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Astronomer Job Description, Career as an Astronomer, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: Doctoral degree

Salary: Median—$97,320 per year

Employment Outlook: Fair

Definition and Nature of the Work

Astronomers are sometimes called astrophysicists. They use the laws of physics and mathematics to learn about the nature of matter and energy throughout the universe, which includes the sun, moon, planets, stars, and galaxies. In addition, astronomers apply their knowledge to solve problems in navigation, space flight, and satellite communications. They also develop the instruments and techniques needed to observe and collect astronomical data.

Many astronomers work in colleges and universities where they do research and teach astronomy. Some work in observatories, planetariums, and museums where they help to explain what is known about the universe to the public. Others are employed by government agencies, such as the U.S. Naval Observatory or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). A few work for companies in the aerospace industry.

Some astronomers primarily gather and analyze large quantities of data from observatories and satellites. They usually only spend a few weeks each year making observations with telescopes. For many years, satellites and other kinds of space-based instruments have greatly expanded the range of observation for astronomers. Most recently, new computer and telescope technologies are leading to a resurgence in ground-based observation techniques.

Astronomers must first decide which objects to observe and the methods and equipment to use. They may go to an observatory at a scheduled time and make and record their observations, or they may have assistants gather the data. Astronomers then analyze these observations, put them into numerical form, and if possible, explain them using existing hypotheses or theories.

Other astronomers spend most of their time working on new hypotheses, theories, or mathematical models. They often use computers to help them do the many calculations required to develop complex hypotheses about space. Such hypotheses may help explain some of the observations made by other astronomers.

Astronomers often specialize in one area, such as the sun, the solar system, or in the development of instruments and techniques. Their recent findings have included quasars, pulsars, black holes, and other mysterious phenomena in the far reaches of space.

The discoveries and theories of astronomers have been put to work in many useful ways. For example, they have improved weather forecasting, the measurement of time, and air and sea navigation. Astronomical study has been instrumental in the development of atomic theory and the exploration of space.

An astronomer at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., adjusts a telescope. Astronomers are sometimes called astrophysicists. (© Martha Tabor/Working Images Photographs. Reproduced by permission.)

Education and Training Requirements

There are a few openings as assistants or technicians in astronomy for those who have a bachelor's degree in physics or astronomy. There are more opportunities for those who have a master's degree in astronomy or a related field, such as physics or mathematics. To be an astronomer, a doctoral degree in astronomy or a closely related field, such as astrophysics, is usually required. It takes about four years to get a bachelor's degree and about another four years of full-time study to earn a doctoral degree. Astronomers also spend time studying throughout their careers to keep up with new discoveries in their field.

Getting the Job

The astronomy department of your university will be able to give you advice and information about getting a job. You should apply directly to colleges and universities, national research centers, museums and planetariums, and other places that traditionally employ astronomers. Many of these jobs are advertised in professional journals. You should also consider applying for a job in places that have not traditionally employed astronomers. For example, a two-year college or high school may hire you, especially if you show enthusiasm for teaching and are prepared to teach other subjects in addition to astronomy. For some of these teaching jobs you may have to be certified by the state in which you teach. You may also be able to find other nontraditional jobs in industry, publishing, or scientific research. To find these kinds of jobs, you may first have to do a lot of searching on your own to determine the needs of employers.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Astronomers with a doctoral degree can advance by moving into high-level positions in research and teaching. Many astronomers consider recognition as an expert in their special field to be the best form of advancement. They usually get this recognition only after spending years on research problems and having the results of their work published in scientific journals. Astronomers with only bachelor's degrees will find only limited opportunity for advancement in astronomy. A doctoral degree or a move into a related field, such as engineering or high school teaching, provides the best opportunities for advancement.

Employment of astronomers is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2014. Although government funding of astronomy research is expected to increase from 2004 to 2014, funding will still be limited. This limited funding will result in competition for basic research jobs. Most job openings will result from workers who retire.

Working Conditions

Many astronomers work in well-equipped offices, laboratories, classrooms, and observatories with fellow scientists and students who share the same interests and goals. Others work with the general public to whom they try to convey their own interest in and enthusiasm for astronomy. Astronomers sometimes need to travel to remote observation sites and must often work at night. Most astronomers find their work exciting and personally rewarding because of the challenges it offers them. They usually devote long hours to their research and to the study needed to keep up with new developments in their field. They need to be patient and careful workers who can work for months or even years on the details of a research problem. They must also be able to communicate their findings to others.

Where to Go for More Information

American Astronautical Society
6532 Rolling Mill Place, Ste. 102
Springfield, VA 22152-2354
(703) 866-0020
http://www.astronautical.org

Universities Space Research Association
10211 Wincopin Circle, Ste. 500
Columbia, MD 21044-3432
(410) 730-2656
http://www.usra.edu

Earnings and Benefits

Salaries vary according to education, experience, and the type of employer. The median annual salary of astronomers was $97,320 in 2004. Benefits usually include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and pension plans.

Additional topics

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