Physics Vs Astronomy: Which Should You Study? | Top Universities

Physics Vs Astronomy: Which Should You Study?

By Sabrina Collier

Updated February 18, 2021 Updated February 18, 2021

Interested in gaining an in-depth understanding of the physical universe with a physics or astronomy degree, but not sure which one to choose? Although there are many options to study physics and astronomy together in one degree, you may prefer to focus on just one of these two closely connected fields, or choose a specialized area within one of the two.  

What is physics?

Physics is a natural science which is concerned with the nature and properties of matter and energy. It’s also an experimental science, employing scientific methods to formulate and test hypotheses that are based on reflection of the natural world. Physics includes astronomy, but a physics degree will also cover topic such as electricity, magnetism, and thermodynamics. The main goal of physics is to understand how the universe behaves.

You should study a physics degree if… 

  • You’re not yet sure which area of physics you’re most interested in or what physics careers could suit you the most.
  • You want to gain a solid foundation in the subject before possibly specializing in a field of physics – see below for options!

What is astronomy? 
Astronomy

Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences, and focuses on celestial objects, such as planets, stars, comets and galaxies, and phenomena that occur outside the Earth’s atmosphere, such as cosmic background radiation. Although astronomy is a sub-discipline of physics, it can also be considered ‘applied physics’, as it applies the scientific hypotheses and basic rules of physics to further our understanding of space.

You should study astronomy if…

  • You know your main level of interest is non-Earthly physics, and you want to learn how to apply the main concepts of physics to the study of planets, celestial bodies, stars etc.
  • You want to study the answers to big questions relating to astronomy, such as ‘how was the universe created?’ and ‘how likely is it that life exists outside the Earth?’
  • You’re passionate about following developments in the news in answering these questions.
  • You want to pursue a career in astronomy research, education or outreach.

Typical physics specializations 

If you choose to study physics, astronomy is by no means the only branch you can specialize in, especially if you continue your studies at postgraduate level. Other options include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Electromagnetics –Electromagnetism involves the study of the electromagnetic force, a type of physical interaction that occurs between electrically charged particles.
  • Quantum mechanics – This focuses on the smallest levels of physics, covering concepts such as the atomic nucleus, radioactivity, radioactive decay and fission.
  • Particle physics – This specialization focuses on understanding the basic elements of matter and how they interact with each other.
  • Mathematical physics – This topic involves using mathematical methods to solve problems in physics.
  • Thermodynamics – This branch of physics deals with the interactions between heat and other forms of energy.

Typical astronomy specializations 

  • Astrophysics – Studying astrophysics means looking at the physics and properties of celestial objects, including stars, planets and galaxies, their properties and how they behave. You could even study whether or not time travel is possible.
  • Cosmology – This concerns the study of the origin, evolution, basic structure and eventual fate of the universe.
  • Astrobiology – Astrobiology focuses on the origins, evolution and possible outcome of living organisms on Earth and the study of whether or not extraterrestrial life exists.
  • Solar astrophysics – This branch of astrophysics focuses on the sun, studying its behavior and properties and how these affect us on Earth.
  • Planetary geology – This specialization is for you if you’re interested in combining geological studies with physics to learn more about the structure and behavior of planets, moons, comets, asteroids – and anything else floating around out there.

Physics and astronomy careers and skills

What skills can you gain from astronomy and physics degrees, what sort of jobs could you do, and what’s your salary potential?

 

Physics

Astronomy

Key skills

 

  • Highly advanced numeracy
  • Computer expertise
  • Familiarity with current scientific software
  • Ability to grasp and analyze complex data sets
  • Advanced reasoning skills
  • Ability to construct logical arguments
  • General research skills
  • Practical experimentation skills
  • A pragmatic and analytical approach to problem solving
  • Ability to communicate complex ideas
  • Knowledge of technical language
  • Self-management, including planning and meeting deadlines

 

  • Technical expertise
  • Numeracy
  • Data analysis
  • Problem-solving
  • Creativity
  • General IT skills
  • General research skills
  • Self-management, including planning and meeting deadlines
  • Professional communication, spoken and written
  • Specialized knowledge of astronomy

 

Astronomy and physics careers

 

  • Aerospace engineer
  • Astrophysicist
  • Mechanical engineer
  • Geophysicist
  • Medical physicist
  • Laboratory technician
  • Physics teacher/professor

 

  • Research associate
  • Theoretical astrophysicist
  • Observational astrophysicist
  • Planetarium astronomer
  • Astronomy professor

 

Salary potential                       

The expected starting salary for physics and astronomy graduates in the UK is £26,487 (~US$38,000). (2015 figures).

This article was originally published in March 2016 . It was last updated in February 2021

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Written by

The former Assistant Editor of TopUniversities.com, Sabrina wrote and edited articles to guide students from around the world on a wide range of topics. She has a bachelor's degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from Aberystwyth University and grew up in Staffordshire, UK. 

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