It might be too late for you to put on a suit, travel on a space shuttle and embark upon a 380,000-kilometre journey to the moon – a dream for so many of us in our youth.
However, it is never too late, nor are you ever too old, to become an astronomer, a career made up of stars, planets and black holes.
Astronomers have one of the most rewarding and compelling occupations in the universe (or multiverse?). At first glance, astronomy might be all about calculations and terminology too complicated for the layman, but once you scratch underneath the surface, then you can immediately become the life of the party – just stay away from focal ratio discussions!
When you’re frustrated by what is happening on this planet – and who isn’t these days? – and you want something that is a bit more intriguing than just shifting paperwork and dealing with uncouth customers, then maybe it’s time for a career change.
And, if you’re great at any of the STEM fields, astronomy may be something to consider.
Let’s get Sirius and find out what really matters in this field. (Yes, they’re terrible puns – comet me, bro!)
Here’s how to become an astronomer.
1. Research the profession
Do you repeatedly take a gander at the stars, and wonder what it would be like to explore life beyond Earth?
That’s how so many of today’s crop of astronomers entered this profession. But being an astronomer might contain more than merely peering through a telescope.
There are plenty of roles and responsibilities in this field that will determine if you have the qualifications to get the daily tasks done.
Believe it or not but astronomers have a lot of responsibilities to perform, ranging from completing paperwork to performing guest lectures at colleges. Some days the job can be befuddling and mentally taxing, and on other days it can be an exciting adventure.
To determine if this particular career path is right for you, here are some of the tasks you will complete every day:
- observing, studying and analysing matter and energy in outer space
- documenting the findings of your various observations
- developing and testing a wide array of scientific theories (be prepared for failure)
- collaborating with other astronomers to research and solve problems
- receiving, organising and evaluating immense quantities of data from external observations
- attending conferences, seminars and school events to meet other astronomers or deliver a speech
- composing research proposals and submitting to superiors, governments or universities for funding
- working plenty of nights – that is when many objects are far more visible
- maintaining your state-of-the-art equipment so it remains in great shape
- producing techniques that complement your astronomical endeavours.
Essential skills and qualities
Should you wish to survive and thrive in astronomy, you will need to possess an abundance of professional skills and personal qualities.
If you fail to maintain these essential components, then you will flounder and get left behind.
Here are some of them:
- attention to detail – the slightest mistake in a mathematical formula, or a missing observation in the movement of a star, can destroy a whole night’s work; when you’re an astronomer, details matter, and your main job is to pay close attention to them
- creative thinking and writing skills – it might not seem like it, but you will need to be creative in this field; because you’ll be submitting reports for publication, you can’t be dry or boring (otherwise, the reader will not be as captivated as you envisioned)
- communication skills – in astronomy, communication is paramount; how much you will communicate varies, but it will be a lot since you’re working with other teams, orating to students or highlighting your findings with your peers
- open-mindedness – one concept that is ingrained in science is that nothing is ever permanent, meaning that the science is never settled, which requires you to be open-minded and willing to tackle yesterday’s theories with today’s knowledge
- patience – in this field, patience is truly a virtue; as an astronomer, you will be waiting, sitting quietly, writing down numbers and observations, and drinking plenty of coffee (for some of these stargazers, this is excitement at its best)
- physical energy – it cannot be stated enough that you will be working plenty of nights; you need the energy to not only stay awake but to also use your mind
- technical proficiencies – you can expect to work with high-end software programs, high-grade technology, intricate tools to perform your assignments and multimillion-dollar satellites.
Working hours and conditions
While most astronomers are employed by a university or college, many are hired for particular projects, which means that your working hours are entirely dependent on the type of work. For instance, you may be working around the clock during impressive astronomical events – remember how much the last solar eclipse garnered media attention, articles and analysis?
Like your working hours, conditions do vary. For the most part, you will be situated inside an office-style environment. On occasion, you will travel outside the country and engage with astronomers at laboratories, exterior settings and industry events to share your knowledge and reveal your research.
Despite the abundance of credentials you will inevitably have by the time you enter the workforce, you cannot expect to get paid like other more prominent astronomers and astrophysicists, such as the legendary Stephen Hawking, the eminent Michio Kaku or the famous Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Here is what you can monetarily anticipate, according to the National Careers Service:
- entry-level astronomers will start between £13,000 and £14,000 ($17,120 and $18,430)
- after several years of service, your salary can rise to as much as £36,000 ($47,400)
- senior astronomers can earn upwards of £60,000 ($78,990).
This does not include the additional freelance work, potential book deals or side gigs you will take on.
2. Get the qualifications
To enter astronomy, you will need to attend a school that offers an astronomy programme as your major.
While you can obtain a position in astronomy with a bachelor’s degree, most employment opportunities will require a PhD., which can take as long as seven years to complete.
Moreover, once finishing their PhD., many students enrol in one- or two-year postdoctoral research projects to study under senior astronomers and astrophysicists and partake in important but complex projects.
In the UK, you can obtain an advanced degree, like MPhys or MSci, and become a member of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) or the British Astronomical Association (BAA).
To give your qualifications a boost, you can specialise in one or more areas, such as cosmology, interstellar optics, astrophysics or quantum physics.
Alternatively, you can have a speciality in computer engineering or a branch of chemistry that can be transferred to astronomy.
3. Land your first job
Unlike other professions, you gain experience once you are in school. Because you’re participating in activities outside the classroom when you’re still in college or university, you’re working in a real-world setting with the same machinery, equipment and software.
That does not mean you can ditch the CV, however, and saunter into a university or government body and inform the hiring manager that you’re ready, willing and able. You still need a professional and error-free CV that highlights your qualifications, experience and anything relevant to the position.
Remember: your first job will be entry-level, which means you cannot expect to work on projects that require government-level security clearance! This isn’t a Hollywood blockbuster where you will clumsily break into a high-level security facility and learn that an asteroid is headed our way, and only you know how to stop it!
4. Develop your career
You can be an astronomer who works at a small-town college or you can be an eminent astronomer who is well known throughout the science world. For many astronomers, it is typically the latter. But this can only be done by expanding your horizons beyond the classroom or annual research endeavours.
Because science is cool again, you should have a portfolio of articles, essays, blog posts and even a book or two under your belt. This is one of the best ways of advancing your career, which will also enhance your salary expectations.
Like the universe, your opportunities are infinite, from being a celebrated media personality to serving as head of the astronomy department at a globally-recognised university.
Astronomy is never boring. You are constantly discovering new things or learning that the old theories were wrong all along – ostensibly, we are debating once again if black holes really do exist! You can make a name for yourself if you’re part of a group that debunks an age-old idea or discovers a replica of planet Earth.
While astronomy takes time, once a discovery is made, things can rapidly change.
We have a desire in our youth of changing the world. The profession of a chef, civil servant or circus artist may not make a dent in the world, but an astronomer can transform our society – for good or bad.
And that is when you know you have found a meaningful career.
Are you interested in becoming an astronomer? Let us know in the comments section below!
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