Astronomers study celestial phenomena, including the deaths of stars, the lives of planets and the formation of galaxies. Specific responsibilities depend on where an astronomer works, but regardless of sector, jobs will grow 14 percent on average from 2010 to 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The agency credits coming expansion to an increase in federal funding for physics and astronomy research, as well as sustained demand for people with a physics background in medicine, technology and other research fields.
Astronomers help people understand the mysteries of the universe. They come up with theories of how stars are born and how the universe evolves, and they conduct research to collect data for analysis. They use telescopes and scientific instruments to study planetary phenomena and measure light, radio and X-ray emissions from space. There’s plenty of work with the public, too. Some astronomers run planetariums, putting together public presentations or discussing findings at science conferences. Raising money for research is part of the job as well.
The day-to-day duties of an astronomer depend on where she works. As of 2010, colleges and universities employed the most astronomers, at 53 percent. University-based astronomers teach in the physics department and oversee research. Professors may spend up to 30 nights a year studying the skies, or use supercomputers to crunch data. The second-largest share of astronomers -- 23 percent -- worked for the federal government, particularly the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense. Government astronomers have less time for research of personal interest, and focus instead on the specific goals of federal agencies. Finally, 22 percent of astronomers were employed with research and development companies, consulting with public agencies or helping private clients with instrumentation, remote sensing, spectral observations or computer applications for unusual problems.
Astronomers need specific skills for the job. Because the field blends physics and chemistry, astronomers need to know how to use scientific methods, such as observation and measurement, to answer research questions. To solve problems, astronomers need thinking skills, including logic, reason and judgment. Computer skills help them analyze large data sets or make complex calculations. Also, communications skills are invaluable. Astronomers write papers, reports and lecture notes that are technical, but easy to understand for students, the public and other astronomers. Public-speaking skills enable astronomers to present findings to peers.
The job an astronomer is qualified for depends on education level. Most astronomers have a doctoral degree in astronomy or physics, and a doctorate is required for anyone who wants to teach at a university or lead research in a government lab. It can take nearly a decade to finish school, from undergraduate school through a doctoral dissertation. Astronomers who don’t want to commit to that much college can go into nontechnical or private industrial jobs, where doctoral work isn’t a formal requirement.
Jobs in astronomy pay well above average. The median annual income in the field as of May 2012 was $96,460, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s nearly three times the median for all U.S. jobs of $34,756. The bottom 10 percent of earners in astronomy averaged $51,270, while the top 10 percent took home a median of $165,300. Astronomers who worked for the federal government earned the most, at a mean annual wage of $131,720. University astronomers made $91,580. By state, Texas had the highest annual mean pay, at $119,210. Rounding out the top five were Maryland, Massachusetts, California and Hawaii, which all posted annual mean wages above $100,000.