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Astronomer: Job Info & Career Requirements

Jan 16, 2020

Learn about a career in astronomy. Research the educational and skill requirements, and learn about the job description and employment and salary outlook for an astronomer.

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Job Description

Degree Level Ph.D.
Degree Field(s) Astronomy
Experience Post-doctoral research program typical (2-3 years)
Key Skills Strong problem-solving, research, data analysis, math, and science skills; knowledge of specific science-related software programs; ability to work with a team
Job Outlook (2018-2028) 5% growth
Median Annual Salary (2018) $105,680

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Astronomers apply the principles of physics and mathematics to learn more about the universe. They gather data on the characteristics of planets, moons, stars, and other objects using telescopes and computer programs. Astronomers usually specialize in certain types of celestial bodies or events, such as black holes or planetary systems. Typical duties include developing and testing scientific theories, analyzing data, and writing research proposals. They also spend time composing scientific papers and presenting their findings to others in the field.

Most astronomers work within a team of scientists. They usually work full time, although research may also be conducted at night when some objects are more visible. Astronomers primarily work in offices. They may be required to work in observatories or to travel internationally to facilities with specialized equipment. They also travel when presenting research. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), scientific research and development services employed the majority of astronomers in 2018, while others worked for colleges, universities, and professional federal executive branch.

Educational Requirements

For those interested in pursuing a career in astronomy, students will need to complete a Bachelor's degree. A Bachelor's degrees in physics (with additional courses taken in astronomy, chemistry, and geology) or astronomy (with additional courses taken in physics and mathematics) are most commonly accepted for graduate programs in astronomy. Most Ph.D. programs also recommend taking classes in the social sciences, humanities, and writing. In addition, because astronomy graduate programs are highly competitive, beginning research early in an academic career can be very beneficial. Students should be open to interning at astronomy labs, working with professors on research projects, and/or completing an undergraduate thesis project to make themselves more competitive for these graduate programs. Some Ph.D. programs will require students to complete a Master's of Science degree prior to entering a Ph.D. program, while others only require a Bachelor's degree.

Astronomy positions require a Ph.D. in the field of astronomy, which usually takes 5-7 years to complete. These programs are likely to contain courses in astrophysics, stellar and planetary physics, galaxies, cosmology, interstellar medium, and optics. Mathematics and computer science are also emphasized.

After completing a Ph.D. program, aspiring astronomers often enter one or more postdoctoral research positions. These take roughly 2-3 years to complete. Postdoctoral scholars work under senior astronomers before taking on more complex projects. Astronomers who are employed by the federal government may need to obtain proper security clearance.

Required Skills

According to the BLS, astronomers must have the ability to solve complex problems, conduct research, and accurately analyze data. They need strong math and science skills, along with being about to work within a team. It also helps to have knowledge of specific science-related software programs.

Employment and Salary Outlook

The BLS reported that the median annual salary for astronomers was $105,680 in 2018. The projected employment growth for astronomers was 5% from 2018-2028, below the national average for all occupations. Federal spending on astronomy research varies from year to year, and the relatively low amount of funding available for many positions can limit the number of jobs in the field. Additionally, competition is expected to be strong for permanent jobs and research grants.

Astronomers study our universe and need to have a Ph.D., along with a strong understanding of physics and math.

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