Astronomy is a desirable path for many. It has its own appeal, as it exists at the intersection of math and physics, and also creeps into the mysteries of the planets, stars, and galaxies.
Unfortunately, astronomy may not seem like a popular career path for many.
An engineer? A high-paying entry-level job is already waiting for you. An astronomer? Who knows!
But anyone who has looked carefully into the matter knows that’s not the case. Put your helmet on, because we’re going to explore possible astronomy career paths right now.
Route 1 – Go Into Academia
There are about 6,000 professional astronomers in the US. According to the AAS (American Astronomy Association), 55 percent of them are working in universities.
Going into academia isn’t only about lecturing a bunch of doe-eyed, first-year students. It also means researching. Academia isn’t exactly going to leave you with much free time: when you’re not in lecture halls, you’ll be pumping out research papers.
When researching, astrophysicists usually work with supercomputers. Expect a lot of sitting around and thinking, because the ordinary astronomer’s workday doesn’t have a lot of action. Work is all about analyzing dating, observing, and planning those observations.
On the other hand, observational astronomers spend quite a bit in observatories. They spend between 10 to 30 days working there.
If not, then they’re gaining observations from spacecrafts. The rest of the time goes into analyzing the data they gathered. Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up writing grant proposals for observing times to those observatories!
You don’t have to major in astronomy to go into an astronomy department. You’d be surprised to find how many physics majors pursue astronomy. The opposite, too, is true. You could work in a university’s physics department with an astronomy degree.
Physics and astronomy often intersect. Many people seek a bachelor’s degree in physics, only to go onto pursuing a Ph.D. in astronomy. Other STEM majors such as computer engineering majors aren’t excluded from astronomy as well.
You can spend up to seven years pursuing your Ph.D. During these years, you should expect to work in a university. This gives you a chance to work under renowned and experienced astronomers.
After you get your Ph.D., you’ll probably end up working in a postdoctoral position in a university. A research institution is also a possibility. Expect to spend three to six years there.
The pay won’t have you starving either. Now, median salaries usually vary depending on the quality and competitiveness of the university.
For assistant professors, the entry-level salary begins at $50,000.
For senior professors, the salary varies between $80,000 and $100,000.
Postdoc pay is a bit more humble. It ranges between $35,000 and $45,000 per year.
Route 2 – Go Private
A significantly less amount of astronomers work in the private sector. In fact, it’s a mere 10 percent.
So, an academic career doesn’t appeal to you? Good thing that the private sector doesn’t cut back on anything. Sure, it’s smaller, but it has variety. For one, the most common career path is in aerospace engineering.
The industry with the highest percentage of aerospace engineers is aerospace parts manufacturing. Other industries welcome them too: scientific research services, electromedical instruments manufacturing, and electronic manufacturing.
Sure, aerospace companies need you. But so do consulting firms. They’re usually an under-seen employer when it comes to astronomers. These contractors often find themselves working with companies like NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), management offices, observatories, and data processing offices.
These contractors need you to do the translating for them. When NASA or whatever company asks for scientific gibberish, you come in and translate the scientific gibberish. Under your command, it becomes understandable specifications and requirements.
Chemical engineering and electrical engineering are also close possibilities. Working as a data analyst is also a smart backup plan. However, it’s good to remember that working in the private sector can seem a bit insecure, because of the lack of tenure. More than often, though, the lack of security is compensated through financial means.
Route 3 – Go Public
The public sector has your back. All you need to have (besides your astronomy degree) is strong communication skills, general knowledge, and a knack for writing and reading.
The payment won’t leave you poor, but it won’t leave you rich, either. But that isn’t why many people pursue careers in the public sector. Many workers find that type of work fulfilling, especially when you can introduce your passion to the public.
You can enjoy working in many public service positions such as planetariums and science museums. In these positions, you can make your work easily accessible to those who aren’t well-versed in the sciences. You could also work as a teacher, technician, or science journalist.
Route 4 – Go to the Government
After academia, the government is the highest sought-after employer. With a possibility of tenure and good pay, it’s easy to see why.
The options you could pursue in government-supported institutions are endless. However, becoming a researcher is the most common. You don’t even have to stand in a lecture hall to become one.
When you’re working in a government-supported field, you don’t get to choose the object of the research. Forget about personal interests. Your employer defines your task, and you do it. This is because government-related institutions have very specific goals and interests.
Still curious? Well, Gregory Rudnick has some things to say about working in government-supported observatories. He’s a Leo Goldberg postdoctoral fellow at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, so he knows one or two things about being a researcher and an astronomer.
“My position is a pure research position, which means I spend almost all of my time doing research and don’t have any functional or administrative duties,” Rudnick explains. “I then have to share these results with my collaborators and write them into papers that get published in astronomical journals.”
Now, studying for years and working towards your Ph.D. might seem tedious. But it’s completely worth it. You’ve got the endless career options, and most importantly, the thrill and wonder of astronomy.
And remember: it’s not hard to start. Just grab a pair of binoculars and a telescope!