo

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Posted 12 January 2012 - 04:57 PM

A potential future in the field is more likely to be based on your work than on the department's label.
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#10 DrRocket

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Posted 13 January 2012 - 09:12 AM

But I don't have a specific subject I want to do just yet, so the point is to try and pick....

Maybe I'm just stuck on the irrelevant issues, though... I should keep researching.


Therein lies a significant problem. If you don't have a fairly good idea of what interests you before you enter graduate school, you may find that the road is a bit rocky. While vascillation is the norm for undergraduates, graduate school tends to be a bit more focused. It is not impossible to change directions in graduate school (I did it myself) it is much more difficult than changing majors as an undergraduate (where it is not at all unsual for a student to make several changes before finally getting a BA or BS).

If you are in a good graduate program you will find it FAR more intense than what you saw as an undergraduate. A good graduate course would cover the amount of material that you see in a typical undergraduate science class in the first two weeks, in greater depth and with greater demand on understanding. You will find the work very interesting, but very challenging and with little time for "findng yourself" in the broad sense.

You might want to consider delaying entrance to graduate school and instead getting some experience with a job in an area of potential interest. Do some reading on the side, and when you have a somewhat better idea of specific areas of interest then pick a school on the basis of that new-found understanding.

If you have a better idea of what really interests you, then your chances of success will be better. While it is unusual for Masters candidates to wash out, it is quite common for PhD candidates not make the grade.

Edited by DrRocket, 13 January 2012 - 09:15 AM.

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#11 ajb

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Posted 13 January 2012 - 09:45 AM

While it is unusual for Masters candidates to wash out, it is quite common for PhD candidates not make the grade.



Is that really the case in the US?

Here in the UK to fail a PhD seems very uncommon. Though I do know people who do not finish the course and never submit a thesis.
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#12 DrRocket

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Posted 13 January 2012 - 09:24 PM

Is that really the case in the US?

Here in the UK to fail a PhD seems very uncommon. Though I do know people who do not finish the course and never submit a thesis.


In the U.S. one takes a set of exams called the "qualifying exams" early on in order to enter the PhD program. That washes out quite a few. Then one takes the "general exams" just before starting the formal research for the dissertation.

When I took the general exam there were about 3 of us who passed that year. We were the first group to have anyone pass in several years.

At the time that I was in school, in mathematics the qualifying and general examinations were individual oral exams. Anything that any of the examining professors knew was fair game for a question. I believe that now most of the examinations are conventional written tests. A recent student at my old school tells me that very few students can pass the analysis portion of the tests, so they tend to specialize in other areas.

It is relatively rare for anyone to wash out after the general exams, unless they simply can't produce a dissertation. It is very rare for anyone to fail the final examination, which is the "dissertation defense". I know of a couple of very unusual instances in which this happened, but they are pretty extreme examples.

However, on the whole, only a relatively small per centage of those who enter graduate school following the BS make it to the PhD.

I can also speak to the qualifying examinations in electrical engineering, which I also took. There one took a written exam and could pass at either of two levels -- qualified for an MS or qualified for the PhD program. I qualified at the higher level, and I think a couple of others also did, but most either passed at the MS level or did not pass at all. I don't recall anyone in the PhD program washing out after the qualifier, but there were only a half-dozen or so PhD students in the program.

I am sure that this varies with the particular school. I was once told by a professor at a major Eastern U.S. university that he felt it his responsibility to see that any student that he took on would graduate -- to the point of writing the dissertation for him if necessary. I was shocked.
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#13 CharonY

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 12:10 AM

Is that really the case in the US?
Here in the UK to fail a PhD seems very uncommon. Though I do know people who do not finish the course and never submit a thesis.


I think the precise oral exams vary quite a bit from uni to uni (especially with regards to timing). Where I work for instance, there are no exams prior to entry , but only before the official start of the actual PhD project. These are often called preliminary, general, comprehensive or simply orals. Other exams are typically part of the respective courses.

I am not sure regarding details of the UK system, but compared to the (former) German and French systems, fresh graduate students tend to need more training before being comparable to (or surpassing) their peers. So in a way these are prelimary admissions, whereas in Germany you had to have an equivalent or higher of a masters before being admitted to a PhD program.
Though after the Bologna process I have no idea how things are (except that everybody is complaining, but that is a completely different topic).



The failure rate is generally considered to be fairly low from what I heard, but I have never bothered to ask the programs office for actual statistics, so perceptions could be off. It is certainly higher than the failures during the actual thesis defence, though. It is probably worth mentioning that due to its format, the mentoring abilities and willingness of the adviser can play an important role. This is at least partially due to the fact that at least in natural sciences the PhD project is often dreamed up by or negotiated with the PhD adviser, since he/she is the one who is going to pay for the (usually) expensive research. Quite often (in private conversations) failure of a candidate is also indirectly attributed to the adviser.

But as mentioned, there will be big difference between schools.

Edited by CharonY, 16 January 2012 - 12:11 AM.

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#14 ajb

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 09:05 AM

I think at this point I should say that none of us want to scare mooeypoo and as long as the hard work is put in she will get through it. That I am sure of.
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#15 CharonY

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 03:55 PM

In my mind the exams and corsework are more formalities rather than a real barrier, as long as on has good grasp of the subject, interest, and the willingness to work. Sometimes people struggle due to time management issues more than anything else.
I do not really think that she is going to have significant trouble at all.
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#16 D H

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 05:09 PM

I think the precise oral exams vary quite a bit from uni to uni (especially with regards to timing).

Or even whether the exams are oral. My son just finished his third of three prelims, and they were written rather than oral exams. The school had switched to using written exams due to the large number of foreign students in the program.

With regards to how to have troubles after the quals/prelims: My employer tends to hire people with advanced degrees. Several of those who on paper graduated with a masters were well into a PhD program. The colloquial term: They have an ABD degree (All But Dissertation.) One got his new wife pregnant, another read a journal article that was a carbon copy of her thesis two weeks prior to her defense, another completely lost his funding, another had an adviser who was never there, and yet another had an adviser who kept asking for one more thing, over and over.
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#17 CharonY

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 06:05 PM

Well, the trouble of the actual PhD work are legion. Problems with advisers are probably somewhere near the top of the list.
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#18 DrRocket

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Posted 17 January 2012 - 01:14 AM

In my mind the exams and corsework are more formalities rather than a real barrier,...


To quote the dean of my graduate school, "The only requirement for a PhD is an acceptable dissertation." Everything else can be waived (course work, residency requuirement, etc.)

However, the purpose of the qualifying and general exams is to determine if you are ready to procede further in course work or research. If you fail one of those you might be given the opportunity to take them again, but unless you eventually pass you are out of the program. However, no one who is doing significant original research is likely to fail (and no one who fails is likely to do significant original research).

Courses are just there to get you ready to do research and to take those two exams. Not every course even has associated tests.
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