So You Want to be a Professional Astronomer!

Exotic workplace locales, amazing discoveries, and fame (but probably not fortune) await those who persevere on the path leading to a career as a professional astronomer.

by Duncan Forbes

Wanted: Astronomer. Must be willing to work occasional nights on the top of a mountain in an exotic location. A sense of adventure and nomadic lifestyle is a plus. Flexible hours and casual dress code compensate for uncertain long-term career prospects and average pay. The opportunity for real scientific discovery awaits the right candidate. Apply now.

In many ways, professional astronomers are very fortunate. They have an opportunity to continue their passion (one that many people share) and they’re paid to do it. Some of the reasons given by PhD students for becoming an astronomer include: it’s fun and exciting, there are great opportunities for travel, it’s a cool job, and it’s possible to make significant discoveries.

Universities, observatories, government organizations, and industry employ astronomers who, contrary to popular belief, don’t spend all their waking hours at a telescope. Instead, most of their time is spent teaching, managing projects, providing support services, and doing administrative duties. A typical astronomer might spend just a week or two a year on an observing run, followed by months of data analysis and article writing.

If you’re going after a career in astronomy, be warned: It is extremely competitive! There are many very smart, hard working people seeking a limited number of positions. The worldwide community of professional astronomers is only about 10,000; most are located in the US (with about 1,000 in the UK and 250 in Australia).

Under the heading of “astronomy” there are many fields (and sub-fields) of research, and if you choose one with few researchers, the conferences you attend will have the feel of a family reunion. (If research isn’t your thing, there are non-research options, including Support Astronomer and Telescope Operator, which will let you spend a lot  of time around telescopes all over the world.) The American Astronomical Society (AAS) has a useful guide that describes various careers in astronomy.

So how do you join the elite ranks of professional astronomy? Here are some suggestions for how to get, and how not to get, a job in astronomy.

First, Get that PhD!

Becoming a Postdoc

Movin’ on up

Publications: Quantity and Quality

Just Do It