How to Get A Job in Astronomy

Job in astronomy | Get a job as an astronomer | A scientific career in deep astronomy is not all about getting a PhD | Support or project scientist?

Published by Tony Darnell on 25th Jan, 2017

"How do I get a job in astronomy?" is probably the most asked question I receive.

Here's some advice for those considering a career in astronomy, and it's not all about getting a PhD.

Everything that follows is my opinion and isn’t necessarily the best advice one could receive, so, like everything you read, think for yourself and draw your own conclusions. I write this based solely on my experiences and observations over the last 35 years.

Many times, what I discover is that many people don’t necessarily want to be an astronomer as much as they want to get a job in the field of astronomy, and that's how I'm going to approach this article. I want you to know there's lots of options out there.

What most people think is that to get a job in astronomy, one must become an Astronomer, not so. To become an Astronomer-with-a-capital-A, you do need a PhD, that’s part of the definition of what an astronomer is. You need that degree, plus lots of experience as a postdoc to land some sort of ‘permanent’ (whatever that means), position as a researching astrophysicist.

However, there are lots of cool jobs in astronomy that do not require a PhD, I work in one of those myself. In many ways, I prefer working as (what I call) a support scientist, as opposed to, say, a project scientist, because there is a lot less pressure on me than my astronomer bosses. The downside is that I don’t earn anywhere near the kind of money they do, nor do I get much of the credit for scientific advances.

But that’s the way it should be, they’re the ones with their scientific necks out, not me.

A support scientist isn’t necessarily a PhD, although I have met many people with advanced degrees in those positions. These jobs are extremely rewarding and oftentimes lead to great accomplishments, recognition and a rich and rewarding career.

The normal path to becoming an Astronomer is pretty well-established.

  1. You get your PhD.
  2. Start working at PostDoc positions, all the while writing papers and building your reputation.
  3. As a PostDoc, you keep you eyes open for tenure-track positions at universities or the equivalent at government facilities and apply for any and all positions that interest you.
  4. As a PostDoc, you attend meetings, build contacts and hope that, based on your work and reputation, people start to notice you.
  5. Based on all of the above, and a lot of luck, you get that job you’ll hold for the rest of your life. (Unless you get hired to work on a space mission and the funding’s cut or the probe crashes into a planet. At that point though, you’ve got bigger problems than getting a job.)
  6. None of this is guaranteed, of course. There are a great many PostDocs out there, all competing for a finite number of the cherry jobs.

Getting a PhD is not trivial. Depending on the type of person you are and your life circumstances, it can take a significant fraction of your life to obtain an advanced degree, and there’s no guarantees at the end of it that you’ll get the job you want.

As for me, I chose a slightly different route (big surprise, huh?).

I want to let you know that there are MANY, very fulfilling, rewarding and scientifically vital jobs in astronomy that do not necessarily require you to follow the PhD path. If you cultivate the right skills, are flexible and are able to play well with others (this one’s more important than you might think), you can get a job in astronomy. Indeed, these jobs may even be better suited to you.

For example, in my opinion, there are plenty of theoretical astronomers in the world right now; the last thing we need are more modelers. Astronomy has more models describing what astronomers THINK the universe is like than we can shake a stick at.

We don’t need more models. Period. What we need is actual, in-situ data that either confirm or refute the seemingly unending number of models out there.

This means that instrumentation, in my opinion, is the future. If you can design, build, or program things, then you’re on the fast track; you will be in demand. If you look at job listings from major projects, the number of programming, hardware and instrumentation jobs WAY outnumber the postdocs and theoretical positions.

The bottom line? If you want to get a job in astronomy, go into instrumentation, programming or data analysis.

That last one, data analysis, is particularly important. There’s an onslaught of data heading our way from all manner of new space probes and ground-based telescopes, and these instruments will have HUGE cameras with millions of pixels taking data every second or so.

This means gigabytes of data per hour per instrument will have to be calibrated, processed, archived and served. This job MUST be handled as efficiently as possible with no human intervention.

In my opinion, the best way to get into astronomy right now is to serve one of the following needs:

  • Data processing, archiving, calibration and serving (this is the biggest need, as I see it)
  • Developing data schema and semantics for consistent and efficient combination of datasets from different missions.
  • Building and designing cameras, particularly high-time cadence infrared detectors
  • Designing instruments, of any kind
  • Managing programmers and engineers (it’s like herding cats, honestly)
  • Developing compression algorithms to efficiently compress lots of images to a reasonable size. Right now, this means learning about wavelets.
  • Source detection. Develop software to automatically scan thousands (millions) of images to pick out the galaxies, nebulae and stars. Then put those sources in a catalog.

Feel free to post any questions or comments you may have about your particular job search or interests and I'll try to get to them in future articles or vlog posts!

Well, this oughta get you started, look for more articles on this topic as I write them.

Also check out my Vlog series for another perspective. See you in the mission room!

Published by Tony Darnell

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Tony Darnell is the creator of Deep Astronomy, LLC, a company dedicated to sharing the wonders of the universe and providing perspective of our place in the cosmos. For most of his life, Tony has been interested in science communication and education and has dedicated the best part of his life towards that interest. While embarked on that mission, for 30 years Tony has also worked as a software engineer and worked on writing code for telescopes, astronomy data pipelines, image processing and data analysis. His last gig was the goal of a lifetime: working on data from the Hubble Space Telescope.