How to Become an Astronomer: Career Path Guide
If you want to become an astronomer, you first need to determine if this career path is a good fit for you. If the following description sounds like you, then you’re probably well suited for a career as an astronomer:
Those who become astronomers are individuals that have a keen interest in celestial objects, space, and the physical universe as a whole; they tend to read over and above what is taught in the classroom.
They are quite passionate about astronomy, and are motivated by the prospect of expanding our understanding of energy, matter and natural processes throughout the universe.
Those who become astronomers are well educated in math, physics and astronomy, and they have the patience to pursue a career with low turnover and few vacancies.
Below we've outlined what you'll need to begin a career as an astronomer. We've also included helpful information for this career, such as job description, job duties, salary expectations, a list of possible employers and much more!
Education Needed to Become an Astronomer
In order to qualify for entry-level jobs in astronomy, you typically need a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree in astronomy, astrophysics or physics.
Having a bachelor’s degree in one of these areas will qualify you to work in technical positions in observatories, planetariums and science centres.
A Master of Science (M.Sc.) degree is required for most research assistant and consulting positions.
A doctoral (Ph.D.) degree is needed if you want to work for a college or university as a teacher or a researcher. You will also need a Ph.D. to work in most federal government research positions. Most astronomers who have doctoral degrees work as post-doctoral fellows for 3-6 years before finding permanent employment.
Success Tip: It can be helpful in many areas of modern astronomy to have knowledge of computer science, chemistry and biology
What is an Astronomer?
Astronomers conduct theoretical and observational research of celestial objects, space, and the physical universe as a whole, in order to expand our understanding of energy, matter and natural processes throughout the universe.
Astronomers cannot perform their experiments directly, as they can’t weigh, touch or smell their subject matter. Instead, they must rely on observing the radiation (visible light, radio, infra-red) that comes to earth.
Astronomer Job Description
The job description of an astronomer can vary, as most astronomers concentrate on a particular question or area of astronomy, such as planetary science, solar astronomy, the origin or evolution of stars, or the formation of galaxies. The job description of an astronomer can also vary depending on whether they work in observational or theoretical astronomy.
Observational astronomers are responsible for testing predictions or theories by designing and executing observational programs that use sophisticated digital cameras attached to telescopes, specialized computer programs and spacecraft to gather and analyze data.
Theoretical astronomers are responsible for working to understand the physical processes within our universe. For example, they may use complex computer models of a celestial body’s interior in order to determine the processes that are responsible for that body’s appearance.
Generally, astronomers spend the majority of their time using or creating computer programs to analyze data, writing research papers and attending meetings.
Astronomer Job Duties
• Formulate explanations for the observed properties of the universe by using mathematics and physics
• Make predictions by solving mathematical equations or using computer-based simulations
• Test predictions by conducting observation
• Use a variety of ground-based and space-borne telescopes and scientific instruments to make observations of and obtain data on astronomical objects
• Use computers for instrument control and data processing
• Analyze acquired data
• May be required to develop specialized instruments
Who Creates Jobs for Astronomers?
Jobs for astronomers are very competitive, as there is much interest in them and relatively few positions available. For example, in North America there have only been around 150 job openings for astronomers in recent years.
Astronomers commonly spend 3-6 years in post-doctoral positions before finding a permanent job. Employers in the academic, aerospace, communications, computer program development and other industries hire astronomers. These employers include:
•Colleges and universities
•Public and private observatories
•Science centres and planetariums
Find Astronomer Job Opportunities
Astronomer Jobs - Canada
Astronomer Jobs - United States
Skills and Traits Needed to Become an Astronomer
In order to be successful in a career as an astronomer, you need to posses a certain set of skills and personality traits. These skills and traits will not only allow you to perform your job duties with competence; they will allow you to endure the challenges of this career.
•A natural interest in observing the radiation that comes to earth
•Able to work in a science in which you can’t weigh, touch or smell your subject matter
•A natural aptitude for science and mathematics
•Well-versed in working with instrumentation, remote sensing and spectral observations
•Able to use specialized computer applications to solve unusual problems
•The ability to pay very close attention to detail
•The ability to work as a member of a team
•Curiosity, imagination and a capacity for reflection and contemplative study
The salary level of astronomers can vary, depending on their level of experience, their level of education, their various qualifications, where they work, the specific responsibilities of their job, and many others.
Astronomer Salary Alberta: According to the 2011 Alberta Wage and Salary Survey, Albertans in the Physicists and Astronomers occupational group an average of $51.74 per hour.
Astronomer Salary Canada: According to Service Canada, the average salary level of workers in the Physicists and Astronomers occupational group is $66,968 per year.
Astronomer Salary United States: According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary level of workers in the Physicists and Astronomers occupational group is $105,430 per year.
Our job board below has "Astronomer" postings in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
Working Conditions for Astronomers
Working Hours: There are many variables that determine how astronomers spend their time, so many of them work flexible shifts to meet the demands of their job. For example, observational work in astronomy typically requires unconventional hours, such as working very late at night, as well as a considerable amount of travel.
Work Setting: Astronomers work in a variety of settings, although most astronomers work in offices. Some astronomers may spend many hours working in observatories. However, observations are increasingly done remotely via the Internet without the need for travel to an observatory. Sometimes astronomers work at high altitudes in remote areas where weather conditions can be extreme.
Careers Similar to Astronomer
Listed below are careers in our database that are similar in nature to Astronomer, as they may involve many of the same skills, competencies and responsibilities.
References: How to Become an Astronomer
Please consult the references below to find more information on the various aspects of a career as an Astronomer.
Alberta Learning and Information Service website: alis.alberta.ca
American Astronomical Society website: aas.org
National Optical Astronomy Observatory website: www.noao.edu
Service Canada website: www.servicecanada.gc.ca
United States website: www.bls.gov
Scholarships for Becoming an Astronomer
Success Tip: Be sure to apply for any scholarships that you even barely qualify for, as there are millions of dollars of scholarships that go unused every year due to a lack of applicants!
Majors that Apply to Becoming an Astronomer
Studying one of the university majors listed below is an excellent starting point to becoming an Astronomer. Click on the links to find out what else you can do with these majors!