Information Sheet



How to become an Astronomer

A Guide for Students of All Ages

This information is provided by the ASA Education and Public Outreach Committee. It may be freely copied for wide distribution provided the ASA letterhead is retained.



ASA


Preface

This webpage was produced by the Astronomical Society of Australia in response to many enquiries from those who share our interest in astronomy. The Society has no permanent headquarters, such as an observatory, but brings together professional scientists and students working in astronomy or a closely related subject, plus astronomy educators and some amateur astronomers who are involved in research projects. The Society represents these people, arranges scientific conferences, and publishes research papers. In general, keen amateur astronomers are best catered for by local amateur astronomy groups as mentioned in the section 'Information and Courses in Astronomy'.

Introduction

Astronomy is a very exciting and challenging subject which involves many of the other sciences such as physics, mathematics, chemistry and geology, and, more recently, even paleontology and biology.

Many people are fascinated by the splendour and enormity of objects in space and become amateur astronomers while still at school. Astronomy can be an engrossing hobby for people of all ages, and there are many clubs and societies in Australia which provide information and facilities for looking through quite large telescopes that would be out of the range of most lone amateurs. Because of the wide public interest in astronomy, many universities and colleges organise evening courses on the subject, designed for people who do not have an advanced scientific background. Some offer online courses in astronomy. There are very well produced local magazines, Sky & Space and Australian Sky & Telescope, which have lots of useful information for the keen amateur.

Professional Astronomy as a Career

Some people decide at some stage in their lives that they would like to earn their living by working on a particular aspect of astronomical research. They may not have had an amateur interest in astronomy from an early age, but have turned to this science through an interest in some astronomical application of mathematics, physics or another subject. Present day astronomers have a wide variety of backgrounds but with a common thread linking them all together. They have demonstrated the ability to master a particular facet of astronomical research, and they have a curiosity about nature that can drive them to spend long hours in an endeavour to reveal something new about the Universe. Note though that the employment situation in professional astronomy is very competitive, even for students who graduate with excellent PhDs.

How to Start

Professional astronomers get a real kick out of doing what they like best but, of course, there is a snag. Before you can do this you have to demonstrate that you can do very well in some areas of basic science; that is, you must obtain a university degree (or equivalent) with high enough grades to be accepted to undertake a research degree or be taken on the staff of one of the research institutes.

Where to Go

Most universities can give you a good grounding in science, but it does help to attend a university that has an astronomy department or that can provide some astronomy courses taught by astronomers, usually as part of an undergraduate BSc teaching programme. This becomes more important in the honours year of a degree course, when an astronomy or mathematics department can supervise some research project that can count for a large fraction of the marks for the year. Another advantage is that your ability and interests will be known to the astronomers at your university, who will support you when you apply to commence the next stage of your career as a post graduate student undertaking an MSc or PhD degree.

Information and Courses in Astronomy

The astronomy offerings by universities in Australia now range from some lectures in Astronomy as part of a degree program (usually Science) to a full astronomy program. Lecture courses range from a survey of the subject intended for students taking astronomy as a General Studies course, to specialist lectures aimed at students in the final year of an honours degree in science. For a list of astronomy coursework subjects and programs offered by Australian universities, see the Higher Education page (http://www.astronomy.org.au/ngn/engine.php?SID=1000010) on the Australian Astronomy web site (http://www.astronomy.org.au/). You should make enquiries of the universities themselves shortly before you have to make the choice of which tertiary institution to attend.

Many people aim to improve their knowledge of astronomy so that they can get more out of it as a hobby or for other reasons, for example, to aid their work as science educators or science communicators. If that applies to you, evening lecture courses or online courses may be most appropriate. To find out what is available in this area, contact the External Studies Centre of the nearest university or one of the Amateur Astronomy Societies, or do a search for online astronomy courses on the Internet. A list of Astronomical Societies appears regularly in Sky & Space and Australian Sky & Telescope and many of them have Internet sites (see the list of websites at (http://www.astronomy.org.au/ngn/engine.php?SID=1000022) on the Australian Astronomy web site (http://www.astronomy.org.au/).

The Daily Life of a Professional Astronomer

Professional astronomers are research scientists who strive to understand the properties and behaviour of objects in the Universe beyond (and including) our little planet. Astronomers may

  • be involved in taking astronomical observations, using optical, infrared, millimetre or radio ground-based telescopes, or a range of satellite-based telescopes and detectors,
  • work on developing astronomical theories, which make predictions which can in turn be tested by observation or computational analysis,
  • interpret observations or theories using their knowledge of astronomy and other sciences and use computers to test their ideas mathematically.

The instruments used to analyse radiation from objects in the sky are often at the cutting edge of technology, and astronomers are also heavy users of the latest in computer technology, including the use of supercomputer techniques and robotic telescopes.

Contrary to popular belief, most astronomers do not spend most of their time at telescopes. An astronomer will often record enough data in a week's observations at a telescope to be kept busy back at their home institution for much of the year. Most of the work is done using computer analysis, so computer skills are very important, and astronomy graduates gain a wide range of computer skills.

Where to Find Employment

Here we must be careful not give a false idea of the number of positions available in astronomical research. After finishing your initial training and obtaining your research (PhD) degree, it is a important to gain some experience working as a research fellow at one or more local or overseas universities or observatories. Indeed, most astronomers find it necessary to take a succession of fellowships, each lasting two or three years and often in different countries. There is great demand for these positions and you will need to have a very good academic record to be offered one. There is a similar, if not even greater, demand for almost any kind of position in astronomical research within Australia, because at present most astronomical facilities are being forced to economise on staff. If you are able to join the staff of a university, then you will be likely to spend a significant proportion of your time teaching undergraduate and/or postgraduate students.

The typical astronomy postgraduate student becomes very expert in many aspects of computing, mathematical analysis, data reduction and instrumentation. These skills make astronomy MSc and PhD graduates very employable in many fields other than astronomy, and many find employment in areas such as high-performance computing.

As an example of where astronomy can lead a young person, look at the brief description of the career so far of

Amateur Astronomy

Astronomy has the largest organised amateur following of any of the sciences. Amateur astronomers observe the sky with the naked eye, binoculars, or telescopes, and often meet together in regional astronomy societies for discussions, guest speakers, telescope building workshops and night observing sessions at dark sites. (see the list of astronomical society websites at http://www.astronomy.org.au/ngn/engine.php?SID=1000022.

Many keen amateur astronomers take part in searches for objects such as supernovae and studies of variable stars, contributing significantly to the advance of astronomy generally. The person who holds the record (over 30!) for the highest number of visual discoveries of supernovae by anyone, amateur or professional, is an Australian amateur, Rev. Robert Evans. Many amateur astronomers combine busy professional careers in other areas with a lifelong recreational interest in astronomy.

More Information on the Internet about Careers in Astronomy

The American Astronomical Society: A New Universe to Explore: Careers in Astronomy (http://www.aas.org/education/publications/careerbrochure.html)
Schools' Observatory (UK): Careers in Astronomy (http://www.schoolsobservatory.org.uk/astro/career/)
FAQs
Astronomy Careers FAQ: http://www.astro.cornell.edu/~brs/faq.html
The Astronomy Cafe: 61 FAQs about a Career in Astronomy (http://www.astronomycafe.net/qadir/acareer.html)
US National Optical Astronomy Observatories: FAQs about ... Being an Astronomer (http://www.noao.edu/education/astfaq.html)

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