Astronomy Careers FAQ

I get lots of questions from people interested in astronomy as a career. Here are some questions and answers!

I'm in grade/middle/high school. What do I need to do to become an astronomer?
I advise you to take as much math as you can. Having high school calculus under your belt will make your first physics classes much easier. Physics and other sciences should be a priority, too, but don't neglect other classes. Astronomers still need to be good writers and communicators, and good grades across the board are necessary for college admission and scholarships.

What kind of schooling is necessary for an astronomer?
First you'll go to college for four (or maybe five) years to get a bachelor's degree. A bachelor of science (BS) in astronomy is best, but you can still get into grad school with a bachelor of arts (BA), or a degree in physics or even other fields.
    It's important to get good grades in college and to score well on your Graduate Record Exam (a big ugly standardized physics test you take your senior year), but what really makes candidates for grad school stand out is their research experience. As soon as you can, hook up with one of your professors and start working on a research project. You might work on data analysis, instrument building, computer programming, or lots of other fun stuff. Also be alert to opportunities like the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, where you work at another university for a summer, or the summer student programs at the national astronomy observatories.
    After college comes graduate school. You'll take more classes at first, and then shift into doing more research, and culminating in a doctoral thesis. You'll probably get some experience in front of a classroom by being a teaching assistant. It's really hard work, but to avoid scaring the pants off you, I'll smile stiffly and repeat what I've been told so many times: These are the best years of your life. You will be enjoying the best years of your life for five or six years (or more, or less, in some exceptional cases.)

What's the best college for astronomy?
In my opinion, it doesn't matter where you get your undergraduate degree, as long as you do research as an undergraduate. When you're shopping for colleges, I suggest that you look for one that offers an astronomy major (not just a minor) and ask about undergraduate opportunities for research. Some people say that Caltech or MIT are the only places to go, but they're just snobs. : ) You can save a lot of money at a state school.

What kinds of jobs do astronomers get?
After getting their doctoral degree, most astronomers take a number of short term jobs called "postdocs" which last a two years or so each. During this time, they're doing research and publishing papers to establish themselves. After some number of postdocs, they can then find a position on the faculty of a college or university, where they teach and do research, or they can get a position at a research institution. I've also known a couple of PhD's who got faculty positions right out of graduate school.

Aren't jobs in astronomy scarce? I really love astronomy, but I'm afraid I won't be able to find a job after I graduate!
While the job search can definitely be a harrowing process, most of the people I know who have graduated recently have found good positions, one way or another. If astronomy is what you really want to do, go for it! If you are willing to be flexible, it is unlikely that you will end up unemployed.
    Also, the training astronomers receive is in high demand in other fields. Astronomers learn to be problem solvers and pick up lots of math and computer skills. People who are trained as scientists are in high demand as "management consultants." (Now, please, don't ask me what a management consultant does, because I'm not quite sure.) So if the whole astronomy thing doesn't work out, it's not like you've completely wasted the last ten years learning obscure and totally unpractical skills.

How much money do astronomers make?
According to the American Institute of Physics the average salary for a Physics PhD. was about $70,000 in 1998. A post-doc right out of graduate school is about $34,000 a year in physics. Salaries for astronomers are comparable.

What skills to astronomers need to have?
Astronomers need to be good at physics and math; that's what they do! Don't fall into the trap of thinking that astronomy is one of the "easier" sciences! Astronomers work a lot with computers so good computer and programming skills are helpful. Some astronomers build their own instruments, so they learn about electronics, materials fabrication,and machining, and other skills.
    Astronomers need good teaching skills as well, since they teach as much as they learn. They also need good writing skills so they can write grant proposals to get money and telescope time for their projects, and they share their research by writing articles for journals. They must have good communications skills as well. Very few papers in journals have just one author, since astronomers generally work in teams with various colleagues, so they need to be able to share information and get along with different people.

How much time to astronomers spend looking through telescopes?
Nowadays, the bulk of the work astronomers do is on computers. They spend a small portion of their time at telescopes actually taking data. Astronomically-useful telescopes rarely have eyepieces you can look through. Radio, ultraviolet, or infrared telescopes collect light that you can't even see with your eye! Telescopes that collect visible light often have electronic cameras called CCD cameras that create an image in a computer. Many telescopes are used to create a spectrum (the light is split into a rainbow, and the brightness of each color is measured). Radio telescopes record signals that astronomers can reconstruct using a computer to make an image or a spectrum. Astronomers spend weeks or months or years analyzing their data using computers. They also do calculations that help them understand what they're seeing, and then write papers about their results to share what they've found with other astronomers. Some astronomers never even make observations. They just work along with observational astronomers to make theoretical computer models. On the other hand, some astronomers work at observatories, making observations for other astronomers or helping visiting astronomers use the equipment.

What's the best thing about being an astronomer?
Definitely the very best thing about being an astronomer is doing what you love for a living. It's very satisfying to solve a problem, or to discover something that nobody ever knew before. Some other nice things are being self-directed in pursuing the research that most interests you, and frequent travel to conferences, meetings, and observatories.

What's the difference between astronomy and astrophysics?
Technically speaking, astronomy is the science of measuring the positions and characteristics of heavenly bodies, and astrophysics is the application of physics to understand astronomy. However, nowadays, the two terms are more or less interchangeable since all astronomers generally use physics to understand their findings. (My husband tells people I'm an astrophysicist because sometimes when he says I'm an astronomer they think I do astrology.)

What's the difference between astronomy and astrology?
Astrology is a pseudo-science which claims that the positions of the heavenly bodies have an effect on the lives of human beings and events on Earth. Astrology has many of the trappings of real science, like math and complicated diagrams and a specialized vocabulary, but astrologers do not follow the scientific method. Real scientists make careful measurements in well-controlled studies. Astrologers don't do experiments to prove their theories. Instead, they like to provide anecdotal evidence -- stories people tell about how accurate they think astrology is. Anecdotal evidence is not acceptable in a real science because it's too easy to leave out all the negative experiences people have, and people not very good at recalling and accurately reporting experiences. Don't refer to an astronomer as an astrologer!

If you are interested in a career in astronomy and you have more questions, I'd love to get email from you!

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