Astro vs. Physics for 2-body problem

starformationrate
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Joined: Thu Jul 09, 2015 10:39 am

Astro vs. Physics for 2-body problem

Postby starformationrate » Wed Sep 30, 2015 10:54 pm

I want to do astrophysics, particularly galaxy formation and evolution. The majority of the departments I've been looking at so far have been specifically astro departments.

However, I'm a physics and math double major, and I know there's generally plenty of overlap between physics and astro departments. Many of my professors have told me to consider applying for physics departments and just working with an astro advisor instead. Their reasoning: physics departments are generally more versatile, and a physics degree can give more options in the future.

I don't particularly care about the versatility of my degree; I've done research in multiple fields and am sure I want to do astrophysics for the rest of my life. I think I could do that equally well with either a physics or an astro degree. But my boyfriend and I are attempting to solve the 2-body problem by ending up in the same or nearby schools, so my goal is not just to get into grad school but to maximize acceptances.

So is it worth me applying to physics departments over astronomy departments (assuming my research interests fit fairly well at either)? I've heard that astro departments often have less funding than physics departments and so accept less students. I've also heard that minority status and the PGRE often carry more weight in physics admissions. Are either of these true? Has anyone else been in this kind of situation?

TakeruK
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Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Astro vs. Physics for 2-body problem

Postby TakeruK » Thu Oct 01, 2015 12:16 am

I don't think these funding details are worth worrying about. I don't think they are true and there is almost no way to verify it.

Here are some thoughts:

1. Degree versatility is still important even if you know you want to do astronomy for the rest of your life. I think in most cases, the limiting factor is not a graduate's willingness or interest in astronomy, but actually availability of jobs! That said, however, if a school has a strong Astronomy/Astrophysics department, you should certainly apply to that department if your interests are in astronomy! I would say it only makes sense to apply to Physics instead of Astronomy if you are at a school where the Physics program is very strong but the astronomy program is weak.

2. Despite what I said above, if you want to maximize your chances at getting into a program (2 body problem), the right thing to do is to apply to BOTH physics and astronomy, unless the school only allows you to apply to one of the two programs. However, many places will allow you to apply to more than one department on campus, and in these cases, you should apply to both!

astroprof
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Re: Astro vs. Physics for 2-body problem

Postby astroprof » Thu Oct 01, 2015 5:55 pm

While you raise this issue in the context of your 2-body problem, this is a common question for prospective astronomy graduate students in general. There are at least two questions you need to ask yourself: (1) do I want/need to take advanced physics courses to conduct my research (courses like QFT and beyond) or do I want/need to take astronomy courses to provide a broad background for my research program? and (2) do I want to be tested on physics or astronomy (qualifying exams; candidacy exams/seminars; final defense of dissertation)? In other words, graduate school is not only about research opportunities - you also need to satisfy the coursework and examination requirements of your department. These requirements can be drastically different when physics and astronomy are separate departments (there also may be an astronomy track for students in joint Physics and Astronomy departments, but the details of those options are less crucial at this stage in the application process). I know many astronomers who were perfectly fine taking the physics route, but I also know many astronomers who thought that the extra coursework and less relevant testing were a distraction from their goal of completing an astronomy research project. In summary, you need to think about whether being in a physics department could compromise your educational opportunities/requirements before you decide whether this is a potential solution to your 2-body problem.

A second issue is funding. While you may be able to work with a faculty member in the astronomy department, you will likely be the last in line for funding in BOTH departments (astronomy will give priority to their students; physics will give you lower priority because you are not working in the department). If your research advisor is well funded, this is probably not as much of an issue, because they will likely only accept as many research students as they can fund. However, if the funding is tight (as it is currently in astronomy), then they will almost certainly be encouraged by the department to use those RA funds on astronomy students.

On the practical side of your question: yes, astronomy departments are usually smaller and accept fewer students than physics departments. However, we also receive fewer applicants! So, yes, as would be expected for small numbers statistics, there is more stochasticity in our acceptance rates. Nonetheless, you may have a greater chance of acceptance to an astronomy program because you will be able to write a more compelling personal statement which explains why you want to be an astronomer. If you submit a similar statement to the physics department, they may not view your application as positively.

Also, as TakeruK says, you can maximize your probability by applying to both departments when possible, or at the very least indicating an interest in both departments (some schools allow you to apply twice; some schools allow you to indicate interest in multiple departments; and some schools insist that you pick just one department for your application). While I do not think that this is generally a good approach (for instance, we will downgrade applicants if we know they have applied to both physics and astronomy, since why would we waste one of our precious spots on a student who is not necessarily committed to astronomy...), it may be a good strategy in this specific instance. However, if you cannot answer "yes, I want to take lots of physics classes and take physics tests!" then you should probably save yourself the extra application fees and focus only on astronomy and Joint physics/astronomy programs.

TakeruK
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Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Astro vs. Physics for 2-body problem

Postby TakeruK » Thu Oct 01, 2015 6:41 pm

Astroprof's note about the coursework and exams is a good point I forgot to mention! I had to decide between Earth Science & Astronomy departments for grad school (work is on exoplanets) and whenever I talked to professors at these schools about which department to pick, they always mentioned this factor as well! In the end, I chose the earth science route as I felt the knowledge of planetary physics and chemistry would help me understand planets a lot better than extra courses in galaxies or globular clusters, for example (also I already had a Masters in Astronomy so I didn't want to repeat a lot of coursework).

starformationrate
Posts: 9
Joined: Thu Jul 09, 2015 10:39 am

Re: Astro vs. Physics for 2-body problem

Postby starformationrate » Fri Oct 02, 2015 10:05 am

Thanks TakeruK and astroprof for the great replies.

The note about courses and exams is a great one. I admit that I'm a little in love with the idea of having a physics degree, which is maybe a result of the bias in my department (my school doesn't have an astro degree, and even our astrophysics faculty lean very heavily towards physics). But if I'm being really honest with myself, the thought of having to sit through standard mech/EM/QM quals and taking QFT courses is... not at all appealing.

So I think I have my answer! Thanks again for the help.

One tangential follow-up question:
TakeruK wrote: Despite what I said above, if you want to maximize your chances at getting into a program (2 body problem), the right thing to do is to apply to BOTH physics and astronomy, unless the school only allows you to apply to one of the two programs. However, many places will allow you to apply to more than one department on campus, and in these cases, you should apply to both!

I know that in the past, some departments have automatically moved applications over to another department if they feel an application is strong but better suited elsewhere (e.g. according to previous applicant profiles, Caltech's astro department has transferred applications to the physics department). I realize this is probably not the norm--Caltech is small enough that maybe this is a feasible strategy for them--but does anyone know if there are other schools that do this? I've tried checking websites, but no dice. I'm guessing most places wouldn't want to advertise that they'll do this for free?

TakeruK
Posts: 813
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Astro vs. Physics for 2-body problem

Postby TakeruK » Fri Oct 02, 2015 11:14 am

starformationrate wrote:I know that in the past, some departments have automatically moved applications over to another department if they feel an application is strong but better suited elsewhere (e.g. according to previous applicant profiles, Caltech's astro department has transferred applications to the physics department). I realize this is probably not the norm--Caltech is small enough that maybe this is a feasible strategy for them--but does anyone know if there are other schools that do this? I've tried checking websites, but no dice. I'm guessing most places wouldn't want to advertise that they'll do this for free?


This depends on the school. Based on what I remember from applying and what other students have told me, these are the options I've heard of:

1. The school allows you to apply to more than one department (usually a max of 2 though) and you submit separate application packages and will receive offers independent of each department (i.e. you can get accepted to both and have to decide).

2. The school does not allow more than one application. You will be expected to apply to your first choice department/program but the application package will ask if you have a "second choice" and if the first choice does not accept you, they will forward your application to the second choice. However, the application usually notes that by the time you get forwarded to the second choice, the second choice may already made (most if not all) of their decisions.

3. The school doesn't ask you about a second choice but they will instead inform you that they have transferred your application if the department you applied to does not feel you are a good fit for them. Or they will reject you and ask if you would like your application transferred.

I'll send you a PM about your specific question!

Edit: Oops I kind of left it off without saying the one thing I wanted to say: If the website doesn't tell you the information you need, you can just start an application. Most applications will let you skip through pages without answering all/any of the questions. Look to see if the application asks about multiple departments. And if that doesn't answer your question, sending an email to the appropriate person in the department would be the next best step (let them know that you are interested in both and what the school's policies are on applying for more than one program).




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