Do you feel awestruck by the sheer vastness of our universe? Do movies like Star Trek or Interstellar mesmerize you? If you aspire to study the planets, the solar system, black holes, and other aspects of the universe, you could consider careers in space science and technology; especially careers in astronomy and astrophysics.
Careers in Astronomy and Astrophysics
Co-Authored by Sujoy Sengupta
What is Astronomy?
Astronomy is the scientific study of celestial objects (stars, planets, comets, and galaxies) and phenomena that originate outside the Earth’s atmosphere (such as the cosmic background radiation). Astronomy applies the principles of physics, chemistry, meteorology, mathematics to explain the origin of those celestial (or heavenly) objects, phenomena and their evolution (or origin).
The field of astronomy deals with:
(a) their motions, both real and apparent, and the laws which govern those motions;
(b) their forms, dimensions, masses, and surface features;
(c) their nature, constitution, and physical condition;
(d) the effects which they produce upon one another by their attractions and radiations;
(e) their probable past history and future development.
What is Astrophysics?
Astrophysics is a branch of astronomy. The field of astrophysics applies the laws of physics and chemistry to explain the birth, life, and death of stars, planets, galaxies, nebulae and other objects in the universe. It is very closely related to astronomy and cosmology.
Astrophysics applies the principles of physics and chemistry to ascertain the nature of the astronomical objects, rather than their positions or motions in space.
Astronomy vs Astrophysics
Astronomy is the overall subject. Astrophysics comes under Astronomy. Astrophysics, Astrobiology, Astrometeorology, Astrogeology, Astrometry are some branches of astronomy. Astronomy measures positions, luminosities, motions and other characteristics of the celestial objects. In contrast, astrophysics creates physical theories of small to medium-size structures in the universe.
Historically, astronomy has focused on observations of heavenly bodies. The modern astronomical research often involves a substantial amount of work in the realms of theoretical and observational physics. On the other hand, astrophysics aims to investigate the properties of dark matter, dark energy, and black holes; whether or not time travel is possible, if (or how) wormholes can form, or the multiverse exists; and the origin and ultimate fate of the universe.
Related Post: Black Hole Facts & Fundamentals for Students
According to Ariel Manzanares-Scisney, who studied Bachelors (BS) in Astronomy and Astrophysics, there is nearly no distinction between astronomy and its cousin field of astrophysics. The differences between the two fields are pretty subtle. The main difference lies in the skills around two fields.
The work of an astronomer involves analysis and interpretation of enormous data gathered by observatories and satellites and making scientific papers or report their findings. They make observations with ground-based telescopes or any other sources and apply their knowledge to solve problems in navigation, space flight, and satellite communications. Quite often, professional astronomy is nowadays often considered to be identical with astrophysics.
Astrophysicists explore physical properties of celestial objects, including stars, planets, and galaxies; thus they need a substantial amount of scientific knowledge. Becoming an astrophysicist requires training and skill in a combination of astronomy and physics.
At NASA, the goals of astrophysics are “to discover how the universe works, explore how it began and evolved, and search for life on planets around other stars.”
In practice, the two professions form a tight-knit family. Ask for the position of a nebula/star/comet or what kind of light it emits, and the astronomer might answer first. Ask what the nebula/star/comet is made of and how it formed and the astrophysicist will pipe up.
Careers and Jobs in Astronomy
What does an Astronomer do?
An astronomer is primarily someone who spends most of their professional time at an observatory, taking data through a telescope. By meticulously observing the light of celestial bodies and the objects they influence, one can deduce the movement, composition, and even the age of those objects, to name a few. This can be through a traditional telescope, which can observe radio or visible bands of light. Alternatively, through a space telescope, which is best for getting rid of atmospheric turbulence or for viewing high energy radiation that doesn’t make it to the planet’s surface.
Nowadays Astronomers use equipment based on sophisticated technology like ground-based optical & radio telescopes and Hubble’s Space telescopes (named after the famous Astronomer Edwin Hubble) to monitor the sky and outer space. The universe has its own mechanism to work. Collecting data about this mechanism and understanding about how the universe works are the key tasks of an astronomer.
Starting from the big bang, stars have evolved to the present day form throughout the ages. Astronomers strive to understand this evolution. Astronomers take the help of different rules, theories and formulas of physics, mathematics, chemistry, zoology, microbiology etc to study the Universe.
The Astronomers recently revealed that our Universe is a single unit in a huge multiverse i.e. a single multiverse consists of billions and billions of universes. To collect information about the features of planets, moons, stars, galaxies, comets, asteroids, different gas clouds, neutron stars, supernova computer programming, computer simulation and telescopes have to be employed by the astronomers. Keeping in touch and coordination with other scientists is essential to carry out research in astronomy.
Astronomers give new information about the Universe to the general public. They discover new stars, planets, moons, galaxies. They record all their revelations in a report. They travel to the remotest places where telescopes are located for their observations and study. The telescope observatory is located in a higher altitude (preferably in the hilltops) to avoid light pollution, air pollution etc. These observatories are the offices of the astronomers. They also read the reports written by other scientists & astronomers.
In reality, most hard-core modern astronomy is done with observations made at remote telescopes — on the ground or in space — that are controlled by computers, with astronomers studying computer-generated data and images.
Subfields of Astronomy According to Career Path (Nature of Work)
Modern astronomers tend to fall into two fields: the theoretical and the observational.
- Observational astronomers focus on the direct study of stars, planets, galaxies, and so forth.
- Theoretical astronomers model and analyze how systems may have evolved.
The field of astronomy is essentially based entirely around the light. While observational astronomy is focused on acquiring and analyzing data, mainly using basic principles of physics; theoretical astronomy is oriented towards the development of computer or analytical models to describe astronomical objects and phenomena. The two fields complement each other, with theoretical astronomy seeking to explain the observational results, and observations being used to confirm theoretical results.
Subfields of Astronomy According to Object Specializations
Astronomy is broken down into a number of subfields, allowing scientists to specialize in particular objects and phenomena.
Planetary astronomers (also called planetary scientists) focus on the growth, evolution, and death of planets. While most studies the worlds inside the solar system, others use the growing body of evidence about planets around other stars to hypothesize what they might be like. The interdisciplinary field of planetary science includes astronomy, atmospheric science, geology, space physics, biology, and chemistry.
Stellar astronomers turn their eyes to the stars, including the black holes, nebulae, white dwarfs and supernova that survive stellar deaths. The focus of stellar astronomy is on the physical and chemical processes that occur in the universe.
Solar astronomers spend their time analyzing a single star — our sun. The quantity and quality of light from the sun vary on time scales from milliseconds to billions of years. Understanding those changes can help scientists recognize how Earth is affected. The sun also helps us to understand how other stars work, as it is the only star close enough to reveal details about its surface.
Galactic astronomers study our galaxy, the Milky Way, while extragalactic astronomers peer outside of it to determine how these collections of stars form, change and die. They explore the patterns in the distribution, composition, physical condition of stars, and gas traces of the galaxy to establish the evolution of our galaxy.
Cosmologists focus on the universe in its entirety, from its violent birth in the Big Bang to its present evolution, all the way to its eventual death. Astronomy is often (not always) about very concrete, observable things, whereas cosmology typically involves large-scale properties of the universe and esoteric, invisible and sometimes purely theoretical things like string theory, dark matter and dark energy, and the notion of multiple universes.
Astrometry is the measure of the sun, moon, and planets. The precise calculations of these motions allow astronomers in other fields to model the birth and evolution of planets and stars, and to predict events such as eclipses meteor showers, and the appearance of comets. This is the most ancient branch of astronomy.
How to Become an Astronomer?
You must have Math, Physics, Chemistry at 10+2. Biology or Computer Science should be preferred 4th subject.
At the undergraduate level, you could study:
- B.Sc. Astronomy & Astrophysics
- B.Sc. Physics
- B.Sc. Mathematics (or Math & Physics double major)
- Earth Sciences
At the postgraduate level, you could do M.Sc. Astronomy or Astrophysics. Finally, a Doctorate (PhD) is required, especially if you want to enter the academia and institutes like ISRO or NASA.
Those who are from the B.Tech. (Electrical, Electronics & Telecommunication Engineering) background, can also opt for MSc Astronomy.
Suggested Career Path for Theoretical Astronomy for B.Tech./BE Graduates
For doing a theoretical study about Universe a student has to pursue a B.E or B.Tech degree in Engineering or Technology followed by a Master degree in Physics. Following this, the student has to undertake a P.hd degree in Astronomy in a University or Institute to build up a permanent career.
Suggested Career Path for Observational Astronomy for B.Tech./BE Graduates
In the case of observational study, a detailed knowledge about engineering, technology, computer programming is required. So the students should at first pursue a B.Tech degree in the above subjects and then a Master degree in Astronomy and also conduct research side by side. After this, they can take up Ph.D. for more advanced research.
Careers and Jobs in Astrophysics
What does an Astrophysicist do?
While astronomers find themselves primarily on the experimental side of science, astrophysicists tend to lean towards theory. In addition to astronomy, an astrophysicist also deals with advanced mathematics. A person could be a perfectly accomplished astronomer having done little more than use some algebra and statistical analysis for their data. Perhaps they might need to calculate a derivative or take an integral, but more than likely they can do that with a software package.
An astrophysicist takes the observed behavior of celestial bodies and applies the laws of physics derived on Earth to understand their fundamental nature. Since physics is the most fundamental science that all others are based on, this means applying the laws of motion and interaction to celestial bodies.
How to become an Astrophysicist?
You should follow the same path as described under how to become an astronomer until the undergraduate stage. Astronomy and astrophysics often blend elements of biology, chemistry and other sciences to better understand phenomena in the universe. So, Math and Science are essential till 10+2. Additionally, start becoming involved in a small way even in elementary and high school, by joining astronomy clubs, attending local astronomy events, taking free online courses in astronomy and astrophysics, and keeping up with the latest news on websites like NASA, Science Daily, Spacecom etc.
You could pursue the following at the Undergraduate level:
- Astronomy and Astrophysics
- Earth Sciences
- Physics & Math
- Computer Science
- Liberal Arts
In college, students should aim to (eventually) complete a doctorate in astrophysics, and then take on a post-doctoral position in astrophysics. Astrophysicists can work for the government, university labs and, occasionally, private organizations.
Additionally, keep an eye out for any summer jobs or internships in math or science. At the postgraduate level (Masters and PhD), you must specialize in Astrophysics. Make sure to include courses in astronomy, computer science, mathematics, physics and statistics to have a wide base of knowledge.
Career Options and Jobs in Astronomy and Astrophysics
Becoming an astronomer or astrophysicist requires years of observation, training, and work. But, the most important requisite is immense passion. This field is not for the folks who want a stable career in the mid-20s. Since a PhD is a must to have a career in astronomy and astrophysics, you might not earn lucrative salaries till the late-20s or early-30s.
Top Schools for Ph.D. and Research Opportunities in Astronomy and Astrophysics
- UC Berkeley
- Penn State
- University of Chicago
- University of Washington
- Ohio State University
- University of Arizona
- Johns Hopkins
- UT Austin
- University of Virginia
- Michigan State
- University of Colorado-Boulder
- University of Florida
- Georgia State
- Indiana University Bloomington
UK & Europe
- ETH Zurich
- LMU Munich
- TU Munich
- Imperial College London
- KTH Sweden
- Leiden University
- ENS Paris
- RWTH Aachen
- Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
- Heidelberg University
Hard Work and Dedication Does Pay Off
Career Options after Doctorate (Ph.D.) in Astronomy or Astrophysics
The career path is not challenging, but rewarding as well. Read the story of Natalie Hinkel, an astrophysicist. Natalie did her bachelors degree in physics with a minor in math. Later, she went to graduate school for 6 years in order to get her PhD. According to her, the initial jobs after PhD are a bit temporary in nature. So, she started looking for something more permanent. It takes a PhD and one or a couple of post-doctoral stints before ending up with a permanent job position.
Where can you work?
You could work in Government affiliated and private owned observatories. Working in Planetariums & Museums can also be a decent career for the upcoming astronomers. The aspirants can get a permanent job and make secure future in the following public and private organizations like:
- Bhaba Atomic Research Centre (BARC),
- Inter-University Centre for Astronomy & Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune
- National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA), Pune
- Technology Information Forecasting & Assessment Control (TIFAC)
- Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)
- Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST), Thiruvananthapuram
- The Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIAP), Bangalore
- Raman Research Institute, Bangalore
- Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad
- Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai
- Osmania University, Hyderabad
- Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore
Related Article: Top Government/Public Institutes in India for Research in Physics
Career Options Beyond Space
Astronomy and astrophysics majors represent a small percentage of all physical science majors and an even smaller percentage of college majors throughout the country. The workforce in any relevant organization tends to be exceptionally diverse, as companies tend to recruit the top graduates from academic institutions all over the world. In North America, there are only about 150 job openings for astronomers per year. So, you should be open to other careers as well. Read more about the core job opportunities in astronomy.
As Natalie said, a PhD in Astronomy or Astrophysics open up several lucrative career opportunities. You could become a university professor, a full-time researcher at an observatory, scientific journalist, aerospace engineer or data scientist at an institute.
Since astronomy and astrophysics heavily depend on Math, Statistics and Computer Programming, Data Scientist could be an ideal job profile. Alternatively, you could also switch to the Aerospace (space technology) domain.
In space technology institutions, the focus is on the detailed design and execution of mission concepts. R&D roles are often split into architect and analyst positions, with architects defining the complex infrastructure of a system and analysts undertaking the in-depth analysis and development of individual areas, including:
- Structural and stress engineering
- Guidance and navigation control systems
- Thermal engineering
- Antennae and telecoms
- Power system
- Full system-level simulators
Other job positions (non-R&D) include:
- Atmospheric Scientist
- Plasma Physicist
- Mechanical Engineer
- Aerospace Engineer
- Computer Hardware Engineer
- Electronics Engineer
- Engineering Technician
- Technical Writer
- Public Relation (PR) Specialist
“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.” The same goes for Careers in Space Science & Technology.