What Is an Astronomer?

Explore the career requirements you'd need to fulfill to be an astronomer. Get the facts about job duties and education requirements to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Science, Technology, and International Security degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does an Astronomer Do?

Astronomers perform research on the stars, planets, galaxies, and other material in space, using data collected from ground-based telescopes and space probes. They do this to get a better scientific understanding of the cosmic world, and to study any phenomenon to see the changes they cause and predict any that may occur. Astronomers may use this information for applied research purposes. They typically work in conjunction with other scientific experts, and their work may take place at observatories, laboratories, or private facilities.

The following chart gives you an overview of what you need to know about entering this field.

Degree Required Bachelor's degree for research assistant or engineering positions; master's degree for applied research; PhD for research and development or postsecondary teaching
Education Field of Study Astronomy
Key Skills Physics, mathematics, use of ground- and space-based astronomy instruments, data analysis, writing
Job Growth (2014-2024)* 3%
Average Annual Salary (2015)* $110,220

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What is the Job Description of an Astronomer?

An astronomer studies the phenomena of the heavens and events that occur in the nighttime skies. Unlike astrophysics, which attempts to explain the phenomena, astronomy is concerned with the classification and description of events. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that astronomers employ mathematics and physics in their study of celestial bodies such as stars and planets. As an astronomer, you'd work in conjunction with mathematicians and astrophysicists in attempting to answer the question of how the universe works, as well as in analyzing the correlation between energy and stellar matter.

What Are Some Job Duties?

When working as an astronomer, you use large, ground-based telescopes to make discoveries and to identify new planets. You might work in planetariums and observatories around the world, and you may often travel to remote locations as you carry out your duties. Astronomers analyze observations that are gathered remotely with space-based instruments, such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. This technology can detect astronomical phenomena not visible when using ground-based instruments, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

However, making observations and collecting data from telescopes is a small part of an astronomer's job. You typically spend only a few weeks each year collecting data, and the remaining time is spent in analysis. You could also write grant proposals to fund astronomy projects, present your scientific findings at conferences and work with school and community groups for astronomy outreach and education.

What Salary and Employment Outlook Can I Expect?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that in May 2015, there were 1,760 astronomers working in the U.S. and earning an average annual salary of $110,220; the most employed by colleges and universities. The federal government paid the highest average salaries - $135,850 - and employed a good amount of astronomers. In addition, astronomers can expect about 3% job growth during the 2014-2024 decade, which is slower than the average for all occupations.

What Educational Training Will I Need?

Acquiring a bachelor's degree in astronomy will prepare you for research assistant positions or a career in engineering, while master's degrees are suitable for some jobs in applied research. However, astronomers who work in the areas of development or research generally hold doctorate degrees. The BLS reports that most jobs for astronomers are in research and development-related positions. Teaching positions in colleges or universities also require a PhD. A relatively small number of universities offer doctoral astronomy programs, so competition for admission is keen. Prepare yourself by taking as many physics courses as possible.

To begin your career, you will acquire a bachelor's degree. An undergraduate astronomy program might include courses such as calculus, astronomy and astrophysics, stellar structure, statistical physics and the solar system. At the master's degree level, you may take classes such as galactic structure, research, astronomical techniques, mathematics and stellar astrophysics. If you decide to pursue a doctorate degree, which can take about six years, your curriculum will focus largely on research. In addition, you'll study courses such as astrochemistry, cosmology, galaxies and atomic physics.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Two other scientific careers that require a doctoral degree are biochemistry/biophysics and computer and information researchers. The former studies biological and chemical processes of living organisms while the latter studies and make innovations in computer technology. One may also be interested in becoming an aerospace engineer who designs various modes of aerial transportation, such as spacecraft. A bachelor's degree will usually suffice for entry level work.

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