Astronomers use tools like telescopes, cameras and spectrographs to study interactions between materials and energy within the universe. These scientists learn about galaxies, solar systems, planets and stars through careful observation and measurement recording. Astronomers also refer to natural sciences and mathematics to form and test theories.
An integral part of a student's astronomy experience is the quality of equipment and facilities they have access to. Astronomy departments at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Harvard University and the University of Tokyo give students access to some of the best observatories in the world. The quality of a school's facility will determine much of an astronomy student's intellectual development and research abilities, so these factors should play a role in one's decision to apply to a specific program.
Astronomy majors at the undergraduate level will gain an introduction to this field by taking a survey course that covers the Milky Way Galaxy, the orbital behaviors of planets, telescope basics, star identification and cosmology. Astronomy departments typically require students to take math courses up to the calculus level in conjunction with their program, in order to keep up with the astronomy curricula. Astronomy students will also need to take foundational courses in physics to grasp key Newtonian concepts.
Graduate students are exposed to more challenging concepts, exploring the diffusion of particles across space, chaos theory and dynamical systems. These students often use departmental facilities to record their own observations about our solar system and cosmology. These students will also fine-tune their telescope and spectroscopy analysis techniques, learning how to use current observational technologies to their fullest extent.
One of the most popular specializations within astronomy is astrophysics, or the study of how physics operates in the universe. Students who pursue this track will dedicate a significant portion of their time to advanced physics courses, and will then apply learned concepts to their astronomy studies. Other specialty fields for budding astronomers include atmospheric climates, physical sciences and atmospheric chemistry.
Students can pursue astronomy at three major degree levels: bachelor's, master's and Ph.D.. Since astronomy has so many physics and math prerequisites, it is extremely rare to find associate programs in the field.
This degree gives students enough time to cover essential concepts of astronomy, while delving into calculus, computational physics and differential equations. Students that graduate with a degree at this level can often find assistant researcher roles within astronomy software departments, telescope operations and observatories.
Students that move on to a graduate program can gain collegiate level instructional opportunities by becoming a teaching assistant. At this point in their academic careers, students might begin to specialize in astrophysics, astrobiology or atmospheric climates. Those studying astronomy at this level will often turn to astronomy facilities and technical resources to catalog their own research and measurements. Their findings often contribute toward a research thesis, which is the capstone of their astronomy degree.
Before they can enter a Ph.D. program, many colleges require astronomy students to take a qualifying exam, administered by a faculty committee to ensure that a student's comprehensive astronomy knowledge meets doctoral studies standards. Once admitted to the program, students will be expected to conduct their own research investigations. The outcome of this research is meant to be used within their final dissertation. Ph.D. and master's graduates can explore astronomer roles with government labs, observatories, planetariums and universities.
Students and prospective employees within the astronomy fields should consider membership with the American Astronomical Society and the Astronomical League. These organizations provide exclusive access to conferences, online networking, award ceremonies and publications.
Ideal Candidates for Astronomy
Observant individuals are likely to thrive in astronomy, as students and researchers are required to examine minute shifts and cosmological occurrences with telescopes, photographs and spectrographs. Some stars and planets only become visible during certain times of the year, so patience is another trait that suits prospective astronomers.
Astronomers need to have a strong sense of curiosity, since conducting measurements and analysis can become repetitive and tedious. Researchers must continue to press forward, even when errors or faulty equipment call for experiments to be conducted again. Students will also need to be resourceful, because their academic program might not provide access to top-notch facilities.
Research by the American Astronomical Society shows that there are actually very few astronomy positions within North America – just 7,000 – a paltry amount when compared to 40,000 physicists. Over a fifth of astronomers in the U.S. are women, and one-fourth of astronomy Ph.Ds. have been received by women. However, less than one percent of astronomers identify as racial minorities.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, astronomers make an average of $106,360 a year, or $51.14 an hour. The job outlook for this field is moving at an average pace, growing about 10% before the year 2022. The majority of astronomers work in research and development facilities, followed by colleges, government offices, and scientific consulting services.
Prospective astronomy students can get more information during their college search by working with admissions counselors, contacting local planetariums and observatories, and reaching out to faculty members. Honors societies and professional guilds can also help college students locate academic funding and career opportunities.