Astronomers study and collect data about the universe and its celestial objects such as planets, moons, asteroids, comets, stars, and galaxies.
$52,460 to $104,100 to $166,320
Mathematics, Physics, Computer Science
Minimum Educational Level
Bachelor’s or Master’s degree
Astronomers look into the outer space, collect and analyze data from telescopes, write research papers and create various computer programs or simulations. Astronomers can calculate positions of stars and determine their characteristics such as temperature, brightness, size or motion. Based on their observations they formulate hypotheses and theories about how our universe evolved. Today there are around 1,900 astronomers in the U.S.
There are different types of astronomers – the majority of them work at colleges and universities, while the rest is employed by the federal government (e.g. NASA) or in private sector.
Astronomers use scientific methods to answer research questions. Most hold a Ph.D. degree (it is also a requirement for teaching at universities). When conducting research, astronomers first need to request ‘telescope time,’ then collect the data, analyze them and try to draw conclusions. The ultimate goal of any research is to share the findings with fellow astronomers in academic journals and at various conferences. Many of the astronomers also spend some time on outreach activities, e.g. promoting the discipline at high school and trying to get more young people excited.
An astronomer may also spend some time doing administrative and functional tasks, although this usually varies with the level of seniority. The more experienced an astronomer is, the more he or she can expect to spend on actual research rather than on secondary tasks.
Astronomers make use of telescopes during observations. Other instruments are also used, such as spectrometers that measure the wavelength of light and enable astronomers to determine materials of cosmic objects and their temperature. Besides instruments based on Earth, astronomers also use data from space telescopes such as the Hubble Space Telescope or Kepler Space Telescope. The quality of data from these telescopes can be higher since they are further away from the light pollution and the atmosphere that filters out plenty of light from space. When making observations, astronomers often have to travel to observatories all around the country (see the map below). Future astronomers must, therefore, expect irregular working hours due to the observations that take place during evenings and nights. However, although the telescope is the central instrument of an astronomer, the majority of time is spent in front of computer screens where they analyze the data and write up results of their research.
Astronomers also gather information that is very important for the whole space industry. Information about positions of stars and other cosmic objects is required not only for research but also serves as an input for navigation systems in satellites and probes. Astronomers thus also play a role in making space navigation technology work.
The work of astronomers is often mostly funded by universities or federal government, and there is a tough competition for permanent astronomy jobs. Also, astronomers often have to apply and compete for extra funding for additional projects. It is very important to work hard and stay competitive, and professional astronomers regularly work even outside of regular office hours. On the other hand, the working hours are often flexible, and employers prioritize completing tasks at hand rather than logging office hours.
Astronomers work with optical and radio telescopes that are often located in mountains or other remote areas to avoid light pollution. There are approximately 300 observatories in the U.S. Astronomers travel to these observatories for several days per month to collect the data and then come back to their home offices where they analyze the data and compile their findings into research reports. Prospective astronomers might expect that working hours are irregular due to traveling to remote observatories and due to observations during evenings and nights.
Travelling is also required when attending conferences, seminars or similar events. Astronomers must also take into account the time differences when collaborating with their colleagues from across the world. Despite all of the obstacles, astronomers report high levels of job satisfaction. The combination of constant discovery, problem-solving and working with peers from all over the world makes this a very non-mundane job that a vast majority of professionals truly enjoy doing.
With so much variety in space, astronomers are usually expected to specialize in a certain discipline.
Cosmologists study the universe in the large scale and try to understand and explain its origin, evolution, and its future fate.
Astrophysicists use principles of physics and chemistry to explain how cosmic objects form, how they evolve and die, create theories of small and medium-sized structures in the universe.
Planetary astronomers focus on planets and their related objects such as moons or asteroids.
Radio astronomers study cosmic objects at radio frequencies using large radio antennas. Radio telescopes can capture light that is invisible to optical telescopes.
Strong background in math and physics is the most important requirement for a future astronomer, and they use these skills on a daily basis. Other important subjects include chemistry, geometry, and computer programming.
Computer skills are very important, as computers are frequently used to analyze collected data. Astronomers must also be skilled in programming to write the code for data analysis. However, this is a skill that can always be taught on-the-go and you shouldn’t be too worried if you didn’t take enough programming classes at high school.
Many astronomers keep emphasizing the importance of good writing skills. Astronomers frequently present their findings at conferences and communicate with their peers. Attaining good writing and public speaking skills is a great asset for every scientist and will help you to present your discoveries in an effective way.
In most cases, a Ph.D. degree is necessary to become a professional astronomer. Core courses in college include celestial mechanics, radio astronomy or theoretical astrophysics. Graduate programs often require that candidates spend some time at observatories, gaining practical experience with observations. In some cases, especially in non-research jobs, bachelor’s or master’s degree from astronomy or astrophysics can be sufficient. There are about 100 colleges and universities that offer Ph.D. in astronomy and many more that offer relevant undergraduate degrees in astronomy, physics, astrophysics or mathematics.
There are around 300 observatories located in the U.S. See the map below and click on the icons to see the exact location.
The number of top telescopes is limited and astronomers must compete to get a so-called ‘telescope time.’ The institution responsible for this usually assesses plenty of research proposals and then allocates slots based on originality and impact of the proposed research. Hubble telescope is a special case – the time allotted for each research proposals can often be just a few hours.
Astronomy is considered the oldest of natural sciences and the only one where a scientist cannot perform experiments directly. Also, it’s impossible to weigh, touch or smell the objects that they are observing.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs in this field will grow 14 percent per year between 2010 and 2020. This is a result of increased federal funding for physics and astronomy research.
Interview With An Astronomer: Gregory Rudnick: An interesting interview with a senior astronomer, in which he talks about required education, job tasks, and his work-life balance.
The General Characteristics Of An Astronomer’s Job: A good overview of the astronomer’s job, backed with some data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A Day In The Life Of An Astronomer: An excerpt from an interview with three astronomers with some interesting comments about getting grants and how so many astronomers are trying to get a hold on good telescopes.
Careers In Astronomy: What am I Doing with my Life??: A great article about various jobs that are available in the field of astronomy.
Being An Astronomer: A summary about the astronomer’s job at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory website.
Information about salaries and various job data: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Image Credits: NASA