4 Career Paths for Astronomy Students
“Astronomy is the study of the sun, moon, stars, planets, comets, gas, galaxies, gas, dust and other non-Earthly bodies and phenomena,” says Space.com. So this top-level field covers a lot -- including astrophysics, the branch of astronomy which deals with the physical processes of celestial bodies and space. While studying astronomy and everything it comprises is in and of itself fascinating, you may be wondering where this knowledge can lead in terms of a career.
Here’s a closer look at four potential employment pathways for astronomy students.
Many astronomers work in higher education. This usually involves a combination of teaching and research. According to the American Astronomical Society (AAS), approximately 55 percent of professional astronomers work as faculty members at colleges and universities. This requires not only a PhD, but also recommendations.
While some astronomers teach in astronomy departments, others may teach in other departments, such as physics. In this capacity, they may teach both astronomy and physics coursework, which their training qualifies them to do. The AAS explains, “Such faculty members may be called on to teach some physics courses as well as astronomy courses. Because of their training, both undergraduate and graduate, astronomers are well qualified for this expanded role.”
Professor of astrophysics Carole Haswell writes on the website of the UK’s Royal Astronomical Society of the best parts of her job, “Watching and giving presentations on new research results. Helping students succeed, and occasionally feeling I’ve made a difference. Being able to hold up a candle for rationality. Being paid to read and write and to think about beautiful astronomical images and possible new space missions. The sheer joy of hypotheses which make predictions that seem to work. Travel to interesting places; sunsets and dawns in the mountains. Having interesting and intelligent colleagues in my life. The single best moment for me happened when I was volunteering in an inner-city Baltimore School and showed a disengaged 14-year-old an optics demonstration which made his face light up. I hope it might have ignited a spark which lasted for him.”
In addition to spending time in the classroom, astronomy professors often conduct research. “Observational astronomers spend between 10 and 30 nights per year working at an observatory or getting observations from spacecraft, and the rest of their time analyzing the data they've collected. Others, such as theoretical astrophysicists, may not even work with observing equipment but conduct a great deal of their astronomy research using supercomputers. Much of the astronomer's workday consists of analyzing data, interpreting observations, or planning observational programs,” says the AAS.
Astronomy professor Joseph Harrington’s lifelong love of science led him to a career as an astronomer due to its interest in answering some of our most basic questions about who we are in the universe. He was also drawn to its interdisciplinary nature. And while astronomy professors are well-compensated in the world of academia, Harrington suggests the main reason someone should go into astronomy is because of a passion for this fascinating field. “Astronomy is not a high-profit business,” he says. “Our ‘product’ is knowledge about the universe, something you can’t own or sell. Salaries are reasonable, but competition for jobs is stiff and the hours are very long. If you are considering a career in astronomy, you must be motivated by a love of discovery and the pursuit of knowledge.”
2. The government, observatories, and laboratories
After academia, government-supported observatories and laboratories are the second-most common employers of astronomers, accounting for a third of all professionals working in the field. As with higher education, a PhD in astronomy or a related field is usually required. These jobs may also be structured in a similar way as academic jobs with similar salary levels and the possibility of tenure or guaranteed continued employment.
Unlike with academia, however, astronomers employed in this sector are usually conducting research defined by their employers as opposed to their own personal interest. “This is because government agencies have very specific goals and interests,” says the AAS. Working at an observatory or research center also deviates from academia in another key way: it doesn’t involve a teaching component.
Wondering what, in particular, an astronomer at an observatory does? Postdoctoral fellow Gregory Rudnick says of the major job tasks, “My position is a pure research position, which means I spend almost all of my time doing research and don’t have any functional or administrative duties. Most of what I do involves research. I propose for telescope time, obtain observations, analyze them, and try to figure out what they mean and what they can teach us about our Universe. I then have to share these results with my collaborators and write them into papers that get published in astronomical journals. I also perform some outreach activities and work with high school teachers and students from around the country to give them real astronomy research opportunities. In addition to these tasks I organize a weekly science discussion here at work and a Friday afternoon social hour (even astronomers need to wind down at the end of the week!)”
3. The private sector
Approximately ten percent of astronomers work in the private sector. In addition to aerospace companies, which need astronomers to stay ahead of the competition, consulting firms also hire astronomers -- often to fill government contract positions. “These contractors typically design and manufacture everything from telescopes to space probes, write software, and do many other tasks in support of NASA labs and space missions, ground-based observatories, and data processing/management offices. These private companies need astronomers who understand and “speak the language” of the customer -- be it a university, NASA, the USA’s Department of Energy], or other federal agency -- and who can translate the customer’s science requirements into technical requirements and specifications,” says the AAS in A New Universe to Discover: A Guide to Careers in Astronomy.
Lastly, astronomers are often sought-after for their background and talent in related areas. “Astronomers are generally well-versed in instrumentation, remote sensing, spectral observations, and computer applications to unusual problems,” says the AAS. And while the scope of work may be limited depending on the company, there are trade-offs. “In exchange for some loss of choice, there is the likelihood of getting a job that is technically challenging and that provides great opportunity for both intellectual and professional growth,” proposes the AAS.
While employment may be less secure in the private sector due to lack of tenure, this is usually made up for by the promise of higher compensation. Additionally, astronomers without PhDs may find more options in the private sector.
4. The public sector
Astronomers also play an important role in bridging the gap between professional astronomy and the general public. They do this in a variety of different settings, including everywhere from planetariums and science museums to secondary school teaching and science journalism (and on social media). While a master’s degree or PhD can be helpful in these outreach roles, they may not be necessary. Strong communications skills, astronomy knowledge, and a talent for the written words can also be valuable attributes for professionals in these fields.
Many professional astronomers employed in the public sector find this work to be uniquely fulfilling. Planetarium director Christine Brunello, speaking to the AAS, explained her passion for bringing the wonders of the Universe to the general public. She explained, “Discovering new information about how our universe works is always an incredible experience, but sharing that information is also a source of satisfaction. As a planetarium director, I transport audiences to distant planets and stars daily. I am constantly rewarded by children's amazed gasps and squeals as I make the sky move, and give them their first look at the wonders of the stars. Astronomy is an excellent way of exposing young minds to the thrill of scientific discovery. Ideally, by writing articles, giving shows, and holding special events, astronomy educators are creating a world where science is not difficult or boring but is instead a key to our future."
Last month, a team of astronomers announced they had finally captured an image of a black hole. 29-year-old computer scientist Katie Bouman, who began making the algorithm which created the landmark image three years ago as an MIT graduate student, earned viral fame with her reaction to the news, captured on Facebook. She told BBC Radio 5 Live, “When we saw it for the first time, we were all in disbelief. It was quite spectacular.” Meanwhile, Shep Doeleman, who directed the team, told the New York Times, “We have seen what we thought was unseeable.”
Whether you’re looking to make an equally monumental discovery or simply trying to find meaning in the cosmos, astronomy studies can help you set you on the path to success as a professional astronomer in one of these exciting environments. Still not convinced this is the right path for you? Read our article on the top reasons to study astronomy.
Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.