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What You Need to Know About Pursuing an Astronomy Career

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Do you frequently find yourself gazing up at the stars and wondering how the universe works? Do you dream of making the next big scientific discovery about far-away worlds? Do you also like physics and math? If so, an astronomy career might be right for you. It’s challenging, but it’s also exciting and rewarding. If you’re thinking about going into astronomy, here’s what you need to know.

What You Need to Know About Pursuing an Astronomy Career

What Do Astronomers Do?

Most people have heard of astronomy, but many of us are also a bit fuzzy on what they actually do beyond looking at stars through telescopes. While some of their time is spent observing outer space, astronomers spent much more time organizing and analyzing data, developing and testing theories and writing research proposals. They also write research papers and present their findings, which may require travel.

Astronomy is unique among the sciences in the fact that you can’t directly touch or otherwise interact with the subject of your research. You also deal with many extremes such as huge galaxies and tiny atoms and extremely hot and cold temperatures.

Because there are relatively few available astronomy positions, it is a competitive field. For this reason, astronomers often move once they accept a job. The field is expected to grow 3% through 2024.

Getting the Right Education

While you’ll most likely need a Ph.D. to become an astronomer, you can start preparing for your career in high school by taking lots of physics, math and computer science courses. Chemistry and other sciences will also be helpful.

After high school, you should pursue a degree in astronomy, physics or astrophysics. Although all three degrees will involve physics, astrophysics is a more integrated study of astronomy and physics. During college, you’ll study classical and quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism and much more. Be sure to participate in class, go to office hours and get to know your professors so that you’ll have excellent references should you decide to apply graduate school.

If you don’t go right to grad school immediately after earning your bachelor’s degree, you may be able to find work as a research assistant or a technician at an observatory.

Many astronomy students choose to continue their education, especially if they want to conduct research. Most astronomers have a Ph.D. in astronomy, physics or astrophysics. Before starting to pursue an astronomy career, be sure you’re prepared for lots of schooling. The entire educational process can take around nine years.

Starting Your Astronomy Career

After graduating with a doctorate of Ph.D., it is common to take one or more postdoctoral positions, temporary jobs that allow the individual to conduct research and build their reputation and experience in the field.

After the postdoctoral position, astronomers may find work at universities, observatories, laboratories, government agencies or in private industry. The majority find work at universities or in government positions. In 2016, 40% of astronomers worked at an educational institution. NASA and the Department of Defense are the biggest government employers in the field. Federally, as well as privately, funded research laboratories also hire a lot of astronomers.

Many astronomers develop a focus throughout their careers, one specific topic or group of topics that most of their research centers around. You don’t have to choose this subject right from the outset, but you should be working toward developing an expertise as you advance your career. Most often, astronomers develop this area of focus naturally as they conduct research in school and in their jobs.

Astronomy may not be the easiest field to get into. The science is complex, and the competition for permanent work and research grants is fierce. If you love the subject, though, and continuously work at it, you’ll find that being an astronomer is a gratifying and fascinating occupation. Plus, telling people that you’re an astrophysicist is sure to impress them. So, reach for the stars! And the planets, nebulae, black holes, comets and moons too.

This article originally published 11/30/17 and was updated on 11/29/19 to include a video.
What You Need to Know About Pursuing an Astronomy Career
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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. Megan is also a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights, and Real Clear Science. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing.