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.

Present and Future

The Mayans, the Babylonians, and the Egyptians all used calendar systems based on the stars. The heliocentric theory of the universe, proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543, gave birth to modern astronomy, allowing experimental data to match cleanly with expected results. Twentieth-century technology, such as radio telescopes, spectroscopy measurements of background radiation shifts, and neutrino detection devices, has added to the basic work of Newton, Kepler, Galileo, and Edwin Hubbell. Most agree that the future of astronomy lies in the marriage of technological advances, which can probe further into the unknown, and breakthroughs in theoretical modeling. Astronomers have untold numbers of questions about the universe, and only with more refined and farther-reaching experimental data will they be able to begin to address them. Funding, however, defines how much and how positive the future direction of astronomy will be.

Quality of Life


Most two-year astronomers still have not completed graduate school and work as research assistants, teaching assistants, and graders. Many came to the attention of their professors as undergraduates who excelled in their classes. Daily duties divide the time of the beginning astronomer between the observatory and the classroom. Beginning astronomers often spend three to six nights per week at the observatory, mapping the night sky and being "on call" for any unusual events in the sky. Those who work for the government spend these early years as "assistants" on large-scale long-term government astronomy projects, usually dealing with phenomena in our own solar system. Hours are long; pay is limited or in the form of academic credits.


The five-year survivor becomes involved in the planning and development stages of research projects (although full professors and more experienced astronomers still have final say). "Assistants" become "associates." Many who have had success are moved into more project-manager type jobs rather than the research and number crunching they were doing in the first two years. Teaching assistantships have either evolved into teaching positions or been offered to other more promising candidates. The two most accurate bellwethers of success in this field at the five-year stage are the number of articles published in quality astronomy journals and the number of research projects that are approved for funding. Between years two and seven the greatest migration from this profession takes place--around thirty percent. Hours increase, as does pay, but the most significant aspect of these years is that hands-on responsibility increases.


Ten-year survivors fall into two categories: the shooting stars, who become tenured professors, research institution heads, and observatory managers because of their professional reputations and their record of performance, and the workhorses, who have strong records of being team players at research institutions and observatories. The workhorses usually have areas of specialty, such as in exotic phenomena, or spectroscopy analysis. Many shooting stars publish books, lecture, and lead conferences on their area of expertise. Others remain as tenured professors at universities. Duties include setting research agendas, approving grant proposals, acting as consultants to NASA, participating in international astronomy organizations, and serving on government panels in the sciences. Ten-year veterans may find themselves in the unusual position of dealing less with the science of astronomy and more with the politics of academic and governmental funding.