Planetary Sciences and Astronomy

Planetary scientists and astronomers use mathematics and physics to observe how the universe works and study the origins of galaxies, stars and planets. Learn more about degree options, career outlook, job duties and salary estimates.

Are Planetary Sciences and Astronomy for Me?

Career Overview

Astronomy is the scientific study of the universe and celestial objects, while planetary sciences is an area of astronomy focused on the origins and composition of planets. Astronomers calculate the movement of planets and stars, measure emissions from celestial objects and analyze data collected by satellites, observatories and telescopes. Using math and physics, astronomers develop theories that attempt to explain how and why celestial phenomena occur. The work of astronomers also has practical application, such as helping to plan and improve space flights, navigation and satellite communications. A desire to help solve some of life's biggest mysteries, combined with mathematical prowess, is essential in this area of work.

Job Options

The majority of planetary science and astronomy jobs are in research and development. Government agencies, particularly at the federal level, hire astronomers, planetary scientists and other space scientists to develop instrumentation and collect and analyze astronomical data. Many others in this field work in academic research institutions teaching astronomy courses and conducting independent research themselves. More basic-level jobs can be found in the areas of science writing and astronomical instrument operations. You may also work in education and outreach, such as for high schools or museums with planetariums and other astronomical exhibits.

Salary and Employment Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipates above-average job growth for astronomers and physicists, at 10% between 2012 and 2022 (www.bls.gov). Job growth for astronomers in government and academic institutions is expected to be particularly good, though jobs in this field are often dependent on the availability of federal funding. As of May 2013, the BLS reported that the median annual salary for astronomers was $110,450, with the top-paid ten percent earning over $170,230.

How Can I Work in Planetary Sciences and Astronomy?

Education Requirements

Planetary sciences and astronomy programs are available from the associate to doctoral degree levels, most often through schools and departments of earth and planetary sciences or astronomy and astrophysics. Associate degree programs can be a good start for students wishing to transfer into a 4-year bachelor's degree program in astronomy or planetary sciences. Courses in a bachelor's degree program can include study of the solar system, cosmology and different astronomical observational techniques such as radio astronomy. While a bachelor's degree in astronomy or planetary sciences can qualify you for entry-level positions, graduate degrees are generally required to work in the areas of research and development. In fact, most research positions require doctoral degrees in astronomy, physics or planetary sciences. In some schools, you may be able to enter directly into a doctoral program after completing a bachelor's degree.

Topics of Study

Program curricula cover topics in math, physics, the solar system, stellar astronomy and cosmology. Graduate-level astronomy courses also include more advanced topics such as astrophysics, quantum mechanics, general relativity, extragalactic observation, electrodynamics, computational methods and radiative processes. Most programs incorporate lab courses that utilize astronomical instruments for more hands-on learning. Graduate degree programs train you in developing research skills through independent research projects on astronomical phenomena and measurement. These programs can also include development of computer programming skills used to process large amounts of quantitative data and writing skills to produce and publish scientific findings from your projects.

Internships

Many employers often prefer candidates with several years of research experience and scholarly publications. To gain experience and better prepare yourself for a career in this field, you may want to consider completing an internship or practicum while in school, such as at an observatory, museum or astronomical research center. Following completion of a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), you might also wish to pursue a postdoctoral research position, which can help you complete your Ph.D. quicker and qualify you for high-level independent research posts within governmental and academic institutes.

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