Radio Astronomy Education and Career Information

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a radio astronomer. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about degree programs, job duties and other requirements to find out if this is the career for you.

Astronomy is an academically intensive field providing opportunities to explore and research. Astronomers use highly technical instruments and usually have high proficiency in mathematics. Take a closer look at this detail-oriented and specialized profession.

Essential Information

Radio astronomers collect and analyze radio waves emitted by celestial bodies. Although master's degree programs in radio astronomy can prepare you for a research career, due to stiff competition in the job field, a doctoral degree with a strong physics background is recommended.

Required EducationDoctoral degree
Other RequirementsPhysics background recommended
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) 3% (Astronomers) 7% (Astronomers and Physicists)*
Median Salary (2015)$104,100*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Education Requirements for Radio

The majority of research positions for radio astronomers require a doctoral degree. Undergraduate studies typically consist of a strong focus in physics, mathematics, cosmology and earth science. Bachelor's degrees in engineering, computer science or applied physics usually satisfy most of the undergraduate-level requirements for advanced programs in radio astronomy.

Master's Degree Programs

Universities offer master's degree programs with a concentration in radio astronomy or dual degree programs that combine master's and doctorate-level study. Coursework in a master's program prepares students in the research procedures they will need later on in their careers. Topics can include observation techniques, principles in optical observing, galaxy structure and stellar configurations.

Students with a bachelors or master's degree can often find work in planetariums conducting tours or shows or assisting doctorate-level or post-doctorate astronomers conducting research using various types of instrumentation, such as space-based radio telescopes. Teaching positions and individual research projects generally require a doctoral degree.

PhD Programs

Doctorate-level education for radio astronomers is highly competitive and programs only accept a handful of students every year. Graduates typically need a strong physics background to compete with other students in securing a spot in one of these programs. Besides conducting research, students at this level usually perform a large amount of laboratory work, teach undergraduate astronomy classes and work in instrumentation development.

After graduation, many radio astronomers begin in a research position under the tutelage of an experienced astronomer before branching out on their own. Astronomers specializing in radio waves generally conduct research in a variety of related areas, such as of galaxy properties, radar investigations, solar radio observations, interstellar radio lines, quasars and radio wave emitting phenomenon.

Career Information for a Radio Astronomer

Radio astronomers are generally employed for by government agencies, defense contractors, national laboratories and private industry to perform research and assist in development projects. They are also employed by colleges and universities in positions that typically combine teaching and research. Competition for these jobs is high due to the popularity of the occupation.

Employment Outlook

Federal resources cover the majority of the expenses for radio astronomers involved in research and development. Limited funding for these projects can inhibit individual career growth in this field. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), overall employment of astronomers between 2014 and 2024 would rise by 3%.

Salary Information

The median annual wage of astronomers employed in the U.S. was $104,100 in May 2015, according to the BLS. The BLS reported that astronomers who worked for the federal government had an average salary of $135,850 a year in May 2015, while astronomers who worked in colleges and universities earned an average annual salary of $82,970.

Any aspiring astronomer should be aware of the highly competitive nature of the field due to its overall popularity and strong salary potential. For high-level research-based positions, a doctorate is necessary yet there are supporting and educational roles for those with a bachelor's or master's degree. It's important to plan early, as doctoral programs and subsequent projects during career are competitive with subject matter expertise being of utmost importance.

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