What is an Astrophysics Degree?

Astrophysics is a branch of astronomy. In the most rigid sense, astronomy focuses on observations of heavenly bodies and measures their positions, luminosities, motions, and other characteristics.

Astrophysics focuses on creating physical theories about the origin and nature of those heavenly bodies. But the lines between the two fields are blurred, and today many who work in space science draw little or no distinction between the two. They view astronomy and astrophysics as two aspects of one science.

NASA’s goals in astrophysics are to probe the origin and destiny of our universe, including the nature of black holes, dark energy, dark matter, and gravity; to explore the origin and evolution of the galaxies, stars, and planets that make up our universe; and to discover and study planets around other stars, and explore whether they could harbor life.

The work of astrophysicists is to try to answer the three questions that these goals present. How does the universe work? How did we get here? Are we alone? The work of degree programs in astrophysics is to explore these questions and teach students how to apply the laws of physics and chemistry to explain the birth, life, and death of stars, planets, galaxies, nebulae and other objects in the universe.

Program Options

While distinct programs in astrophysics do exist, many schools offer combined astronomy and astrophysics degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Bachelor’s Degree in Astrophysics – Four Year Duration
Because it is typical for astrophysicists to hold a master’s or doctoral degree, bachelor’s degrees in the field are not that common. For this reason, students who go on to earn a graduate degree may begin their studies by earning a bachelor’s in physics or another related science. Foundational requirements include classes in general chemistry, calculus, and linear algebra.

Here is a sampling of core courses that may be offered at the bachelor’s level:

  • Foundations of Astrophysics I – solar system astrophysics, dynamics of planets, satellite systems, asteroids and comets, planetary atmospheres and internal structure, thermal balance, the Sun as a Star, introduction to numerical computing
  • Foundations of Astrophysics II – astrophysics of galaxies and stars, galactic structures and dynamics, active nuclei, large-scale structure, Netwonian and relativistic cosmology, stellar atmospheres and spectral lines, stellar interiors, nuclear energy generation, main-sequence and evolved stars
  • Observational Astronomy and Lab – principles and techniques of optical and near-infrared astronomical observation; astronomical coordinate systems; telescopes, cameras, spectrographs, and detectors; astrometry, photometry, and spectroscopy of astronomical objects; error analysis, properties of light, data, and imager processing
  • Observational Projects – practical astronomical observation; students select objects to study and conduct remote observations using research-grade telescopes
  • Senior Research Project – research in observational, theoretical, or numerical astronomy or astronomical; instrumentation development
  • General Physics I and Lab – calculus-based mechanics of particles and rigid bodies; kinematics, force, energy, momentum, rotation, gravitation, fluids, oscillation and waves
  • General Physics II and Lab – electricity and magnetism in geometric optics
  • General Physics III and Lab – relativity, introduction to quantum mechanics, atomics and nuclear physics, and physical optics
  • Theoretical Mechanics I – particle dynamics, rigid-body dynamics, planetary motion
  • Theoretical Mechanics II – classical mechanics, basics of space flight, the Voyageur Mission, planetary rings
  • Electricity and Magnetism – electrostatic and magnetostatic fields in vacuum and matter, induction, Maxwell’s equations; AC circuits
  • Electromagnetic Waves – field equations, plane, spherical, and guided waves
  • Quantum Mechanics – wave mechanics, Schroedinger equation, angular momenta, and potential problems
  • Professional Ethics – ethical principles and their application to research in physics and astronomy
  • Galaxies and Cosmology – extragalactic astronomy and cosmology including galaxy morphology and kinematics, luminosity functions, dark matter, properties of galaxy groups/clusters, gravitational lensing, redshifts, cosmological models, the Big Bang, thermal history of the Universe, structure formation
  • Physical Optics – fundamentals of classical physical optics: optical fields in matter, interference, diffraction, and polarization
  • Modern Physics – introduction to nuclear and elementary-particle physics

Master’s Degree in Astrophysics – Two to Three Year Duration
At the master’s level students take some required courses but can design their program in consultation with a faculty member, to focus on their particular area of interest. The master’s program’s culminating requirement is a thesis based on original research.

These are examples of courses that may be required for astrophysics master’s students:

  • Analytical Techniques in Differential Equations
  • Numerical Algorithms for Scientific Computing
  • Software Engineering for Scientific Computing
  • Dynamics of Stellar and Planetary Systems
  • Structure of the Stars
  • Diffuse Matter in Space
  • High Energy and Astrophysics
  • Introduction to Plasma Astrophysics
  • General Plasma Physics
  • Plasma Waves and Instabilities
  • Irreversible Processes in Plasmas
  • Fusion Plasmas and Plasma Diagnostics
  • Turbulence and Nonlinear Processes in Fluids and Plasmas
  • Computational Methods in Plasma Physics
  • Applications of Quantum Mechanics to Spectroscopy and Lasers
  • Physics of Plasma Propulsion
  • Physics of the Universe
  • Topics in Statistics and Machine Learning

Doctoral Degree in Astrophysics – Four to Five Year Duration
The master’s program involves a lot of taught courses. It emphasizes the transition from pure subject learning to independent research. On the other hand, the doctoral degree is like a very long dissertation project. Ph.D. students have a great deal of independence. They have the benefit of supervision from a faculty advisor and may complete some taught classes, but their focus is on their independent research, on contributing original – new – knowledge to the field of astrophysics. Academic and research positions in the field generally require a doctoral degree.

Advanced research topics include:

  • Cosmology and high-energy astrophysics
  • Cosmic-ray astrophysics
  • Solar energetic particles
  • Thunderstorm and lightning physics
  • High-energy atmospheric physics
  • Stellar astronomy
  • Black holes and active galactic nuclei
  • Galactic jets
  • Solar physics
  • Astroinformatics – data science applied in the domain of astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, and planetary science
  • Planetary surfaces
  • Exo-planets – planets outside the Solar System
  • Human space exploration
  • Energetic radiation

Degrees Similar to Astrophysics

Astronomy degree programs teach students about celestial bodies and the energy and forces exerted by their interaction. This means that the curriculum is concerned with the study of objects in space, from the smallest neutrinos to planets, stars, solar systems, galaxies, asteroids, comets, and black holes.

Students learn about when these objects were born, how they evolved, how some of them became extinct, and how they move in space. They develop skills to theorize about the origin of the cosmos and to predict future events in the universe. In addition, they study the mechanics involved in building and deploying space stations, satellites, space crafts, and transportation systems.

Aerospace Engineering
Aerospace engineering degree programs teach the analytical, computational, and engineering and design skills needed to work in the aerospace industry. Topics covered include aerodynamics, orbits, launch, flight controls, and engines. Students learn how to apply this knowledge to the manufacturing, testing, and monitoring of civil or commercial aircraft, military aircraft, missiles, rockets, spacecraft, lunar vehicles, and space stations.

Geology, also known as geoscience and Earth science, is the study of the Earth. Students of the discipline learn about the processes that act upon the Earth, such as floods, landslides, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions; the materials of which the Earth is made, such as water, oil, metals, and rocks; and the history, evolution, and past climates of the Earth.

Meteorology degree programs teach students how to predict weather conditions. The typical curriculum examines atmospheric movement, climate trends, and ozone levels. With an understanding of these concepts, students learn about various meteorological phenomena. They learn how to use statistical analysis to forecast weather events from sun, clouds, and rain to heat waves, droughts, thunderstorms, tropical storms, tornados, and hurricanes.

Physics is a field that keeps changing as discoveries are made. This means that the field asks at least as many questions as it answers. Students of physics degree programs study matter and energy. They learn about the relationships between the measurable quantities in the universe, which include velocity, electric field, and kinetic energy. In simple terms, the study of physics is an attempt to figure out why objects move in the way that they do.

Skills You’ll Learn

Throughout their studies and in their efforts to understand the universe and our place in it, astrophysics grads develop these transferable skills:

  • Complex problem-solving
  • Dedication to ongoing learning
  • Mathematical / quantitative reasoning skills to test theories
  • Observation and critical thinking
  • Oral and written communication
  • Patience
  • Pattern recognition
  • Project Management
  • Report writing
  • Research / data collection, interpretation, analysis, and reporting
  • Teamwork
  • Technical / IT skills

What Can You Do with an Astrophysics Degree?

Astrophysics grads typically find themselves working in one of three areas:

Scientific / Educational

  • Research and development with government agencies and universities; teaching at universities
  • Data analysis
  • Mission conception
  • Astronaut programs
  • Advanced concept development
  • Distribution of research grants
  • Space policy and law
  • Aerospace research to support aerospace engineers


  • Design, testing, manufacture, launch, decommissioning, and disposal of spacecraft
  • Design and testing of associated ground systems technologies
  • Feasibility studies
  • Mission planning
  • Development of telecommunication satellites
  • Development of Earth observation systems for disaster response and climate change monitoring
  • Extra-terrestrial probes and rover vehicles


  • Satellite operation
  • Mission control / orbit control of spacecraft
  • Spacecraft collision avoidance
  • Selling of related data to other companies


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