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How to Become an Astronomer

By Oluwadamilola Osisanya

Published:

Are you mesmerized by the mysteries of the cosmos yet unsure how to navigate the path to becoming an astronomer? The journey to a career that unlocks the universe’s secrets and expands our understanding of celestial phenomena can appear daunting. This definitive guide on becoming an astronomer will illuminate your path, turning your astronomical passion into a focused and attainable career trajectory.

Career Summary

Astronomer Salary

Astronomer Salary

Considering the potential astronomer salary is important before committing to the career.

Here are the key astronomer salary figures from Glassdoor:

  • Entry-Level (US$ 75,000)
  • Median (US$ 97,000)
  • Senior (US$ 125,000)

When compared to the general average salary across the United States, which was reported to be $61,900 in 2022, even the lower-paid astronomers receive a higher salary.

What does an Astronomer do?

An astronomer investigates the universe, studying celestial objects and phenomena beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Through observation with telescopes and analysis of cosmic data, they seek to understand the origins, structure, and evolution of stars, planets, galaxies, and the universe itself.

Their work involves theoretical modeling to explain observations and practical research, which they often share through scientific publications and presentations. Additionally, astronomers may teach at universities and engage in public outreach to educate about their findings and the significance of space science.

Astronomer Career Progression

  • Graduate Research Assistant/Intern: At this entry-level position, you will typically work under the guidance of a senior astronomer or professor while pursuing a graduate degree. You will assist with data collection and analysis and may begin publishing preliminary findings.
  • Postdoctoral Research Fellow: After obtaining a PhD, you can move into a postdoctoral position where you will conduct specialized research, often on rant-funded projects, and start to establish a personal research agenda.
  • Assistant Professor/Research Scientist: In academia, this is a tenure-track position involving teaching, conducting research, and publishing findings. You may work as a research scientist in government or private sectors, focusing more on applied research.
  • Associate Professor/Senior Research Scientist: With several years of experience and a substantial publication record, you may progress to this mid-level position, gaining more independence in your research and often leading projects or small teams.
  • Professor/Principal Research Scientist: At this senior level, you will typically have secured tenure at an academic institution and will be expected to contribute significantly to your field, mentor junior scientists, and perhaps lead departments or large research initiatives.
Astronomer Career Progression

Best Aspects of Working as an Astronomer

  • Engaging with cutting-edge research to understand cosmic phenomena.
  • Access to state-of-the-art telescopes and computational tools.
  • Working alongside leading scientists from around the world.
  • Attending international conferences and observing runs at remote observatories.
  • Contributing to significant scientific discoveries and gaining recognition in the field.

Worst Aspects of Working as an Astronomer

  • Irregular working hours.
  • Demanding research projects and deadlines can impact personal time.
  • High competition for funding.
  • Limited job openings, especially in academia.
  • Requires extensive education, which can be time-consuming and expensive.

Useful Skills to Have as an Astronomer

  • Analytical Skills
  • Mathematical Proficiency
  • Programming Knowledge
  • Observational Techniques
  • Critical Thinking

Popular Astronomer Specialties

  • Stellar Astronomy
  • Galactic Astronomy
  • Extragalactic Astronomy
  • Cosmology
  • Astrophysics
  • Observational Astronomy
  • Theoretical Astronomy

How to Become an Astronomer

Astronomer 4 Steps to Career

In the journey to becoming an accomplished astronomer, education and practical experience are strong pillars. A strong academic background provides the theoretical knowledge necessary for this complex science, while practical experience is crucial in applying theoretical concepts to real-world astronomical phenomena.

Step 1: Obtain a Degree

A solid educational foundation is crucial for anyone who has been thinking of how to become an astronomer. It equips aspiring astronomers with the theoretical understanding and research skills needed to succeed in the field.

To become an astronomer, a degree is typically essential.

Here are the usual steps:

  • Bachelor’s Degree: Start with a bachelor’s degree in astronomy, physics, or a related field. This foundational education is crucial for gaining the basic knowledge needed in the field.
  • Master’s Degree: While not always required, a master’s degree can be beneficial for specialized knowledge and research opportunities.
  • Doctoral Degree (PhD): This is the most critical step if you want to conduct independent research or work in a university setting. A Ph.D. in Astronomy or Astrophysics is usually required for such positions.
  • Postdoctoral Research: Many astronomers also undertake postdoctoral positions to further their research experience and expertise before securing a permanent position.

While there are roles within astronomy-related fields that may not require a PhD, such as an observatory technical staff or planetarium educators, the research and academic positions that define an astronomer’s career typically require these advanced degrees.

Why is it important to get a degree in Astronomy?

The importance of obtaining a degree in Astronomy is a central consideration for several reasons:

  • Fundamental Knowledge: A degree in Astronomy provides the essential knowledge of mathematics, physics, and computer science to understand and contribute to the field.
  • Research Skills: Astronomy degrees involve research, teaching students to conduct scientific experiments, process data, and use telescopic equipment.
  • Specialization: Higher education allows for specialization in different areas of astronomy, such as theoretical astrophysics, observational astronomy, or planetary science.
  • Critical Thinking: A degree in Astronomy develops critical thinking and problem-solving skills, which are vital for astronomers who need to formulate hypotheses and solve complex scientific questions.
  • Communication: Astronomers must be able to communicate their findings effectively. A degree often includes training in writing scientific papers and presenting research findings.

A degree in astronomy is more than just a credential; it is a comprehensive preparation that equips aspiring astronomers with the theoretical knowledge, practical skills, and professional network necessary for a successful career in this challenging and exciting field.

How long does it take to get a degree in Astronomy?

The time it takes to get a degree in Astronomy can vary depending on the educational path you choose:

  • Bachelor’s Degree: Typically takes about 4 years of full-time study. This degree provides the foundational knowledge of astronomy and related sciences.
  • Master’s Degree: Generally takes about 2 years of full-time study after the bachelor’s degree. It’s not always required for a career in astronomy but can be beneficial for certain specializations or career paths.
  • Doctoral Degree (PhD): Usually takes an additional 5-7 years after the bachelor’s degree. This is the most significant educational commitment in the field and is necessary for those who wish to conduct independent research or secure a university faculty position.
  • Postdoctoral Research: After obtaining a Ph.D., many astronomers spend several years in postdoctoral research positions to build upon their specialized knowledge and research experience.

If one went straight through from a bachelor’s to a doctoral degree, it could take about 9 to 13 years of higher education to become a fully-fledged astronomer. This timeline can vary based on the individual, the institution, the specific field of study within astronomy, and the country’s educational system.

How much does it cost to study Astronomy at university?

The cost of studying Astronomy at a university level in the United States averages $12,366 for state residents and $45,056 for out-of-state students at the undergraduate level​​. The average graduate tuition & fees is $14,313 for state residents and $37,175 for out-of-state students.

Please note that these costs can vary widely depending on the institution, the level of study (undergraduate vs. graduate), and whether the institution is public or private. Considering these costs is essential to planning how to become an astronomer.

Students need to know that some of these costs can be offset through financial aid, scholarships, work-study programs, or assistantships. It is crucial to research and apply for these opportunities well in advance. 

Can I become an Astronomer through online education?

Yes, you can start your journey to become an astronomer through online education. Many universities offer online courses in astronomy and related fields like physics and mathematics. 

These courses can provide foundational knowledge and may be used towards fulfilling some degree requirements. However, in-person research and hands-on experience with telescopes and other astronomical instruments are crucial for advanced study, especially at the doctoral level

Therefore, while online courses can be a component of your education, they cannot replace the comprehensive training and research experiences offered by traditional degree programs in astronomy.

What are some web resources to learn skills to become an Astronomer?

Here are some specialized resources for learning skills relevant to astronomers:

These resources provide foundational knowledge, current research, and interactive learning that can be valuable for aspiring astronomers and those looking to deepen their understanding of the field.

Step 2: Build Essential Skills

To become a successful astronomer, you’ll need to develop a diverse set of skills encompassing scientific, technical, and interpersonal aspects.

Here’s a list of essential skills for astronomers:

  • Observational Techniques: Using telescopes and other instruments to collect data from celestial objects.
  • Data Analysis: Interpreting the data obtained from observations, often using statistical methods and specialized software.
  • Programming: Writing and using software to analyze data and create simulations.
  • Theoretical Modeling: Developing models to understand and predict astronomical phenomena.
  • Critical Thinking: Formulating hypotheses and designing experiments to test them.
  • Problem-solving: Tackling complex problems with logical and innovative solutions.
  • Communication: Writing scientific papers and presenting findings to scientific and public audiences.
  • Collaboration: Working with other scientists on research projects and peer reviews.
  • Project Management: Planning and managing research projects, including budgeting and timelines.
  • Teaching: If in academia, you may also develop teaching skills to educate students at various levels.

Step 3: Gain Practical Experience

Practical experience serves as the backbone of true expertise in this expansive field. Through hands-on observation, data analysis, and experimental methodology, aspiring astronomers transform abstract concepts into tangible skills.

How to find internship opportunities for an astronomer?

Finding internship opportunities as an astronomer involves a combination of research, networking, and proactive engagement.

Here are some steps to help you in your search:

  • University Career Centers: Check with your university’s career center or department for information on available internships. They may have listings specific to your field of study and can provide guidance on the application process.
  • Faculty and Advisors: Consult with your professors, advisors, and other faculty members in the astronomy department. They often have information about research opportunities, and internships, and may even have connections within the field.
  • Professional Organizations: Explore internship opportunities through professional organizations such as the American Astronomical Society (AAS), the International Astronomical Union (IAU), and others. These organizations often share internship postings and provide networking opportunities.
  • Research Institutions and Observatories: Visit the websites of prominent research institutions, observatories, and space agencies. Many of them post internship opportunities on their career or education pages. Examples include NASA, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), and NOIRLab.
  • Government Agencies: Check the websites of government agencies involved in space and science, such as NASA or the National Science Foundation (NSF). They often have internship programs for students and early-career professionals.
  • Online Job Boards: Utilize online job boards and internship databases. Websites like Internships.com, Idealist, or LinkedIn often feature astronomy-related internships. Customize your search to filter for positions in your specific area of interest.
  • Apply Directly to Institutions: If there’s a specific observatory, research institution, or company you’re interested in, check their website for internship opportunities. Some positions may not be widely advertised, and direct applications can be effective.
  • Networking at Conferences: Attend astronomy conferences and events to network with professionals in the field. Networking can open doors to internship opportunities, and you may learn about positions that are not widely advertised.

Step 4: Apply for Jobs

What are the Job Opportunities of an Astronomer?

The job opportunities for astronomers are diverse and can range from academic positions to roles in government and private industry:

  • Academia: Positions such as professors, lecturers, and research fellows at universities and colleges.
  • Government Agencies: Scientists and researchers at organizations like NASA, ESA, or national observatories.
  • Private Industry: Roles in aerospace, data analysis, software development, and consulting firms.
  • Science Communication: Science writers, planetarium educators, and public outreach coordinators.
  • Research Institutions: Staff scientists, postdoctoral researchers, and project managers at research labs and institutions.
  • Data Science: Utilizing astronomical data analysis skills in various industries, including finance and tech.

Each of these roles leverages the unique skill set of astronomers, including analytical thinking, problem-solving, and technical expertise.

What Type of Organizations Hire an Astronomer?

Astronomers can find employment in various organizations and companies that leverage their skills in research, data analysis, and scientific expertise.

Here are several types of organizations and companies that often hire astronomers:

  • Observatories and Space Agencies: Observatories, both ground-based and space-based, employ astronomers for observational research. Space agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) hire astronomers for mission planning, data analysis, and scientific research.
  • Planetariums and Science Centers: Planetariums and science centers often employ astronomers for public outreach, education, and communication of scientific concepts to a broader audience.
  • Universities and Research Institutions: Many astronomers work in academia at universities and research institutions. They conduct research, teach, and mentor students.
  • Government Research Agencies: Government agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) employ astronomers for research and scientific development.
  • Aerospace and Defense Companies: Companies in the aerospace and defense sector may hire astronomers for roles related to satellite development, space exploration, and other astronomical applications.
  • Private Research Companies: Some private companies focus on astronomical research and development. These organizations may be involved in developing new technologies, instruments, or conducting proprietary research.
  • Science Communication and Journalism Outlets: Media outlets, both traditional and online, hire astronomers for science communication and journalism roles. This involves translating complex scientific concepts into accessible content for the general public.
  • Telescope and Instrument Manufacturers: Companies involved in the design and manufacturing of telescopes, detectors, and other astronomical instruments may hire astronomers for research and development.

What’s the Career Outlook for an Astronomer?

The career outlook for astronomers in the USA is quite positive. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall employment of physicists and astronomers is projected to grow 5 percent from 2022 to 2032, faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is expected to result in about 1,500 job openings each year over the decade.

Astronomer Popular Career Specialties

What is the Work-Life Balance of an Astronomer?

The work-life balance of an astronomer can vary greatly depending on their specific job role and where they work. Some astronomers work regular hours in an office, analyzing data and conducting research. 

Others, particularly those involved in observational astronomy, may have to work at night and travel to remote observatories, leading to non-standard working hours. Academics often have a mix of teaching, research, and administrative duties and may work beyond standard work hours during the school term. 

Project deadlines and grant application seasons can also require longer hours. However, many astronomers find the work flexible and intellectually rewarding, which can contribute positively to work-life balance.

Should I Become an Astronomer?

Deciding to pursue a career in astronomy is a journey as vast and complex as the cosmos. Reflect on the critical insights in this article: the rigorous academic path, the dedication required for research and observation, and the unique blend of analytical and technical skills needed. 

Assess how these align with your personal interests, strengths, and long-term aspirations. If the lure of unraveling the universe’s mysteries excites you and you’re prepared for the challenges and rewards this field offers, then embarking on the path to becoming an astronomer could be a fulfilling and extraordinary choice.

Careers Related to Astronomer


Oluwadamilola Osisanya

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