CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become an astronomer.
Is becoming an astronomer right for me?
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Take standard and advanced high school courses in physics, mathematics, and chemistry. This first step is the foundation for the study of astronomy.
Earn a four-year Bachelor’s Degree in science, with a focus on astronomy or physics. Some universities offer a degree specialization in astrophysics, which is a mix of astronomy and physics.
Earn a Master’s Degree in the physics/astronomy field. This two-year step in the process to becoming an astronomer is focused on specialized courses, research opportunities, and the writing of a Master’s thesis that explores a specific topic or idea in astronomy.
Doctorate Degree & Ph.D. Dissertation
Complete a Ph.D. in a specific area of astronomy, such as radio, solar, cosmos, or galactic astronomy. Before committing to a particular sub-discipline, take time to determine which area is of greatest interest to you. The Ph.D. portion of your studies will include internships and fellowships that will provide invaluable experience in the field.
To earn your Ph.D. you will need to write a dissertation proposal. The dissertation, which can range from eighty to a hundred pages in length, is an in-depth study of a particular topic in astronomy. Some examples of dissertation topics are exploration of star formations, examination of mass planets, and analysis of radio pulsars. Following the writing of your dissertation, you will need to pass qualifying exams to graduate with a Ph.D.
A postdoctoral fellowship will make you a competitive job candidate. Once you earn your Ph.D. you can qualify for university research positions. These positions allow you to gain experience in the profession and focus on your area of expertise. Such fellowships may sometimes lead to fulltime positions, often in academia as a professor of astronomy.
In addition to the option of entering academia as an astronomy professor and researcher, there are other routes to applying your expertise:
Apply for positons at an observatory
Observatories offer the opportunity to interact with the public in the role of resident astronomer. The job generally also entails curating astronomy exhibits and writing books or papers on specific areas in the field.
Apply for positions in the aerospace or computer science industry
These positions offer the option to work in an area other than academia. They may be ideal for individuals who prefer to work directly with other astronomers and scientists.
Apply for positions at a space agency
Working for a space agency will allow you to collaborate with other astronomers and scientists on the study of the universe. The largest space agency in the United States is NASA.
The American Astronomical Society (AAS) 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 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.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to become an Astronomer?
Most astronomers have a Doctorate degree in astronomy or physics, as well as a Bachelor’s and Master’s in one of these same physical sciences. It takes about ten years of education beyond normal high school education to become an astronomer.
After completing a Ph.D. program, aspiring astronomers often enter one or more postdoctoral research positions, which typical take between two and three years to complete.
What are Astronomers like?
Based on our pool of users, astronomers tend to be predominately investigative people. They are motivated by the ability – and the opportunity – to discover new things, to identify new patterns and configurations, and to understand things that nobody else has understood before. It should be noted, however, that contrary to popular belief, astronomers spend very little time looking through a telescope. According to some estimates, using such equipment occupies less than two percent of the average astronomer’s time.
Are Astronomers happy?
Astronomers rank among the happiest careers. Overall they rank in the 90th percentile of careers for satisfaction scores. Please note that this number is derived from the data we have collected from our Sokanu members only.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for astronomers is having to continually ask for money to conduct research. To secure funds to visit observatories, pay students to help reduce large amounts of data, and publish papers, astronomers have to frequently write proposals. These are requests, sometimes quite lengthy, explaining the scientific details of their project, the objectives they aim to achieve, and the estimated costs involved. This process is competitive – only the best proposals receive funding – and it takes away from astronomers’ time to actually conduct the science.
Steps to becoming an Astronomer
From high school to doctorate studies, the path to becoming an astronomer is founded on a love of science and an ongoing curiosity about the universe.
Should I become an Astronomer?
If you want to be an astronomer, you need to be someone with a burning curiosity about the world. You have to be quite a methodical person. You need to be able to look at large amounts of information and pick out useful patterns. You need to be imaginative to spot those patterns in the first place and be both meticulous and creative to put bits of information together in a way that makes sense. You need a capacity for reflection and contemplative study. And you need to have great patience to spend long hours in the endeavor to reveal something new about the universe. Only then will you be successful working in a science in which you cannot weigh, touch, or smell your subject matter.
In addition to these personality traits and the technical skill set particular to the astronomy field, there are a number of generic talents that astronomers commonly possess and astronomy students need to cultivate:
Computer skills All astronomers need to use computers for more than e-mail and internet access. Their work often entails numerical simulations of the growth of the universe, handling extremely large sets of data, or the design of next-generation instruments. It is also important to note that astronomers generally do not use Windows-based systems; they commonly rely on UNIX-like systems. Experience and skill gained in this area as an undergraduate can smooth the beginning stages of postgraduate study.
Scientific writing skills All scientists are required to write papers and reports. Scientific writing skill is much more difficult to master than many envision. It is best acquired through practice. Therefore, reading and writing scientific reports as an undergraduate will provide crucial experience that can be applied during postgraduate study and beyond.
Public speaking skills Astronomers must be able to orally present their findings to their peers. While some individuals have a flair for public speaking, others need to learn the skill through repeated practice and experience. The presentation of research projects during one’s undergraduate years offers several opportunities for prospective astronomers to hone their public speaking abilities. Such presentations are invaluable to eventually becoming an accomplished scientific speaker. Additional experience can be gained by speaking at local astronomy clubs or taking advantage of outreach opportunities offered by some universities.
How to become an Astronomer
Astronomy is a unique subject and a rigorous science because it deals with such a vast mixture of topics. It is about the nature and physics of the entire universe and how everything in it works. Astronomers do not have laboratories like chemists, biologists, or paleontologists; they can’t put stars in test tubes or galaxies in centrifuge. Their ‘fossils’ lie millions and even billions of light-years away. Astronomers must apply equal measures of analytic thinking and imagination; logic and intuition to answer the most fundamental questions about the cosmos: What are stars and planets? How did they evolve? Why does the night sky look the way it does? Does life exist among the stars? How did the universe get here? How will it end? It takes a special person to pursue answers to such profound questions; one who likes to challenge and be challenged.
To become an astronomer, you will need an advanced graduate degree. Most astronomers have a Ph.D. in in astronomy, physics, or a similar field. A Doctorate is typically required for faculty, managerial, and researcher positions. In some cases, even postdoctoral research and training are necessary. Required classes typically include methodology, electromagnetic theory, quantum mechanics, atmospheric physics, statistical mechanics, inverse methods, data analysis, atmospheric dynamics, remote sensing, computational fluid dynamics, and atmospheric radiative transfer.
To prepare for the rigors of this career, aspiring astronomers should make careful decisions at the high school level. Generally, students who take mathematics or science courses beyond the tenth grade have the best chance of pursuing a science or engineering career. Students who plan to major in astronomy or physics should strongly consider completing advanced placement calculus, physics, and chemistry in high school.