How to Become an Astronomer
Duties and Responsibilities of a Professional Astronomer
Skills and Qualities of an Astronomer
Salaries for Astronomers
Influential Astronomers
Leading Astronomer Organizations
Top Cities for Astronomy Jobs
Other Careers of Interest

How to become an Astronomer

Professional Astronomers are highly educated individuals who typically have a PhD in physics and/or astronomy and are employed by research institutions or universities. They spend the majority of their time working on research, although they quite often have other duties that include teaching, building instruments, or aiding in the operation of an observatory.

Astronomers must hold a PhD in astronomy or physics to begin a career in astronomy. After earning a PhD, many savvy professionals will take a postdoctoral position, a temporary appointment which allows an astronomer to concentrate on his/her own research that lasts two to three years. Today most astronomers will take on a second post-doc or even a third in order to be seriously considered for a faculty or scientific staff position.

The field of astronomy is a multi-disciplinary profession that enables PhD astronomers to be employed in a variety of technical concentrations. Many astronomers in the 1970's found employment through the defense and aerospace industries. Due to the versatility of occupations, PhD astronomers continue to be well qualified to pursue careers in computing, industry, and education.

What does an Astronomer do?

Astronomy is the study of the celestial bodies and their compositions, motions, and origins. Astronomers are scientists that study the universe and the objects within it.

Astronomers are scientists that study the universe and the objects within it. Most astronomers concentrate on a particular question or area of astronomy: e.g., planetary science, solar astronomy, the origin and evolution of stars, or the formation of galaxies.

Observational astronomers design and carry out observing programs with a telescope or spacecraft to answer a question or test the predictions of theories.

Theorists work with complex computer models of a star's interior: e.g., to understand the physical processes responsible for the star's appearance.

Most astronomers teach at colleges and universities, or combine teaching and research. Astronomers spend hours writing grant proposals and traveling to meetings and observatories. The modern astronomer spends more time working from a desk, analyzing date or computer models, and attending conferences.

Astronomers who work for The National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO) can focus on their own programs of research, with the remainder of their work responsibilities centering on maintaining and improving the NOAO observing facilities. Astronomers here have observatory duties such as developing new instrumentation, serving on telescope allocation committees, and supporting archives of data from NOAO instruments. Reviewing articles submitted for publication in professional journals, and proposals for NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) programs are expected.

What skills or personal qualities should I have to become an Astronomer?

An astronomer must have expert observation skills: an individual needs to be observant and capable of making sense of what is "seen."

Astronomers need to have an aptitude for math, basic science and physics; be analytical; logical; and, capable of sound reasoning. Computer literacy is a necessity for editing files, transferring data across networks, and analyzing their astronomical data and images. Professionals in this field must be tenacious and have patience. An astronomer must be comfortable with public speaking at professional meetings and have expert writing skills to publish well written articles in scientific journals.

How much does an Astronomer make?

This profession may not guarantee a lucrative career, but most individuals are financially comfortable.

A typical starting salary for an assistant professor of astronomy is $45,000 to $50,000. Post-doctoral positions earn around $30,000, with graduate students earning around $10-$20,000 as a teaching or research assistant.

Who are some influential professional Astronomers?

For centuries, many famous astronomers have made great contributions to the science of astronomy. Without the efforts of Ptolemy, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Edmond Halley, Nicolaus Copernicus and Henrietta Swan Levitt, we certainly would not know nearly as much about the planets and stars as we do today.

What are some leading organizations in this field?

The American Astronomical Society (AAS); NASA; The National Science Foundation; The National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO).

NOAO is a research institution that serves the astronomical community by providing telescopes and instruments that can be used by any astronomer studying in the United States.

Where are the top cities for Astronomy jobs?

There is a severe shortage of jobs for astronomers with the outlook not positively improving. There are only about six thousand professional astronomers in the U.S. and many are employed in positions of tenure, resulting in very few "traditional" jobs for astronomers at colleges, universities, and research facilities.

Pasadena, California is the top city for astronomer jobs in the United States. Tucson, Arizona comes in second and San Antonio, Texas comes in at third place for cities which are good for astronomer jobs.

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