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Career: Astronomer

A Day in the life of a Astronomer

One would think that staring at the stars and pondering the interactions of large bodies of matter would involve a life of quiet contemplation, removed from the petty day-to-day distractions of the working world. But if one were to voice that opinion at a convention of astronomers, one would be ridden out on a rail. Astronomers track, study and review data of energy emitted from stars, movements of planetary bodies, and the interactions between these two phenomena. This highly cerebral environment requires a person attentive to detail, willing to work with others, and able to play political academic games. Large telescopes (usually radio telescopes) track interstellar phenomena, collect light from distant starts, sense radioactive emissions, and locate and identify new stellar bodies. Astronomers collect and analyze this data and work with astrophysicists and mathematicians to find better ways of describing the interaction between various bodies of stellar matter and energy. Much work is done using computers to examine how received data matches against expected data; those who have computer skills have a significant edge in the early years of this profession. One professor described the life this way: "We search for all the wonder the universe has to offer by examining every corner and every edge the universe presents us, and yet we are surprised, because in truth, some of the universe we do not understand." Most astronomy jobs are with observatories and universities with large computing departments. Observatory jobs usually involve some communication and/or operation with the academic community. It is not unusual for an astronomer to do research at an observatory while also employed as an instructor in an astronomy department. Those who are not associated with universities are employed by research institutions, planetariums, or as consultants for other areas of scientific inquiry, such as electronic communication technology.

Paying Your Dues

Only around 175 American universities offer astronomy as a degree on the undergraduate level, and around sixty offer study on the graduate level, so as each university reaps a new crop of graduates, competition increases for the few faculty and research positions available. A Ph.D. is generally required to work in the field. Only those students with strong undergraduate backgrounds in physics, math and computer science find the graduate work manageable. Close associations with professors during undergraduate and graduate work account for many of the initial positions people attain in the field. Working under close supervision, aspiring astronomers can anticipate long hours, extensive number crunching, and some teaching assistantship work--the latter may entail grading undergraduate papers and tests. Once they receive their doctorates, competition among Ph.D.s for positions is intense. For those astronomers who wish to rise in the profession, publishing academic articles is important; being assigned to government research panels is another significant achievement. Satisfaction among those employed in this field is, on the average, strong.

Associated Careers

Astronomers who leave go into a variety of professions where their science training can be put to use. Refugees from astronomy enter physics, astrophysics, computer science, high-altitude physics research programs, and space exploration programs.

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