Astronomers study the universe and the objects within it. For example, they may study planets, stars, galaxies, asteroids, black holes, and other celestial bodies. They use radio and optical telescopes on earth, as well as space-based telescopes and other tools to make observations and collect data. Astronomers use data on the movements, compositions, and other properties of space objects and phenomena. Some focus on nearby objects in our own solar system, such as planets, the sun, comets, and asteroids. Others may specialize in studying other stars, galaxies, black holes, or pulsars.
Astronomers increase our understanding of the universe, and our place in it. Photos of Earth and the “Pale Blue Dot” of our solar system taken from space convey the fragility and isolation of our planet, and the importance of sustainability. Space missions have spurred technological innovations including global positioning systems (GPS), advances in weather forecasting, solar energy, and even cancer treatments that benefit many of us here on earth. Astronomers warn us of solar storms that may affect power grids, and some monitor space debris to prevent damage to satellites.
What Do Astronomers Do?
While there are different branches of astronomy, most astronomers participate in similar activities. For example, they plan observational programs, use telescopes and other instruments to study space objects and phenomena, develop and test scientific theories, perform complex mathematical calculations to analyze data, use or develop software to analyze and model data, write proposals and apply for research grants, write papers for publication in scholarly journals, and present research findings at conferences. They may also design new observational equipment.
Astronomers may specialize in one of several sub-disciplines:
- Planetary astronomers focus on the life cycles of planets, and the discovery of new planets near other stars.
- Stellar astronomers study the life cycles of stars, and stellar phenomena such as black holes, nebulae (from which stars are born), white dwarfs, supernovas, and pulsars.
- Solar astronomers study the sun's systems and characteristics, such as its atmospheres, magnetic field, and storms. They may also research new methods of studying the sun.
- Galactic astronomers study the Milky Way galaxy, the galaxy in which we live.
- Cosmologists study the origin, history, and potential futures of the entire universe. Cosmology is an active field of study with several important theories under development, including string theory, dark matter and energy, and multiverses.
Astronomers may also specialize in particular methods of observation and study, such as radio astronomy or optical astronomy. Theoretical astronomers analyze data collected by others to create new theories or discover new objects.
Where Does an Astronomer Work?
Most professional astronomers are professors or research staff at universities and colleges. Many are embedded in physics departments, rather than separate astronomy departments, and may teach physics as well as astronomy. Faculty members are primarily tasked with teaching, and may conduct research as their class schedule permits.
National Observatories and Government Labs
About a third of professional astronomers are directly employed by the federal government or government-supported observatories and labs. Astronomers in these positions focus on the research needs of their employer, and have less leeway for personal research than those in academia. While national observatories encourage personal research, they also require astronomers to work on instrument design and operation. These are civil service jobs with excellent potential for job security.
Private Sector Jobs
Some astronomers work for private employers such as aerospace firms, or consulting companies that contract their services to the government. Other astronomers work in planetariums and science museums, or teach in secondary schools.
While astronomers conduct research in laboratories and observatories, they may also spend much of their time in offices. Most astronomers work full time. While they may need to work at night to make observations, most astronomers visit observatories only a few times per year, and otherwise keep normal office hours.
What Is a Typical Astronomer's Salary?
As of May 2012, the average salary for physicists and astronomers was $106,360 per year, or $51.14 per hour. Within academia, postdoctoral positions average $35,000-45,000 annually, while assistant professorships in this field start at $50,000.
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Table data taken from BLS (http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes192011.htm)
What Is the Job Demand for Astronomers?
Jobs for physicists and astronomers are expected to grow at a rate of 10%, adding 2,400 jobs by 2022. This is as fast as average job growth across all occupations. However, astronomy itself is a fairly small field, with only 150 job openings per year in North America; competition for positions is strong. Astronomers may work in postdoctoral positions for three to six years before finding steady, long-term positions.
Astronomy Jobs & Job Description
Recent Astronomy Job Listings
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- Design and conduct observational surveys, analyze data, and develop computer-based models to extend knowledge and test hypotheses of space processes and bodies
- Develop and use instrumentation and software for observation and analysis
- Communicate effectively with research partners and teams comprised of engineers, technicians, and fellow scientists
- Provide comprehensive guidance to non-scientists to inform engineering solutions
- Develop, maintain and troubleshoot all phases of hardware and software development, integration, implementation, and analysis
- Perform modeling and prediction using creativity and computational analyses
- Develop standards and guidelines for tasks
- Evaluate new technologies for field application
- Plan, coordinate, direct, and evaluate testing of data gathering systems
Senior astronomers may be responsible for duties that are more in line with a team or project manager role like the following:
- Assign roles and tasks to other team members and monitor team progress and benchmarks
- Review and source funding for projects; compose applications for research grants
- Inform telescope and equipment development and manufacturing processes
- Assess and mitigate risk of satellite systems
- Communicate about team performance, timelines, expenditures, and team cohesion.
- Establish a leadership role in field-related activities
Getting an Astronomy Degree
Most astronomers have a Ph.D. in astronomy or physics. Doctorates in these fields are required for faculty and research positions. In some cases, doctorates in certain areas of engineering are adequate. Ph.D. candidates should have a solid grounding in physics, as well as calculus, statistics, and other types of mathematics. Computer skills are also essential for analyzing and modeling data.
Newly minted Doctors of Astronomy start out in postdoctoral research positions at colleges and universities. These positions last for one to three years and focus entirely on research. Doctorates are also required for positions in the federal government. While a Ph.D. is advantageous for industrial positions, they are generally not required.
Those who don't continue past a bachelor's degree in physics or astronomy may find work as assistants at observatories, or as technicians and research assistants in engineering and computer science.
Astronomy - Related Degrees
What Kind of Societies and Professional Organizations Do Astronomers Have?
- The American Astronomical Society (AAS) (http://aas.org/) is the foremost professional association for astronomers in North America. The society holds annual meetings, publishes scholarly journals, maintains a job board, and advocates for the astronomical sciences.
- The International Astronomical Union (http://www.iau.org/) facilitates international cooperation to promote and advance the profession. The organization arranges nine international symposia each year. It also defines astronomical nomenclature, and serves as the authority for naming celestial bodies and their features. The society offers networking opportunities through divisions covering areas of specialization, commissions, and working groups.