An astronomer could...
|Help plan a voyage to another planet or the moon and explain the mission to the public.||Determine the composition of a planet, its atmosphere, and its moons.|
|Investigate how galaxies are formed and if supermassive black holes live at their centers.||Use sensitive radio telescopes to spot comets and asteroids with the potential to impact Earth.|
Key Facts & Information
|Overview||Astronomers think big! They want to understand the entire universe—the nature of the Sun, Moon, planets, stars, galaxies, and everything in between. An astronomer's work can be pure science—gathering and analyzing data from instruments and creating theories about the nature of cosmic objects—or the work can be applied to practical problems in space flight and navigation, or satellite communications.|
|Key Requirements||Curiosity, imagination, ability to visualize abstract concepts, and strong math and analytical skills.|
|Subjects to Study in High School||Chemistry, physics, computer science, algebra, geometry, calculus; if available, Earth science, statistics|
|Projected Job Growth (2010-2020)||Average (7% to 13%)|
|Interview||Read an interview with a real-life astronomer, Luis Ho, who loves to study galaxies and the black holes at their centers.|
Training, Other Qualifications
Because most jobs are in basic research and development, a doctoral degree is the usual educational requirement for astronomers. Master's degree holders qualify for some jobs in applied research and development, whereas bachelor's degree holders often qualify as research assistants or for other occupations related to astronomers.
Education and Training
A PhD degree in physics or closely related fields is typically required for basic research positions, independent research in industry, faculty positions, and advancement to managerial positions. This prepares students for a career in research through rigorous training in theory, methodology, and mathematics.
Additional experience and training in a postdoctoral research appointment, although not required, is important for astronomers aspiring to permanent positions in basic research in universities and government laboratories. Many astronomy PhD holders ultimately teach at the college or university level.
Holders of a bachelor's or a master's degree in astronomy often enter an unrelated field. However, they are also qualified to work in planetariums running science shows, to assist astronomers doing research, and to operate space-based and ground-based telescopes and other astronomical instrumentation.
Mathematical ability, problem-solving and analytical skills, an inquisitive mind, imagination, and initiative are important traits for anyone planning a career in astronomy.
Nature of the Work
Watch this DragonflyTV video interview with a real astronomer, Marianne Takamiya, who works at a telescope atop a 14,000-ft. mountain in Hawaii.
Astronomers conduct research to understand the nature of the universe and everything in it. These researchers observe, measure, interpret, and develop theories to explain celestial and physical phenomena, using mathematics. From the vastness of space to the infinitesimal scale of subatomic particles, they study the fundamental properties of the natural world and apply the knowledge gained to design new technologies.
Almost all astronomers do research. Some are theoreticians, working on the laws governing the structure and evolution of astronomical objects. Others analyze large quantities of data gathered by observatories and satellites and write scientific papers or reports on their findings. Some astronomers actually operate large space-based or ground-based telescopes, usually as part of a team. However, astronomers may spend only a few weeks each year making observations with optical telescopes, radio telescopes, and other instruments.
For many years, satellites and other space-based instruments, such as the Hubble space telescope, have provided prodigious amounts of astronomical data. New technology has led to improvements in analytical techniques and instruments, such as computers and optical telescopes and mounts, and is creating a resurgence in ground-based research.
A small number of astronomers work in museums that house planetariums. These astronomers develop and revise programs presented to the public and may direct planetarium operations.
Most astronomers do not encounter unusual hazards in their work. Astronomers who make observations with ground-based telescopes may spend many hours working in observatories; this work usually involves travel to remote locations and may require working at night. Astronomers whose work depends on grant money often are under pressure to write grant proposals to keep their work funded.
Astronomers may need to work at odd hours to observe celestial phenomena, particularly those working with ground-based telescopes.
On the Job
- Study celestial phenomena, using a variety of ground-based and space-borne telescopes and scientific instruments.
- Analyze research data to determine its significance, using computers.
- Present research findings at scientific conferences and in papers written for scientific journals.
- Measure radio, infrared, gamma, and x-ray emissions from extraterrestrial sources.
- Develop theories, based on personal observations or on observations and theories of other astronomers.
- Raise funds for scientific research.
- Collaborate with other astronomers to carry out research projects.
- Develop instrumentation and software for astronomical observation and analysis.
- Teach astronomy or astrophysics.
- Develop and modify astronomy-related programs for public presentation.
- Calculate orbits and determine sizes, shapes, brightness, and motions of different celestial bodies.
- Direct the operations of a planetarium.
Companies That Hire Astronomers
Explore what you might do on the job with one of these projects...
- A Matter of Degrees: How Does the Tilt of Earth's Axis Affect the Seasons?
- A Matter of Time
- A Puzzling Parallax
- Asteroid Mining: Gold Rush in Space?
- Calculating the Circumference of the Earth
- Catching Stardust
- Changing Constellations
- Correlation of Coronal Mass Ejections with the Solar Sunspot Cycle
- Counting Sunspots on an Image of the Sun
- Craters and Meteorites
- Dirty Snowballs: How a Comet's Size Affects How Fast It Melts
- Finding the Center of the Milky Way Galaxy Using Globular Star Clusters
- How Far Away Is the Moon?
- How Much Mass Is Needed to Make a Body Round?
- How Soon After Sunset Does the Sky Become Dark?
- Lunar Crater Counting
- Measuring the Diameter of the Sun and the Moon
- Measuring the Moon
- Similar Triangles: Using Parallax to Measure Distance
Do you have a specific question about a career as an Astronomer that isn't answered on this page? Post your question on the Science Buddies Ask an Expert Forum.
- American Astronomical Society: www.aas.org
- O*Net Online. (2009). National Center for O*Net Development. Retrieved May 1, 2009, from http://online.onetcenter.org/
- TPT. (2006). Real Scientist: Marianne Takamiya. DragonflyTV, Twin Cities Public Television. Retrieved August 10, 2009, from http://pbskids.org/dragonflytv/scientists/scientist60.html
- Ptak, E. (1997, November/December). Exploring Career Options: Astronomy. Retrevied August 25, 2009, from http://dev.cogitowp.jhu.n4m.net/14488/14488-import/
We'd like to acknowledge the additional support of:
- Northrop Grumman Corporation