Astronomy Jobs: Life as an Astronomer

Working as a scientist can be an intellectually challenging and very demanding career. Astronomers are scientists who work towards understanding the behavioral properties of celestial objects in the Universe. They conduct extensive research to extend their knowledge of astronomy and learn how to apply this information to the world. Astronomers typically:

  • Participate in conducting astronomical observations by using some of the most advanced and cutting edge technology available. These include satellite-based and infrared telescopes.
  • Interpret observations and theories by applying astronomical knowledge and other integrated sciences. This information is then processed through computer technology to test these predictions mathematically.
  • Write and publish papers based on a variety of research topics.
  • Astronomers attend major conferences in many different parts of the world. On other occasions, scientists are invited to give presentations at institutions on their current research. Travelling provides excellent networking opportunities and the chance to get to know other people working in the field.
  • Astronomers are required to stay updated with all the new developments and astronomical discoveries. A portion of each day is usually spent reading online journals and articles.

Things to Keep in Mind

The idea of making a living by gazing up at the stars through a telescope would be a dream come true for any space enthusiast. Working in the field of astronomy is more complicated than simple observation and includes a variety of other tasks and responsibilities. Before jumping into the vast universe and considering pursuing the career path of an astronomer here are some things to consider:

  • Unfortunately being an astronomer doesn’t mean just sitting behind a telescope all-day. A large part of this profession involves interpreting and applying data acquired through various ways. Other sectors include research, teaching, or the publication of articles and papers.
  • Astronomy strongly focuses on mathematics and physics.
  • Hard work and patience is essential to succeed in this profession. Astronomy, unlike other scientific disciplines, is a specialized field. As a result, there is a limited number of jobs available, all of which are highly competitive. Individuals usually spend many years working on research before being considered for a full-time position.
  • Individuals choose to pursue a Bachelor of applied sciences, Masters, or PH.D
  • Astronomers are required to work a somewhat flexible schedule. At times working irregular hours may be necessary and is dependent on the visibility of space related phenomena and celestial objects.

Getting Started

Due to the extensive educational requirements to work as an astronomer, it is recommended to plan out all academia in advance. Scholars spend years completing a B.Sc., M.S or doctoral with the hopes of being presented the opportunity work in this specialized field.

High School – Focus on science related subjects, including physics, math, biology, and chemistry. These courses will build the foundation for post secondary studies.

Bachelor of Science (BS.c) – To be considered for most entry-level astronomy jobs, the minimum required is a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) in physics, astrophysics or astronomy. Additional courses in mathematics and computer science will be helpful later on when introduced to specialized computers programs. This level of education is designed to provide students with the foundation necessary for postgraduate studies. Many continue to complete a masters degree or doctoral. With just a bachelors and little to no experience, graduates often have trouble finding employment even in entry-level positions.

Masters’ Degree (MS) – The successful completion of an MS full time takes between 1-2 years in addition to a BS.c. Although not a requirement for all programs, some students will be required to prepare and write a thesis or dissertation. In short, a Masters’ level dissertation is a written study on a topic chosen by the student and submitted in support of candidature for an academic degree. A Masters’ qualifies most individuals for mid-tier employment opportunities.

Doctoral (Ph.D.) – A Doctoral will take anywhere from 5 – 7 years to complete. A doctoral is the highest level of academic degree and will qualify most for any job within the astronomy field. Most professional astronomers will work under a senior scientist and undergo multiple fellowships for an additional 2-6 years. Some positions are offered overseas and require excellent academic standing.

Relevant Integrated Subjects

For astronomers to accurately conduct research and analyze information, they must successfully integrate principals from other subjects. Physics, mathematics, computer science and biology are all incorporated into astronomy. Physics, mathematics and computer science are crucial in this field of science.

Physics – Although physics is the most basic science, it is fundamental to understanding the world. The principals and laws are applied to the universe to gather data about celestial objects and other phenomena.

Mathematics – The knowledge and application of statistics, calculus, arithmetic, geometry, and algebra is used to test and form theories encompassing physical laws that govern objects and their behavior within the universe.

Computer Science – The applications in computer science help astronomers compute complex numerical equations and problems.

English – Astronomers and many other careers are dependent on the ability to write. Scientists will be required to compose research papers, telescope proposals, a thesis, and grant applications, etc.

Required Skills, Abilities and Experience

Astronomers possess an array of field-specific skills and abilities. Despite this, there are some core competencies that all scientists need.

  • Scientific Writing – Astronomers complete reports, lecture notes, papers, and articles that follow a technical style. Scientific writing is also required to communicate all research findings effectively.
  • Computer Skills – Scientists rely on computers and various programs for the majority of their day-to-day operations. These tasks range from checking emails to processing equations. Astronomers do not typically use WINDOWS-based systems to handle complex computations. Instead, scientists use UNI-like operating systems. Most undergraduate students are unfamiliar with this specialized system. An early introduction to these alternative operating systems can provide invaluable experience that can be helpful during postgraduate studies.
  • Speaking/Presenting – Astronomers are required to present their findings to colleagues. Public speaking is not only beneficial for scientists interested in becoming teachers or professor, but also to those pursuing post graduate studies. Many undergraduate students gain experience in public speaking by collaborating with peers and completing research projects.
  • Critical/Analytical Thinking – The ability to think critically and analytically is of particular importance in astronomy. Scientists are required to check whether presented evidence supports or rejects theories being examined. Astronomers must also be sure to eliminate any hidden biases or assumptions.
  • Problem Solving – Astronomers require a keen ability to problem solve. Incredibly complex mathematical equations often require incorporating previous knowledge to calculate these problems accurately.

What to Look for in a University

Although schools provide students with an excellent background in science, it is recommended to attend an institution that either has an astronomy department or offers astronomy courses. One major advantage is faculty members within this department can supervise research projects that can count towards a large percentage of their grade. Students planning on continuing their studies post graduation can also inform astronomers within the department of their capabilities and interests. Networking will not only help with applying for an MSc or Ph.D. but also potentially open up work and volunteer opportunities.

Where Can One Work With an Astronomy Degree?

Aeronautics – Aeronautics revolves around the science of building, operating and aircraft design. Graduates apply the principals and techniques learned to improve aviation. The ultimate goal is to increase sustainability through reducing environmental impacts and delays.

Observatories – Observational astronomers conduct their research at facilities located throughout the world.  Scientists spend only a small portion of time observing and recording data. Astronomers spend the remainder of the year completing the technical sections of their research projects.

NASA – The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is a government-funded department located in the United States. This agency is responsible for the science and technologies of space, aeronautics and aerospace research. NASA provides employment opportunities in a variety of fields related to astronomy. A workforce of approximately 18,000 professionals who all come from diverse backgrounds all work towards a common goal in mind: “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”

NASA also offers a Student and Recent Graduate Program. This program provides students the opportunity to explore different careers while still in school. The Pathways Program allows students to gain work experience while being paid. Recent graduates are offered a dynamic career development program at the end of their education and start of their careers. Both programs also offer the chance of permanent employment.

NASA’s Office of Education also provides scholarships, fellowship and internship programs for various levels of education. There are specific opportunities for High school students, undergraduates, graduates, and educators.

Entry-level positions require a bachelor’s degree with a major in one or more of the listed fields: physical science, life science or mathematics.

Jobs available at NASA:

  • Astrobiologists
  • Astrophysicists
  • Engineers
  • IT Specialists
  • Human Resource Specialists
  • Writers
  • Technicians
  • Researchers
  • Astronauts
  • Aeronautics

Teaching – Astronomers may consider teaching after the successful completion of any university or college level degree. A bachelor of science combined with an education degree will quality most to teach at an elementary to high school level. College or university level professors require a Master’s Degree or Ph.D. Astronomers possessing a doctoral are also able to conduct private research and publish papers or articles.

Computer Programming/IT – Astronomers acquire significant computer programming experience. Much of this experience comes from classes, fieldwork, and simulations that carry over into most areas of astronomical research. At the end of an MS or doctoral, many find they possess the necessary skills to qualify for roles in computer science or information technology positions.

Entry-Level Astronomy Jobs

Bachelor Degree

  • Research Assistant – Individuals hired to assist in academic research. Typically employed by universities or research institutions to carry out particular research within a field or agenda. Responsible for the preparation of presentations, articles, and reports.
  • Data Technician/Analyst – Responsible for recording, collecting, and interpretation of information. Other responsibilities include verifying the accuracy of collected information, data management and the preparation of reports.
  • Elementary/High School Science Educator – Responsible for teaching students in grades 9-12 in a particular subject or area, such as science.
  • Science Writer – Content writers that specialize in scientific research and editing. They compose articles and papers for scientific and technical journals, publications and media. An understanding of complex practices, theories, and scientific language is required.
  • Telescope Operator/Technician – Responsible for the daily operations and maintenance of physical and electronic telescope apparatus. Skills necessary are a close attention to detail and, strong math skills. An understanding of coordinate systems and nomenclature used by astronomers to accurately describe parts of the sky is also necessary.

Advanced Astronomy Jobs

Masters Degree

  • Science Librarian – Provides research support and consultation to all science related departments. Occasionally requires teaching workshops on research tools, strategies, and methods.
  • Planetarium Director – Oversees the planetarium’s daily operations and assigns jobs to staff as necessary. The planetarium director is also responsible for marketing, public relations, program development and managing galleries.
  • Theoretical Astrophysicist – Focus on the study of fundamental physical processes that govern the evolution of the universe. Processes vary in scale and range from planetary systems to accretion on to black holes at the centers of galaxies. Astrophysicists use large-scale numerical simulations for research purposes.

Ph.D.

  • Astronomy Professor – Teach students lower and upper-level undergraduate astronomy and physics courses. Will also participate in lectures, laboratories and engage in research. Educators are required to prepare exams, quizzes, and lecture notes.
  • Applied Researcher – Upon the completion of a doctoral degree, one may work under a senior astronomer before taking on a more complex research topic(s).

Salaries/Wages

According to the U.S Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • Astronomers on average earn an hourly wage of $50.02. The lower end starts at $25.22 and increases up to $79.96.
  • Salaries on the lower end typically start around $52,460 and on the higher end make up to $166,320 per year.

Employment Tips

Every year there are a limited number of full-time astronomy research positions available. These jobs are very competitive and have a low turnover. On average there is roughly 150 full time positions that open up each year in North America. Those who qualify for these positions have the highest possible level of education, outstanding credentials and years of additional research experience. Despite these statistics, that doesn’t mean it is impossible to find decent work with an astronomy degree or related field.

Flexibility is crucial for professional astronomers seeking full-time employment for several reasons:

  • Even after the completion of a Ph.D., most individuals take on multiple postdoctoral positions. Astronomers have the opportunity to focus on research, publish papers, and establish recognition within the astronomical community. This extensive research on average takes 4-6 years.
  • Many permanent positions rely on government funding. The number of jobs available is affected by budget cuts and freezing.

The combination of education and training provides astronomers with a multitude of different skill sets that apply to other fields. For those uninterested in working in astronomy, this previous experience already provides those individuals with the skills necessary to excel in many non-astronomy related careers.

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