How to Become an Astronomer and Why

Stargazers who admire the majesty of the night sky should consider studying astronomy.

What Astronomy Is and What Astronomers Do

“Astronomy is the bridge between life on Earth and everything else happening in the universe, whether it be our Moon, the sun, or an ancient galaxy billions of light-years away,” Brian Lada, a Pennsylvania-based meteorologist and journalist for AccuWeather, a weather forecasting company, wrote in an email. “Right now is an exciting time for astronomers as the human race has more satellites and bigger telescopes than ever before, allowing us to better understand the workings of the universe and everything that it is made of.”

[Read: Your Scholarship Money Could Be in the Stars.]

Astronomy is a rapidly evolving academic discipline, experts say. “Being an astronomer today is like being an explorer hundreds of years ago,” Lada explains. “Scientists are constantly discovering new things, and you never know what you’re going to find next in a hidden corner of the cosmos.”

Astronomy focuses on increasing understanding of the universe, including its many celestial bodies such as stars, moons and planets. This scientific field clarifies the boundaries and mechanics of the universe’s numerous solar systems, galaxies and black holes, some of which are clearly visible to the naked eye while others can be observed only via satellite or telescope.

Astronomers investigate the origins of our universe and attempt to predict its future.

“For every question you answer, you seem to unveil another ten questions, and to some people, that can really be quite frustrating, but you never get to the end,” says Mark Thompson, a broadcaster, author and astronomer in the U.K. “There’s always something new, and there’s always something extra that you’ve got to try and unravel.”

Thompson, who hosts The Pocket Astronomer podcast where he explains astronomy to a general audience, says one of the aspects of astronomy that he loves is that the search for answers is never over. “There’s still so much to learn, and no matter how much we do learn, we keep finding more stuff that needs to be understood, and for me, that’s part of the joy of it.”

[See: Top Space Science Schools in the World.]

Astronomers are currently exploring many fascinating and complicated topics. For instance, they sometimes attempt to explain mysterious invisible phenomena such as dark energy, a force that pushes the universe to expand and accelerates its growth, counteracting the inward pull of gravity.

Astronomers often address questions about whether Earth is the only habitable planet and whether alien life forms exist. They can discern the atmospheric conditions and temperature levels of foreign planets and thus guide conversations about what otherworldly life forms might look like, if they exist.

Astronomers also assess potential existential threats to life on Earth, such as large asteroids, gamma ray bursts and the eventual death of the sun. They even monitor the universe for warning signs of disaster.

One of the unique aspects of this field of science, experts say, is that scientists do not have direct access to the objects they are studying, which are typically light years away.

“In most cases, we don’t have an actual, tangible thing we are working on in a lab,” explains Jessica Rogers, director of the Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium at the University of Minnesota–Duluth. “Very rarely do we have samples in a lab. So it’s all remote, observing things that we can’t actually get to or touch.”

Steps to Take if You Want to Be an Astronomer

Aspiring astronomers can start pursuing their interest in astronomy right away, without too much fuss, by examining various constellations, Thompson suggests.

“It’s very difficult for a member of the public to pursue an interest in chemistry or in biology, but when it comes down to astronomy, your laboratory is above your head,” he says. “You don’t need any equipment to study the night sky at a very general level.”

Thompson adds that it is possible for ordinary people to obtain research-grade telescopes “off the shelf,” and suggests that astronomical adventures are a great way to expose youth to STEM subjects, or science, technology, engineering and math.

“Astronomy is a great science to get people interested in science,” Thompson says.

[See: Best Colleges Offering an Astronomy Major.]

He notes that it is possible to work within the field without being an astronomer, adding that it is common for engineers to do so since engineering is needed to construct the telescopes that astronomers use.

Anyone who wants to lead groundbreaking astronomical research on subjects they choose should aim to get an astronomy doctorate, Thompson says, though he notes that people with less-advanced degrees can work on astronomical research projects and that it is possible to be a professional astronomer without a Ph.D.

Some astronomy researcher positions require not only a doctorate but also a post-doc fellowship, Rogers says. However, for individuals more interested in disseminating and explaining astronomical research than conducting it, a master’s degree in astronomy could be sufficient, she suggests.

Astronomy jobs frequently lead to six-figure salaries. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual compensation among astronomers in May 2019 was $114,590. The bureau notes that a Ph.D. degree is often required for high-level research roles and academic positions in this field, though it is possible to secure other forms of employment within this industry with either a bachelor’s or a master’s degree.

Qualities Needed to Excel as an Astronomer

Mathematical ability is a must for a future astronomer, since calculations are involved in many aspects of astronomy, Thompson says. The ability to simplify and explain complex topics is also necessary, he adds. “If you’ve got communication skills, then you can communicate what you’re doing to the public.”

Curiosity and perseverance are essential personality traits for astronomers, according to experts, who note that the difficulty of discovering information about distant objects can only be overcome by people who are highly motivated to find answers.

Thompson suggests that one reason people feel compelled to become astronomers is that they appreciate the fragility of Earth’s position in the universe and want to help preserve the welfare of humanity.

“Astronomy is about playing the long game.”

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