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Stars in Your Eyes? Making a Career out of Searching the Skies
"Is there life on other planets, Mommy?" Kids ask lots of tough questions that moms try to answer. "Maybe yes, maybe no," you reply. "We just don't know for sure." One thing we do know is that if life is found on other planets, a team of astronomers will be at the forefront of the discovery. If the thought of being part of that team fills you with out-of-this-world excitement, a career in astronomy could be right for you.
Astronomers research and analyze the nature of the universe. They study celestial objects like stars, planets and galaxies. Some study distant stars and galaxies, neutron stars and black holes, while others research and monitor space debris that could interfere with satellite operations, or fall to earth.
Typically, astronomers work on teams that may include physicists, engineers and other scientists. Some teams apply current research and knowledge to develop new advancements in electronics or medical technology, for example. Others are involved in new research to better understand or explain the universe in some way.
What intrigues you about astronomy? Maybe you'll develop a new telescope or laser, based on needs you find lacking in your equipment. Maybe you'll design new computer software that makes it easier to do some of the complex calculations astronomers work with. Or maybe you'll be on the team that can finally answer your child's question about life on other planets.
Astronomers use ground-based telescopes as well as the space-based models such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope that's due to launch in 2019. In addition to exploring outer space--the reason, after all, that most go into the field—astronomers often have to write grant proposals to fund their research, then write reports about their research and present their findings to others.
To work in the field as an astronomer (also known as an astrophysicist, although there are slight distinctions between the two), you'll need a Ph.D. Those with bachelor's or master's degrees sometimes work as assistants at observatories, or teach in middle or high schools. To work as an astronomer on a team, however, or to teach at the university level, you need the doctorate.
Usually, a bachelor's degree in astronomy or physics is considered good preparation for entering master's and doctoral programs. A physics degree includes a lot of quantitative work that is helpful in astronomy. Some applicants are accepted to grad programs with degrees in related fields, too. Still, some post-graduate programs prefer applicants with a bachelor's degree in astronomy. So, if you have your heart set on a particular grad school, find out its preferences before choosing your undergrad major.
To gain hands-on experience, many undergrads take internships. The American Astrological Society's website lists available internships for undergraduate students, summer opportunities, fellowships and scholarships. They even list Scholarships for Women and Scholarships and Grants for Single Moms.
Grad students usually chart their course to studying the skies by picking a subfield to specialize in, such as cosmology, which is the study of the universe's origin (not to be confused with cosmetology, where you might create out-of-this-world hairstyles.) Other subfields include astrometry, or the precise measurement of the sun, moon and planets; galactic astronomy, the study of our Milky Way galaxy; planetary astronomy, which focuses on the growth and death of planets; solar astronomy, all about our very own star; and stellar astronomy, all about other stars.
The median salary for all physicists, including astronomers, was $104,740 in May 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median is the midpoint in a list of salaries, with half earning more and half earning less. The lowest 10 percent earned $54,960 or less and the highest 10 percent earned over $165,140. Astronomers employed by the federal government earned well above the median, at $145,780, while those teaching at universities and colleges earned $74,620.
About the Industry
The largest employers of astronomers in 2016 were colleges, universities and professional schools, employing 40 percent of all working astronomers. The second largest employer was the federal government, where 23 percent worked. Within the government, NASA and different agencies of the Department of Defense employ the most astronomers.
Most astronomers work full-time in offices, visiting observatories about twice a year. Some astronomers do work at observatories, however. Astronomers also travel to present research findings, to consult with colleagues, and to visit national and international sites that have unusual equipment they want to see or understand better. Although they normally work traditional work hours, they sometimes work at night to avoid radiation from the sun that can disturb calculations.
Years of Experience
Graduates in astronomy tend to start with rather low salaries that grow as they add years of experience. In surveys of new grads, undertaken by the American Institute of Physics, those with just a bachelor's degree in 2010, 2011 and 2012 (the last time the survey was undertaken) reported earning approximate salaries between $28,000 and $43,000. Since the astronomy field typically doesn't hire people with just a bachelor's degree, however, it's possible that these respondents weren't working in the astronomy field, either. By contrast, new astronomy Ph.D graduates received starting salaries between $52,000 and $68,000 in government jobs, and between $47,000 and $60,000 starting salaries in academia.
Job Growth Trend
The need for astronomers is expected to grow 14 percent between 2016 and 2026. Astronomy is a small field, though, so that amounts to about 200 jobs, plus those needed to replace astronomers who are retiring.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Physicists and Astronomers
- American Astronomical Society: Internships and Scholarships
- Space.com: What is Astronomy? Definition and History
- American Institute of Physics: Starting Salaries of Astronomy Bachelor's, Classes 2010, 2011 and 2012 Combined
Barbara Bean-Mellinger is a freelance writer who lives in the Washington, D.C. area who has written about careers and education for work.chron.com, workingmother.com, classroom.synonym.com and more. Barbara holds a B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and has won numerous awards for her writing.