Career Profile: Astronomy
Pursuing a Career in Astronomy
By Robert Anthony Robinson
When you dream about becoming an astronomer, do you envision gazing at stars and discovering new civilizations or cosmic entities? While astronomers do these things, they also have many earth-bound responsibilities that are just as important.
"People coming in to the profession sometimes think that it’s all stargazing. There’s actually a lot of time at your desk, or at teaching or analyzing data," says Horace Smith, a professor with Michigan State University’s department of physics and astronomy. Although stargazing does have its place in an astronomer’s world: "There’s so much that’s changing, and so much still unknown about what’s up in the sky," he admits: "There’s a lot more administration and busy work than there is looking at stars."Astronomers collect and study data by tracking, for example, the energy given off by faint and distant stars or the cosmic movement of exotic planetary bodies like pulsars, quasars and nebulas, and try to predict how these phenomena interact. They use high-powered telescopes, instruments and computers to collect this data, and work with mathematicians and astrophysicists to analyze it for making conclusions. Astronomers are often employed by colleges and universities as professors or in college-related observatories. "There are different career paths in teaching and research," says Smith. "[There’s] people who work for the government or in private labs doing research and development projects. Many work at planetariums. It can vary quite widely," he says. A number of astronomers earn their income from a combination of these employment options."
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will only be a 2 percent increase in the need for astronomers in the next 10 years. Unemployment statistics for this career category, however, are nearly non-existent and annual earnings ratios are very high.
One seeking an astronomy career should, at the most basic level, enjoy scientific activities that require the collection and communication of data. "In many areas you will have more contact with the public than a research physicist might, because you can look up in the sky, find something, and then talk to people about it," says Smith. The degree of people-skills necessary for an astronomer depends upon the area of astronomy he or she goes into.
Mathematics is used extensive throughout the astronomical field so math skills are essential. The ability to work within precise standards of measurement and make conclusions on verifiable data is a valuable skill for an astronomer. Since astronomy requires the use of highly advanced technology and equipment, the ability to use computers and complicated electronic equipment is very beneficial.
Helpful coursework for developing these necessary skills may include:
Internship, job shadowing, mentorship or volunteer work at the astronomy department of a local university may be an excellent way to learn more about this career choice.
Astronomers employed full time generally receive a full range of employee benefits including paid vacations, sick leave and holidays, in addition to life, accident, disability and health insurance. Most receive an employer-paid pension plan upon completion of length of service requirements.
Astronomers must earn a bachelor’s degree in astronomy or physics at a minimum. Most astronomers, however, increase their opportunities and pay level by continuing their education, usually until they have completed a Ph.D. A Ph.D. is generally required to qualify for fieldwork or to become a professor at a university. Currently, about 70 universities throughout the United States grant degrees in astronomy. Applicants to astronomy programs face fierce competition for available positions. Many vocational educational programs offer excellent curriculums to help students toward a higher education in astronomy.
"I would advise them (students) to keep a broad base, and not to try to narrow their (educational) focus too soon," says Smith. "In high school, take physics and chemistry and other science classes, but also take English, history and other foreign languages. There is enough time for students to change their mind between high school and the time they must select a college major."
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Robert Anthony has been a freelance author, visual artist, and technical writer for more than 20 years. He has worked on a multitude of high-end professional writing and marketing projects including Web editorial development, technical writing, sales presentation writing and development, magazine writing, and advertising design. To date, he has more than 600 published stories and designs to his credit, including works in LIS, BROKER WORLD, POPULAR WOODWORKING, WOODSHOP NEWS, THE EBBING TIDE, BUSINESS MONTHLY, PROFILES ONLINE, www.wordarchive.com, www.woodworking.org, www.profilesonline.com, www.ogr.org, and PROFILES. His specialties are how-to and profile stories, publication design and layout and advertising design.
As a pioneering project manager for the award-winning web sites, PROFILES ONLINE, and writer for Michigan Occupational Information Service, Robert Anthony has helped pioneer structured approaches to web-based editorial content and design. From 1994 to 1999 he served as Executive Editor for PROFILES magazine and PROFILES ONLNE, as well as Communications Director for Employee Compensation Advisors, Incorporated from 1988 to 1994. In addition to his 22 years of marketing experience, he is currently enrolled in motivational psychology studies at Michigan State University.
Robert Anthony resides with his wife and three children in Lansing, Michigan, a town he claims is America’s biggest small town.
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