“Astronomers, like burglars and jazz musicians, operate best at night,” according to late British journalist Miles Kington. While the cover of darkness provides a spectacular view of the universe, modern astronomers — also known as astrophysicists — do more than gaze at the midnight sky through telescopes. Their quest, of course, remains the same: diligently exploring the universe to discover its many mysteries. And in the 21st century, stargazing has its benefits.
Astronomers have a wide range of career choices available to them. Some are employed in the private sector as software writers and technical advisers. Other astronomers work at museums and planetariums. The majority of them, however, work at universities or for the federal government. Government-employed astronomers may work at one of the national observatories or at one of NASA’s research centers.
Education and Outlook
Astronomers earn an undergraduate degree in either astronomy or physics at one of the 75 universities that offer astronomy as a major, and then continue their education in one of the 40 astronomy doctoral programs available throughout the country. In 2007, Congress passed the America Competes Act, which will double funding for physical sciences by the year 2016. This increase in funding should provide more astronomy research jobs. Also, within the next few years, many astronomers will retire, putting a dent in what is already a small field.
In addition to rating high as a satisfying and rewarding career, astronomy is in the upper echelon of financial compensation. The average salary for an astronomer is over $100,000. The average salary for an astronomer who works for the federal government is $130,000. It’s no surprise that America’s Job Exchange lists astronomy as one of the top 25 highest-paying careers.
Environment and Work Conditions
Most astronomers work with state-of-the-art equipment in enviable environments. They are generally in secure and protected facilities, so there isn’t much risk of being in harm’s way. Astronomers experience a strong sense of achievement in knowing their work is making a difference. They also enjoy the freedom of conducting their own research, arriving at their own conclusions and making their own decisions. In addition, astronomy is valued as a noble profession, and astronomers enjoy the respect and admiration of the public.