FAQ

AN ASTRONOMY CAREER

When people think of astronomy, they often think of stargazing and the many beautiful images that come from telescopes. However, astronomy is a science. That means astronomy is a lot of hard work and a lot of math.

When many people picture an astronomer at work, they think of someone huddling in a cold, dark observatory, squinting through a telescope. Luckily, this is one hardship astronomers no longer have to endure. Astronomers spend very little of their time observing at telescopes. At the observatory, the telescope and camera are controlled usually by computers in a warm, well-lit room away from the telescope, with a coffee maker or tea kettle right at hand.

Astronomers spend most of their time analyzing data with computers. They also are often teachers at colleges and universities.

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.

If you want to be an astronomer; what kind of degree will you need? How long will you have to go to school?

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, talk to your professors about 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 writing a doctoral thesis. You'll probably get some experience in front of a classroom by being a teaching assistant. It's really hard work. You will be enjoying the best years of your life for five or six years (or more, or less, in some exceptional cases.)

There are a very small number of jobs available for people who only have a Master's degree in astronomy, primarily in public outreach and teaching. Unless you have a very specific idea of what you want to do, and you're sure you can do it with just an M.S., you should plan to get a PhD.

What companies or businesses can astronomers work for?

Astronomers usually are employed by colleges, universities or government research organizations. Not many work for companies or businesses because astronomy isn't really a science that has a lot of practical applications that you can make money from! However, the most likely field in which you would find astronomers working for a company would be in the area of telescope or instrument design and construction. An example would be Malin Space Science Systems, a company run by an astronomer named Michael Malin which builds instruments for unmanned space missions, such as the Mars Global Surveyor satellite.

What is a day on the job like as an astronomer?

It's tough to answer what an astronomer does every day since different days they do different things. They typically divide their time between 5 or 6 different things (the theorists generally don't observe): Working in their offices, traveling, teaching, reading, writing, or observing (except for the theorists).

  • Working in their offices: This usually involves doing administrative things for their institutions (though they generally try to limit the time spent doing this, or working on their research. As far as research, this could mean a wide variety of things, from calibrating and analyzing data, to running numerical models, or testing theories, or any number of different things. However, they do wind up spending a large portion of their time in front of their computers. Familiarity with computers and programming is a necessity in an astronomy career.

  • Traveling: If you like traveling, astronomy is the career for you. they go to a lot of conferences which are held all across the world. For example, every year there are the AAS (American Astronomical Society) and IAU (International Astronomical Union) meetings which are held at different places each year. Typically an astronomer will go to several conferences a year. The amount of trips is usually dependent on the amount of money that the astronomers have available for travel from their institutions or their grants. Most of the time they will give presentations of their research at these conferences. These conferences provide an excellent opportunity to meet other astronomers and see what kind of research other people are working on. And since there's less than 20,000 astronomers in the world, you do sort of get to know just about everyone in your field through these conferences. Often times astronomers are invited to give individual talks at other institutions. Most universities (with Astronomy departments) hold weekly meetings where they bring in scientists from other universities to talk about their research.

  • Teaching: Most astronomers teach Astronomy and physics courses at Universities. Just how much time they spend teaching varies from person to person, but usually it's a considerable commitment in their time (especially for younger astronomers who are teaching courses for the first time). Even as PhD students most, at one time, work as TAs (Teaching Assistants) as part of their stipend.

  • Reading: They spend a lot of their time reading. Either learning new subjects, or just keeping up with other people's developments. There are many different publications like the Astrophysical Journal for example, and they need to keep up to date with current research and developments.

  • Writing: They also spend a lot of time (probably more than most of them like) in writing papers and proposals. They need to write and publish papers in order to display our research and results. Good writing skills are necessary to be able to put fon/vard one's thoughts clearly and succinctly. They also need to write grant proposals to get funding from various sources for our research, and they also need to write observing proposals to get permission to use different telescopes and facilities to further their research.

  • Observing: Observational astronomers often have to go to various observatories to carry out their research. These observatories are located all across the world, from Puerto Rico, to Hawaii, Europe, Australia, Chile, or even the South Pole. Most observational astronomers are well-travelled. However, many astronomers work on purely theoretical projects and do little, if any observing.

How their time is divided between these various activities varies from person to person and what kind of research they are doing at the time. It is safe to say that astronomers spend an awful lot of time away from home, but they also spend a lot of time in front of their computers (though most of them try to minimize that). Oh, and of course, they also spend some time answering questions from curious people.

Benefits of an Astronomy Club

There are lots of good reasons to join an astronomy club, including: interesting lectures on astronomy topics at monthly meetings, and a monthly newsletter with interesting articles. And, you can participate in star parties and view through everyone else's big telescopes for free! The members of astronomy clubs are a friendly bunch and they'll welcome you if you show up at a meeting or star party, even if you're not a member. But why be just a "visitor" when you can be a real member?