There probably more career paths available to those with astronomy degrees than you might initially think.
Given that astronomy-related jobs vary so much, the difficulty of getting these jobs is quite variable, too.
Why astronomy jobs can be hard to get
Most astronomy jobs are hard to get, especially in university research and professorships. There are many more opportunities with government and military labs, engineering firms, and aeronautical companies. Those are also competitive, but openings should increase more quickly that at universities. Both academic and commercial jobs usually require an advanced degree in astronomy, plus extensive internship and research experience. However, many less competitive jobs (like general education and advocacy) are also available to hobbyist and amateur astronomers. It’s also possible to work for a astronomy research organization in a supporting or adjacent role.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what the career path and job prospects look like.
And remember, even if you never earn a penny as an astronomer, the study of the cosmos can be a richly rewarding life-long hobby. It may even be more enjoyable when your livelihood isn’t at stake.
What Kind of Jobs Do Astronomers Get?
Many people are attracted to astronomy because they get to work on some of the most fascinating of questions: Is there extraterrestrial life? How did the Big Bang occur? What is dark matter and why does it matter? How many universes are there?
But more than just answering out-of-this-world kinds of questions, a degree in astronomy can lead to some interesting and high-paying career paths as well.
It’s interesting just how diverse the types of jobs those with a degree in astronomy can get. The majority of astronomers work in the college, university, and government arenas. Some work in the military. And others find employment in the private sector. The following list describes some of the neat career paths taken by people with degrees in astronomy:
Numerous colleges and universities offer degree programs in astronomy and related fields. In addition to astronomy-related research, college professors may teach courses such as physics, biology, earth science, and chemistry. They are generally expected to conduct scientific research and bring in grant money as well. These positions pay well, with average salaries at $84,000 annually.
Astronomy and meteorology are obviously related in many ways. Because of the high demand for quality weather forecasting as well as ongoing efforts to study changes in climate, meteorology is an excellent career path for astronomers. They can command up to 85,000 per year or more.
Astronomy Research Scientist
These people investigate a wide variety of theoretical and practical problems in all of the sub-disciplines of astronomy. They work in labs, agencies, and the military, often in highly collaborative settings. They can earn up to $90,000 annually.
This can be an ideal job for those with a degree in astronomy. You’d be designing, learning, and managing a center devoted to spreading the knowledge of the universe to as many people as possible. Annual earning power of up to $85,000 is possible.
Yes indeed, some with astronomy degrees actually find jobs as an astronomer. When they do their average salary is over $110,000 per year. There are a number of specialties in the astronomy career path. These include cosmology, extra-galactic astronomy, radio astronomy, solar scientist, and planetary scientist, among others.
With an average salary of over $119,000 per year, this one of the more lucrative (and certainly more prestigious) fields that some astronomers aspire to. Most astrophysicists are theoreticians, attempting to understand the nature of objects and waves in space as well as the origin of the cosmos itself. Absolute mastery of physics and math is a must, of course.
This is a highly practical field for those with knowledge about the skies and outer space. These folds design and test satellites, space vessels as well as airplanes and other object manufactured for life in the upper atmosphere. Average yearly salaries can range up to near 100,000.
Technical Writer in the Sciences
Another highly practical field that astronomers can work in and make a good living is as a technical writer in the sciences and engineering.
How to Prepare for an Astronomy Career Before College
Definitely take advantage of clear dark nights to practice your observational skills. Even if home telescopes are nothing compared to major observatories, you’ll get a firm grasp of optics and of celestial objects at the same time.
Become familiar with the many star charts and catalogs of celestial objects that are available, often online.
In addition to your own personal celestial observations on clear nights, consider joining any local or online astronomy clubs. At this early stage, not only will you be learning a tremendous amount, but also the networking you will do will greatly facilitate your plan moving forward.
While in high school take classes that would prepare you for college studies in astronomy. You’ll want to take math courses at least through trigonometry. Plan on taking calculus and physics courses as well. In addition, if other courses in the sciences are available, such as earth science, biology, and chemistry, these will be useful as well.
Electives in computer science, computing applications, and statistics would also be quite helpful, since practically all scientific work is computation-intensive. If you’re interested in research, whether academic or commercial, this is critically important.
Ask your high school counselor if they are aware of any work-based opportunities near you that are allied to your aspiration. For example, are there filed trips to observatories available?
A number of places offer summer camps for high school students and younger folks interested in astronomy. Several of these are the Yale Summer Program in Astrophysics, the California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science (COSMOS), the Alfred University Astronomy Camp, NY, and the Astronomy Camp, AZ.
College Game Plan for Future Astronomers
If you aspire to an advanced degree in astronomy or related fields, you’ll be happy to know that many colleges and universities offer studies in these fields.
The American Astronomical Society (AAS) provides a comprehensive listing of these institutions that is updated annually. Many prestigious universities, such as Yale, Wellesley, Stanford, Rice, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Cornell, and Dartmouth are on the list.
Also, numerous state schools, which can be considerably less expensive, are on the list, including Florida State, Georgia State, Michigan State, Montana State, Ohio State, SUNY College at New Paltz, Texas A&M, and others.
Some institutions, such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Prescott, AZ, and the International Relativistic Astrophysics Ph.D. (IRAP) Program Consortium, France specialize in astronomy and related areas.
In general, students with a wide variety of backgrounds and experience are admitted to astronomy degree programs. Admission criteria are increasingly flexible, although an aptitude for math and physics is highly desirable, as well as a strong interest in the subject.
Your coursework will be heavy in mathematics and the sciences. That’s one of the main reasons why astronomy is hard to study.
It will also include plenty of studies in other fields such and the humanities and social sciences as well, especially at the undergraduate level. Typical astronomy-specific courses may include Introduction to Astronomy, The Solar System, and Observational Astronomy. A course or two in theoretical physics and astrophysics may be required in some programs.
A bachelor’s in astronomy generally takes 4 years of study. A master’s will take an additional two years on average. A Ph.D. will take several more, and keep in mind that additional postdoctoral work is the norm. The coursework will include lectures but also involve practical seminars, including time spent in observatories. You will work with a variety of telescopes, computer imagery, star charts, and catalogs. Your communication skills in both in technical writing and in professional speaking will be honed and developed throughout your studies.
In addition to technical expertise, skill sets that you will obtain from earning a degree in astronomy are quire varied. They include problem-solving, creative thinking, numeracy, and data analysis.
While pursuing your degree in astronomy, be on the lookout for internships and summer openings, where you will gain tremendous practical experience and broadened horizons. Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) is a National Science Foundation (NSF) program that supports student-involved research in astronomical studies. Many other summer research opportunities are available for astronomy college majors, as compiled by the AAS. A few of the many include the Caltech LIGO SURF Program, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory Summer Program.
Another Option: Astronomy as a Fulfilling Hobby
It’s true: there aren’t as many jobs for astronomers as there are for doctors, nurses, salespersons, and accountants.
Even if you don’t land your dream job as an astrophysicist at a prominent international observatory, there is still plenty of opportunity to practice your craft if you are engaged in a different career, especially if your nights are free for celestial studies.
Here are a few reasons to maintain your skills as a passionate hobby throughout your lifetime, even as you are earning a living at something else:
Amateur Astronomers Make Neat Discoveries
Many amateur astronomers collaborate with professionals on a regular basis. Many of these amateurs have made a strong impact on what we know about the universe.
The Internet Is Full of Stargazing Resources
The Internet has provided all of us with a wide array of useful sites related to astronomy. You can spend a lifetime of continued learning at your own pace with what’s available online.
Local Clubs and National Societies Offer Many Advantages
There are numerous avenues for ongoing collaboration, and networking. You’ll enjoy the opportunity to connect with others, continue to learn, and share your own knowledge whether you participate in local stargazing clubs or attend national societal conventions.
Pardon the cheesy pun, but the sky really is the limit for this hobby!
Astronomy Jobs: Hard To Get, But Many Alternatives
People with college degrees in astronomy work in a surprisingly wide array of settings in addition to astronomy-specific careers.
They can be employed as educators, writers, engineers, meteorologists, and technical analysts in a wide variety of public and private settings. Some of these fields are vital to national and regional interests.
In addition, many of these jobs pay quite well, often far beyond what most academics can expect.
Prior to college studies, a high school education with an emphasis on math and science is recommended. Numerous colleges and universities offer a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in astronomy.