NOAO < EDUCATION < Being an Astronomer

Astronomy is the study of the Universe: Everything about stars and planets, galaxies, dark matter and energy…

Have you ever looked up at the night-time sky on a clear night and marveled at the beauty of the stars, or seen pictures of galaxies, nebulae, or planets and wondered what they are, and how we have learned about them?? Or have you been outside and felt the warmth of the Sun and paused, knowing it is the Sun that sustains life on earth?

Astronomy – the oldest of the natural sciences. Astronomy is the only science in which you cannot perform experiments directly ; you can’t weigh, touch or smell your subject matter… You can only observe the radiation ( visible light, radio, infra-red) which comes to earth.

What Do Astronomers Do?

Most astronomers concentrate on a particular question or area of astronomy: for example, planetary science, solar astronomy, the origin or 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. Theorist work with complex computer models of a star’s interior, for example, to understand the physical processes responsible for the star’s appearance.

Astronomers no longer look through an eye-piece on the telescopes but instead use sophisticated digital cameras attached to a telescope, computers to gather and analyze research data. The actual time spent at a telescope collecting data for analysis is only the beginning. Most of their time is spent in an office analyzing the data, creating computer programs that allow them to more efficiently search through the data, writing research papers, and completing other administrative tasks like attending meetings. There are many variables that shape an Astronomer’s time, so many work flexible hours that meet their unique job environments.

Want to Become an Astronomer?

What Classes to Take – High School

Math, science, computing – Getting a broad science and math background regardless if you are going into the sciences or not will provide you with useful skills that transcend any discipline. Taking classes that provide a solid foundation in how to research, write, and present papers are invaluable. Becoming a skilled communicator on paper and in person will always serve you well. Choose electives and outside organizations that will round out your education. If you are certain that astronomy is the field for you, then be prepared to dedicate time to accomplishing your end goal.

What Classes to Take – College

Most astronomers have their Ph.D. in astronomy or physics. There are about 100 US colleges and universities that offer a Ph.D. in astronomy and many more that offer other undergraduate degrees in physics, astronomy, astrophysics or mathematics.

Since college is not only a huge investment of time and financial resources, it is important to consider more than just the location when selecting a school. Today students should investigate the following: school and classroom size, school and departmental culture, availability of financial aid, the number of staff publishing papers in professional journals, and the types of varied research experiences available to students? Manage your future wisely.

Graduate schools are competitive, so it is important to maintain top grades as an undergraduate. Students must take the Graduate Record Exam before they can be admitted to any U.S. graduate school, and many astronomy programs will request the GRE in physics. Once in graduate school, students spend time completing advanced course work in astronomy and focusing on their research. Specifying a thesis topic and beginning the dissertation is next. Successfully completing the research, writing, and defense for a dissertation are the final steps to completing the Ph.D. The entire educational journey — undergraduate, graduate, through the dissertation can easily take 9 years – one needs to be dedicated, patient, and passionate about the science of astronomy.

Jobs for Astronomers

Because Astronomy is a relatively small field but attractive to many students, there is great competition for jobs. After attaining a Ph.D., it is common to take a postdoctoral position, a temporary appointment which allows an astronomer time to concentrate on research, publishing papers, and building their reputation in the field. Astronomers may accept more than one postdoctoral position today before applying for positions available in academia, in National Observatories, National Laboratories, or in private industry.

Jobs for Non-Astronomers

For individuals who like the field of astronomy, but don’t want to be an astronomer – what type of jobs are available? EVERY KIND – there are telescope operator technicians, there are trades (carpenters, electricians, machinists etc.), there are administrators, there are engineers (hydraulic, electrical, structural, computer, etc.), there are educators, and there are grounds keepers and janitors. The list goes on. Most observatories, laboratories, colleges, and universities have employment pages to search through for jobs that may fit your skill set.

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