Questions About Careers in Astronomy

I’m writing this mail to you for collecting some information on astrophysics career in USA. I’m requestion information for the following: Qualifications, Best institutions to work in this field, Average annual income, Necessary skills to develop in 11th and 12th grade for this career in future, different options of work in this field.

It’s great that you are excited about astrophysics! Here are some quick answers to your questions:

1. Qualifications: To become a graduate student in astronomy or astrophysics, applicants need to have a strong physical sciences background. Most applicants are astronomy or physics majors during their undergraduate years, and many have a second major or minor in mathematics or computer science. In addition to coursework, most applicants also have some research background in physics or astronomy.

For graduate admissions, applicants are required to submit their university transcripts, General GRE and Physics GRE test scores, and if international, a TOEFL English language exam score as well. You will also need to write a statement of purpose and submit letters of recommendation from your professors or research advisors. For reference, here are the admissions instructions for UC Berkeley: Admissions requirements at other institutions will be similar.

2. Best Institutions: The best institutions for studying astronomy/astrophysics will depend on your specific area of interest. Some institutions have better resources for observations (i.e. access to telescopes), while others specialize more in theory (i.e. better access to computing clusters). Some departments have broader research opportunities, while others are more specialized. Often, people choose a particular university based on faculty members they are most interested in working with. 
I’d recommend doing some simple searches online for general or specific rankings of graduate programs. You can also look up people working on the subfields you are most interested in, then take a look at which institutions they are at.

3.  Average Annual Income: This depends a lot on which level you are at in your progression, as well as where you work. Here’s a very rough breakdown:

  • Graduate Student: $20,000 – $35,000 / year
  • Post-doctoral: $45,000 – $65,000 / year
  • Faculty/Researcher: $60,000 – $150,000 / year, strongly dependent on what type of institution you work at and your seniority

4. Necessary skills: My recommendation is to start learning computer coding as early as possible. Basically all subfields in astronomy will require you to write some type of computer code. Observers use computers to analyze their data; theorists use computers to create simulations; and instrumentalists use computers to interface with their instruments, etc.
Python is probably the most versatile coding language right now. You can find tutorials online if your school doesn’t offer computer classes.

5. Different career options: Within academia, astronomy PhDs can become faculty members or research scientists, and can work at universities or government institutions like NASA. Faculty positions can be more research-focused or more teaching-focused, and some universities have better access to the telescopes and computing clusters necessary for cutting-edge research, while others prioritize undergraduate instruction. Research scientists can also work at universities, or else they can work for governmental labs and institutions. These positions might be more focused on a specific mission or telescope, and might include administrative or logistical components as well as pure research.

Many astronomy PhDs choose to leave academia, as jobs are highly competitive within the field. Since astronomers work with computers and often with lots of data, many enter fields like data science / analytics and work for tech companies like Google or Facebook. Others might do something related to engineering, especially if their specialty in astronomy was instrumentation-focused. Still others might become science teachers in high schools or middle schools.

I hope these answers help you on your way to becoming an astrophysicist!


Should people, like myself, continue on focusing on a science degree? Would it still be worth it despite the current job market?

From your email, it sounds like you are concerned about job prospects in the physical sciences. While it is true that it takes a lot of dedication and hard work to become a researcher or professor, it is also true that students who study physics as undergraduates and graduate students rarely find themselves unemployed. Physics is a very well-respected field, and physics research typically allows you to develop highly marketable skills like computer programming and math. Studying physics also requires you to exercise your creativity and problem-solving skills, which is great regardless of where you end up after school.

People who remain in academia, on track to become researchers or professors, typically do so because they really love physics research. This is a very challenging path, requiring a lot of effort, time, and dedication, so it isn’t for everybody. But if you are very driven towards these goals, it is still possible to get a good job in academia. 

On the other hand, if you are primarily concerned with your future employment, you might be better off studying computer science or engineering. These industries are growing, and jobs are easier to come by than in academia. You can transition into these fields from physics, or start in them as an undergraduate. You will probably start making a good salary much earlier in these fields than in academia, and I know many people find these careers rewarding and interesting. 

Ultimately, my advice to you is this: if you are really interested in physics, then you should study physics. Try to get involved in some research while you are an undergraduate, and decide whether you love doing research. If the answer is yes, then by all means you should pursue a goal of remaining in academia. If you love what you are doing, it is much easier to put in the time and effort it takes to become a professor or research scientist. However, if you find that you do not love physics research, don’t worry. You will have many marketable skills that you can put toward a career in other fields.

Please let me know if you have any other questions, and I hope my response has helped alleviate your concern at least somewhat!

I am interested in finding a career in Astronomy. Can you please answer the following questions: How did you get into this line of work? What do you like teaching about astronomy? What do you find challenging about being a professor? What are the skills needed for this kind of job? How does this job impact your daily life? What is the future outlook for astronomy careers?

Let me address your questions one at a time!

1. How did you get into this line of work?
My own astronomy career started in my first year as an undergraduate. I took a fantastic introductory astrophysics course, and I was especially excited about how astronomers could apply their knowledge of local physics and math to understand phenomena occurring hundreds of lightyears away. I continued taking astronomy courses, and ended up majoring in physics, with a concentration in astronomy. Most astronomers follow a similar course as undergrads, and major in physics or astronomy. 

After a four-year undergraduate program, I continued on in a graduate program here at UC Berkeley. Most astronomy and astrophysics graduate programs last between 5-6 years. During this time, the grad students choose a specific area of expertise within astronomy, and carry out several major projects with their advisor, while building the skills to become independent astronomers. 

After graduate school, if students are interested in continuing on to become professors, they typically hold 1-3 postdoctoral positions in which they continue their research but do not teach. If they are dedicated, hard-working, and lucky, they might then be offered a professorship. 

2. What do you like about teaching astronomy?
Here at Berkeley, graduate student do not typically run their own courses, but we do serve as teaching assistants for courses taught by faculty members in our department. For me, teaching is especially rewarding when the students are excited about what they are learning. My favorite thing about teaching is helping students realize that they have the ability to solve complicated problems for themselves. It is also exciting to watch students think about problems on a scale so much larger than themselves, often for the first time!

3. What do you find challenging about being a professor?
At all levels (graduate student, postdoc, and professor), astronomy is incredibly challenging. In our research, we try to answer complicated questions about the universe that have often never been studied before, using data that can be very messy. It takes a lot of creativity and innovation to carry out these projects. There can also be a lot of pressure to produce results quickly and accurately. 

Teaching is also a challenge, as it involves explaining very complex phenomena in a clear and simple way. All students learn differently, so being adaptable is important.

4. What are the skills needed for this kind of job?
Astronomers need a strong understanding of physics and math, as well as skills in computer programming, to carry out their research. They should also have good written and oral communication skills to explain their research and results in papers and to students. 
Beyond technical skills, astronomers at all levels also need a strong sense of curiosity about their research questions, and the self-motivation to work hard on their research projects even when they become difficult. Astronomy can be a lot of work, but it is also very rewarding to learn something new about the universe!

5. Does this job impact your daily life?
Like most jobs, being a professor involves a full work week. Professors have a lot of commitments, and sometimes work more than 40 hours per week. Between their own research, their teaching responsibilities, and their responsibilities to their graduate students and the department, there is a lot to do. 
Astronomers also travel fairly regularly. Many telescopes are located in remote locations to avoid light pollution from human population centers, so astronomers sometimes travel to places like Hawaii or Chile to observe. There are also conferences held around the world, and astronomers travel to these to share their work with colleagues from different countries.
Observational astronomers have an additional impact from observing. During observing runs, we have to shift our sleep schedules so that we can be awake all night collecting data at a telescope. 

6. What is the future outlook for astronomy careers?
The number of available professorships is unfortunately relatively low compared to the number of graduate students in astronomy, so many people with PhD degrees in astronomy do not end up as professors. There are some alternatives to professorships at research universities: some astronomers work for national labs or agencies as research scientists, some find teaching-focused jobs at small liberal arts colleges, and some leave academia and work in industry for engineering or computer science companies. 

7. Any advice you could give me about entering this career?
My advice is to keep the big questions in mind. Astronomy research requires a lot of detailed knowledge about physics, math, and computer science, and it is easy to get bogged down in the details of the work. It is extremely important to keep your curiosity alive by remembering the questions that first sparked your interest.