I’m currently a physics and astronomy major at the University of Georgia (GO DAWGS!) and I was wondering if any of you wonderful people are astronomers. Although I’m only a freshman my answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” has always been “an astronomer” and it’s highly doubtful that that will change. So in this roundabout way my question is: What is your job and what other astronomy related jobs have you had? Because the what do you want to be question has turned into what are you going to do with that? And I really don’t have much of an idea except teach or work at an observatory and that’s not even really much of an answer.
A friend is an astromomer - he has a website at
There’s a place to ask questions, so why not start there? He has some cool stuff.
Well, I’m an astronomy grad student, and done some work in observation and instrumentation. I have no idea what a theorist’s life is like, but an observer’s work starts with studying the subject you’re interested in and thinking of new ways to advance the field - new things or new ways to observe, which can tell us more about what’s going on up there. Then you write a proposal to do the observation. For optical observation, you then go up to the mountain and observe. For X-ray or radio, they often just send you the data after they do the observation. Then you spend months in front of the computer analyzing the data. Hopefully there is something interesting in your data - you can then write a paper and publish it. Of course there are many exceptions - you spend much more time observing if your group owns an instrument, for instance. In any case the paper is the final product of your work.
And of course, astronomers have to develop new instruments as well. This involves design work, simulation, dealing with various manufacturers and engineers, and of course testing and calibration. Then, if you are an astronomer, you use the instrument to do observations and publish the results.
Personally, I’ve been involved with Chandar X-ray Observatory as well as two balloon projects. I’m trying to get out of astronomy and into experimental physics though - in physics it’s perfectly OK to spend all your time building instruments, while it’s unacceptable in astronomy. But if you love science and want to devote your life to it, you will do fine.
If you really want to do astronomy, I’d advise you to concentrate more on physics than astronomy. That may sound contradictory, but for a research astronomer, a good solid physics background is far more valuable than a general knowledge of all fields of astronomy. Physics degrees are far more versatile than an astronomy degree too.
Feel free to ask more questions about it, I’ll do my best to answer.
Well, I’m an astronomer. I’m even on one of the 'scopes on Mauna Kea as we speak.
The question “What does one do as an astronomer?” is a good one. Usually, after an undergraduate major in astronomy (or physics, or planetary science, or other science-related majors), one goes to grad school to get their PhD. After that, typically, it’s off to a post-doctoral position somewhere. At that point, it can be years and years of postdocs, or a faculty position for the lucky ones, or other research/teaching positions. Obviously, this doesn’t hold for everyone, but probably is true for 90% or more of astronomers.
At least in the USA, most astronomy money comes either from NASA or the NSF. That means convincing those agencies to grant you the money. Typically, you propose to do some research project and cross your fingers. Faculty members get paid by their universities for at least 9 months of the year, and depend on grants to pay for the rest of the year plus for any grad students, postdocs, etc. Lots of time can be spent writing grants, and the uncertainty involved as to whether they’ll be funded (especially early in one’s career) rates anywhere from an annoyance to a major reason that people leave science-- not knowing for certain if the money will be there in two or three years…
Most people work in research environments. There are also plenty of people who will work in teaching jobs at colleges or junior colleges. Some will go into outreach. You pick up enough computer, math, and physics experience pursuing an astronomy degree that some will go into computer companies and do quite well.
Currently, I’m a research scientist at the University of Arizona (though I’m off to another school in about a month). I’m a planetary astronomer, and have been since sophomore year of college, I guess. I enjoy going to the telescope quite a bit, but as others have said, ultimately the point is to write papers and publish your data so that you can help science move forward, if only a bit.
I’m an amateur/hobbyist astronomer. But FWIW, here’s a link to an astronomer’s (Sten Odenwald) website where he answers some basic questions about being an astronomer. (what’s your day like? what training do you need?, etc.) Nothing too in-depth at this one link, but it has some interesting points and the overall website is great.
btw, nice to meet you!!
Mauna Kea…is it the Univ of Hawaii’s 2.2m scope?
Color me envious.
I agree Phobos Thanks for the info everyone. It’s been helpful.
I guess it’s good for me that UGA’s major is Physiscs and Astronomy and not just astronomy.
Pleasure to meet you, too. I just submitted a paper on Phobos…
I’m actually at the UK Infrared Telescope, getting close to winding up the night and looking forward to breakfast and sleep!
To be an amateur astronomer, you don’t really need any particular qualifications, and can do pretty much whatever you want-- You’re just a person who happens to like looking up at night. To be a professional, a Ph.D. is almost a necessity, although you might be able to get by with a Master’s. Most of a professional’s work is in writing proposals and analyzing data: A very large amount of the data nowadays comes from NASA’s Great Observatories (Hubble, Chandra, and the late Compton Gamma Ray Observatory) and other such largely automated 'scopes, so observation time generally doesn’t account for much. Even if you have semi-manual scopes at your disposal (probably owned by your university or observatory), the actual observations will usually be made by your students (be prepared to lose a lot of sleep as an astronomy major).
Typically, a professional astronomer will work with either a university astronomy department, or with a group such as NRAO (National Radio Astronomical Observatory, operating the scopes in Green Bank, WV, the VLA in New Mexico, and Aracibo), NOAO (optical; the Kitt Peak observatory and Cerra Tololo Interamerican Observatory in South America), or the Space Telescope Science Institute. It’s not for everybody, by any means: There’s only approximately a thousand professional astronomers in the world.
For what it’s worth, I majored in astronomy for undergrad, and still work with a lot of astronomical data as a physicist.
Thanks for putting me in my place, Chronos.
But seriously, you’re right. “Amateur” can be anything from the casual stargazer to someone with a sophisticated, self-funded, mini-observatory in their backyard. A lot of good work has been done by amateurs…stuff that professionals don’t get funded for, such as searching for comets, tracking asteroids, etc. Plus there’s astrophotography, now that CCDs are getting cheaper. Personally, I’m more of the casual-backyard-telescoping & armchair type of amateur…but just wait until I buy 1,000 acres in Montana.
I knew I wasn’t being paranoid!
Is it my decaying orbit, my cratering, or the composition of my groovy surface?
Wow, Phobos, somebody else who knows the 88" scope at U of H! I spent many happy nights there during 8 observing trips between '86 and '89. (Happy nights my foot: sleep- and oxygen-deprived, thirsty, dusty, tired, and constantly worrying that the IR sensor wasn’t quite calibrated right or I’d have a dreadful accident emptying the dewar or the airport scanner would wreck the data tape on the trip home…No, but seeing the sun rise over the ocean of clouds at 14 Kfeet really was worth it all. Being able to say that I’ve had a snowball fight in Hawaii is pretty cool too. :))
I did a good bit of astronomy in college and after graduation, and then became a historian of astronomy (and mathematics). Also way cool, and I don’t have to stay awake all night for it! (Phone in sometime for my spiel about how quantitative astronomy probably owes its ancient origin to the fact that observers are lazy beggars who’ll do anything for a decent night’s sleep. ;))
Holy Christmas, they paved the road up to the scopes now? You can get up there without a hair-raising ascent (and descent, which is worse) in a 4-wheel drive vehicle on a narrow dirt road with no guardrail?
Color me envious. I wouldn’t have these gray hairs…
Too bad I don’t actually know how to quote other people in this post. It’d make things easier…
Phobos: it’s your composition. You can search the ADS abstract archive if you’re really curious…
Kimtsu: it’s only paved near the summit-- past the lake. The switchbacks and no guardrail part is still on glorious MKO cinder.
at the bottom of each post is a “quote” icon…just click on that.
or, manually, type [ QUOTE ] …(insert message)… [ /QUOTE ]
(just don’t put the spaces in the brackets like I did here)
I’ll blame it on the altitude.
::doing some serious thinking::
How do you come up with what you want to research?
I think I’m gonna have a long talk with my G.A., Astro Prof., or academic advisor about this, I want to be an astronomer but I’m lost as to what I’ll do. Y’all have been helpful though, thanks. I have a while to figure it out, I guess. I’ll just ahve to enjoy my astro classes while I can :-7
But dang it’s bugging me!!
damn, IQ, you’re only a freshie. dont’ freak out, you got at least a year to decide.
teppei you idiot
Basically, you go with what interests you. One of my professors found that he really likes white dwarves, so most of his research deals with studying the properties of various white dwarves in various ways. Another couple of profs took an interest in the interstellar medium, so they devise new ways to measure it, and implement and improve on the old ways. There’s planetary astronomers, who are a lot like geologists; astrophysicists, who study the internal workings of stars; folks who plot orbits for space probes; astronomy educators, who study ways of teaching astronomy; cosmologists, who study the evolution of the Universe; archaoastronomers, who study the ways in which ancient peoples studied the stars; and a host of other sub-specializations. Of course, you don’t have to pick just one, either, but this should give you an idea of the possibilities.
What made you decide you wanted to be an astronomer? That’s what you should do.