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Careers in Astronomy

A PDF version of A New Universe to Explore: Careers in Astronomy is available. You distribute as many copies as you wish. 

Where Astronomers Work

Where the Jobs Are!

Employment Potential

"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."

— Christine Brunello, planetarium director, Don Harrington Discovery Center, Amarillo, Texas.

As science professions go, astronomy is a relatively small field, with about 6,000 professional astronomers in North America. Because of its size, astronomers get to know and collaborate with many colleagues across the U.S. and around the world. This can lead to an advantageous dialogue among astronomers.

On the other hand, there is a small turnover of positions each year and, therefore, strong competition for positions. In recent years, there have been about 150 job openings for astronomers in North America, while the number of Ph.D.s conferred annually in recent years has averaged about 125. It is common for astronomers to spend from three to six years in postdoctoral positions before finding a steady position in a university department, national facility, or government lab.

In such a small and popular field, only those with a quality education, ability, and passion for the subject are likely to find a permanent position. Astronomy training, however, emphasizes a remarkably broad set of problem-solving skills. With careful selection of graduate school courses and experiences, one may prepare for an interesting and productive career in a related field, such as industrial research, education, and public information.

Where the Jobs Are

"I've been interested in all the sciences since grade school. Astronomy was particularly appealing because it addressed some of the most basic questions of who, what, and where we are [in the universe]. Later I was happy to discover that being a good observer means using tools from a lot of other fields: optics, chemistry, atomic physics, computer science, mechanical and electrical engineering, biology, and fluid dynamics, to name a few. Astronomy is interdisciplinary.
A word of caution: Astronomy is not a high-profit business. 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."

— Joe Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Primary research interest: Planetary science.

Most professional astronomers (about 55 percent) are either faculty members at universities and colleges, or affiliated with universities and colleges through observatories and laboratories. (Universities require a Ph.D. for a faculty position and hire new people based on recommendations by the astronomy or astronomy/physics faculty.) For these astronomers, teaching is their major activity. Astronomers in academic positions can spend a portion of their time on their research, depending on their teaching schedule.

Often an astronomer will be a member of a physics department or a physics/astronomy department rather than a separate astronomy department. 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.

Even though teaching is an academic career, astronomers at leading colleges are a major source of astronomical research activity. In addition to the observatories and research institutions operated by individual universities, there are a number of national observatories and research institutes that make research time available to observational astronomers at academic institutions and to others.

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 work day consists of analyzing data, interpreting observations, or planning observational programs.

Recent university graduates start their careers at universities, colleges, and other institutions with postdoctoral research positions (one to three years of research work for people with new doctoral degrees) and research associateships that allow full time for research.

Median salaries at universities and colleges depend upon the size, quality, and competitiveness of the school. Starting salaries for assistant professors start at about $50,000 for 9-10 months, the range for senior professors is $80,000-100,000 for 9-10 months. Typical postdoc pay ranges between $35,000-45,000 per year. Contrary to popular belief, scientists at national or government labs earn the highest median salary, followed by those employed by business or industry. Many faculty members augment their salaries with summer work at their universities or with summer research support.

In addition, astronomers as a group are striving to encourage a vigorous affirmative-action approach to recruiting. Significant changes have already occurred in the male-to-female ratios. Already more than one-quarter of the young astronomers are women, and this fraction is growing. It is hoped that future years will see a healthy and more equitable balance of men and women of all races in astronomy.

National Observatories and Government Laboratories

"I find that astronomy is a fascinating subject to work in, because we deal with so many different and exotic objects, yet the field is still small enough that it's possible to have some idea of the big picture. It's also very rewarding because the general public is often very interested in our subject. When you tell someone you're an astronomer, the response is usually, 'How interesting!' followed by a flood of questions."

— Christine Wilson, McMaster University. Primary research interest: Radio and submillimeter astronomy.

About a third of the professional astronomers are directly employed by the federal government or by federally supported national observatories and laboratories. A Ph.D. in astronomy or physics or, in some cases, a specialized field of engineering, is generally required for these positions just as for academic positions. While the individual astronomer may devote some time to research of personal interest, the research area is more often defined by the employer than is the case with universities and colleges. This is because governmental agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), the US. Naval Observatory, etc., have very specific goals and interests.

The national observatories such as the National Astronomy &Ionosphere Center (Arecibo Observatory), National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), encourage individual research. They do require, however, that effort be devoted to instrument design and operation as well as cooperation with visiting scientists. A form of tenure, or guaranteed continued employment, can be granted to scientists in these jobs either according to civil service rules or in a manner similar to that at universities. Salary levels are comparable to those in other government agencies and in the larger universities.

Business and Private Industry

About ten percent of all astronomers work in business or private industry. A few industries, such as the aerospace field, hire astronomers to do research that may give their company a competitive edge. A number of consulting firms supply astronomy talent to the government for specific tasks. In addition, there is are large number of companies that, rather than conduct astronomy research, make use of the background and talents of the astronomer in related areas. Astronomers are generally well-versed in instrumentation, remote sensing, spectral observations, and computer applications to unusual problems. Job security may be somewhat less certain than in government and academia since there is no tenure or civil service in industry. The salaries, however, are often correspondingly higher, especially at mid-management levels and above. In practice, most companies protect their good employees, but the choice of work within a given company may be limited. 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. Industrial employment offers a wide variety of nontechnical career paths as well. Although a Ph.D. is useful for industrial jobs, it is less often a formal requirement.

Other Related Jobs

"When I was a child, my parents sat me in front of the TV to watch the space flights. I didn't miss a single launch until the 8th shuttle lift-off! My dad bought me a telescope when I was five, and we often used it to look at the planets, or we'd lie on the hood of the car and just look up. In 4th grade, my teacher read A Wrinkle in Time to the class. I was immediately hooked on becoming a nuclear physicist so I could travel in time like the characters in the book.
I pursued my Bachelor's degree in physics, but with an astrophysics option. I continued with a Master's degree in physics using the VLA to map the radio emission from the nearby radio galaxy M87. I am now completing my Ph.D. in astronomy.
I wanted to do astronomy since I was a little kid. There are some who stumble into astronomy late in the game, but the majority of us have always had our eyes on the stars."

— Dean C. Hines, the University of Arizona. Primary research interest: Active galactic nuclei.

Astronomers working in planetariums, science museums, or in other public service positions provide an important information link between the world of professional astronomy and the general public. These jobs require a broad range of astronomy knowledge and the ability to communicate clearly and effectively with the public. Some jobs are available in secondary schools teaching physics or earth sciences, as well as in the science journalism field. Jobs in these categories generally do not require an advanced degree, although a Ph.D. or master's degree might prove useful at the more technical levels.

Although most astronomers have advanced degrees, people with an undergraduate major in astronomy or physics can find jobs in support positions at national observatories, national laboratories, federal agencies, and sometimes in large astronomy departments at universities. An undergraduate astronomy degree is excellent preparation for science teachers, laboratory technicians, computer programmers, and science journalists. It can also serve as the basis for graduate degrees in other fields, such as law or medical school. Some universities may not offer a major in astronomy for undergraduates, but may instead have a program in physics with a specialization in astronomy.