Astronomy and Astrophysics | Jobs for the Major
How this major affects a job search
If you want to be an astronomer or astrophysicist, you’re looking at a multiple-degree situation. Make room on your business cards—you’ll need it for all the letters you’re going to accumulate after your name.
Astronomy and astrophysics majors represent a small percentage of all physical science majors and an even smaller percentage of college majors throughout the country. They are a select little group, which is fortunate, since there are only about 150 job openings for astronomers in North America per year. And those jobs typically go to those with the most advanced degrees from the most prestigious schools.
But…that doesn’t mean that all astronomy and astrophysics majors must get PhDs to end up in a satisfying career. Astronomy and astrophysics majors could also pursue jobs as physics or math teachers, support staff for laboratories, or even science journalists.
Additionally, demand for programmers, engineers, and data scientists continues to grow in the job market and a student with a degree in astrophysics would certainly stand out among the pack. You could end up working for Bioware on their next virtual space journey.
Common Career Fields
Aerospace. (Requires a Master’s degree or PhD) If you study astronomy or were ever six years old, then there’s a good chance you dreamt of being an astronaut. While the job description has changed since the American Space Shuttle program closed in 2011, there are still Russian and Chinese spacecraft in commission, as well as commercial space travel on the horizon. Astronomers and astrophysicists might conduct research to support aerospace engineers, or they could help design and operate instrumentation. You might have to scratch “walking on the moon” off your list, but that doesn’t mean you can’t participate in the effort to send probes, satellites, and cameras into outer space.
Computer Programming. Courses in coding plus a solid foundation of logical thinking and problem-solving make computer programming an attractive alternative for those who aren’t feelin’ grad school. Have no fear, Shmoopers. What companies are looking for in a programmer is simply the ability to code. If you’ve got that, a degree, and some technical certifications, you’ll be well on your way to developing anything from video games to financial management software.
Government Research. (Requires a PhD) One of the most lucrative fields for astronomers and astrophysicists is in government research. Sure, you’ll be making decent scratch, but you could also get the chance to conduct research for prestigious agencies like NASA, the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), and the U.S. Naval (not “navel”) Observatory. You’d have less freedom working for the government than you might have at the university level (government agencies typically have specific areas of interest on which they expect their scientists to focus), but, again, the tradeoff is the handsome paycheck.
Observatories. (Requires a PhD) Often affiliated with laboratories and observatories at universities and colleges, observational astronomers spend a small portion of their time working at observatories or watching the stars from a spacecraft. For the rest of their year, however, observational astronomers are buried in data. They collect, analyze, and interpret using a wide variety of equipment, including the super cool-sounding supercomputer.
Planetariums and Museums. Some astronomers might choose a career in which they educate the plebs about the latest discoveries and theories of the universe. However, this job is less about teaching and more about informing and inspiring, and possibly providing the spark for a future astronomer or astrophysicist. Astronomers working at planetariums and museums can serve as directors, researchers, or installation designers. They offer up cutting-edge science that can be digested by a mass audience. It’s no easy task to translate complex scientific data into information that’s both engaging and accurate, but it’s all in a day’s work.
Teaching. Most professional astronomers end up as faculty members at universities and colleges, which requires a PhD. The majority of their job consists of teaching, but they might also conduct research and publish papers. Professors of astronomy and astrophysics can also be called upon to teach math and physics courses. Not all teaching jobs require a PhD., however. With a Master’s degree, you could grab a position at smaller colleges, community colleges, and high schools. Subtract the Master’s degree, and you’ve still got a chance at middle school science and math if you snatch up a teaching credential.