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How to become an astronomer

Statue of Nicolaus Copernicus in Warsaw, Poland. He was a Renaissance astronomer and the first person to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology, which displaced the Earth from the center of the universe.
Statue of Nicolaus Copernicus in Warsaw, Poland. He was a Renaissance astronomer and the first person to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology, which displaced the Earth from the center of the universe. © iStockphoto/Stock Cop

Are you wondering what kind of schooling is necessary to become an astronomer? Many people want to become an astronomer, but have no idea where to start. There is no other way to put it, than you will need a lot of education. It is not an easy road to become an astronomer, but for those that are willing to put in the time and money, it is a rewarding one. If you truly have a passion for astronomy, you are going to want to pay attention to the requirements starting in high school. Take advantage of your high school’s math and science programs. Excel in them and make sure that you learn as much as you can.

Astronomy degree

Many people are under the impression that it is easy to get an astronomy degree. It is a complex study of space, which is going to need a lot of math and science. Most of the astronomers that you see these days started their excellence in math and science when they were in high school. That gave them the boost they needed to really get to their dream as quickly as possible. Calculus and other science classes are a must have if you wish to have success in the field of astronomy.

First off, you are going to want a bachelor’s degree of science in astronomy, although on rare occasions graduate schools have been known to let in bachelor’s degree of arts students. You are going to want to do really well in college and with your studies, because the next step is graduate school. You will be taking a test your senior year called the Graduate Record Exam, which will mainly involve physics. This test will help to decide if you are going to be the right candidate for graduate schooling.

Talk to your instructors and anyone else that will listen about getting in on research opportunities and unpaid internships as often as you can. These are going to look great on your application for graduate school and are really going to help separate you from the competition. Not to mention, they will also look good on your resume when you are looking for a job after graduate school. There are plenty of these opportunities out there for undergraduates, you just have to be persistent and find them.

Graduate school

Finally the moment you have been waiting for has arrived. Graduate school is upon you. You are going to need to take as many classes as you can and still maintain a high standard. You are also going to need to get into as many research opportunities as you can as well. Once you are starting to look for jobs, you are going to find that many of the top jobs are going to require a PhD. This should be your goal when you first enter graduate school, if you plan on being an astronomer that wants options once they leave schooling.

It is not that there are not a lot of other jobs out there for astronomers that obtain an M.S., but usually those are going to be very specific jobs that are going to have a lot of competition. Don’t get me wrong, all of the jobs in astronomy have competition, but if you have a PhD you are likely going to get one of those jobs. Even more so when you combine the experience that you got from all of those volunteer and research opportunities that you took advantage of while you were going through your education.

Once potential astronomers have completed their doctoral degree and finished up all of their internships, it is time to start looking for a job. Depending on how well you did with your volunteer work and internships, you should have plenty of options. A majority of the time these options will be with academic institutions. There are also high-paying jobs that are not academic, but they are harder to find.

One other option that many people seem to overlook is the jobs that are available that are not related directly to astronomy. Most companies love having bachelor’s of science degrees working for them in the technical side of things. You can fall back on the fact that you know how to crunch numbers and know how to do it well. This way even if you don’t find exactly what you are looking for right away, you still have plenty of options that you can take advantage of while you are waiting.

Last but not least, you should be always trying to take refresher courses and new courses as well. Education is the key to success with most jobs, including this one. If you already have all of the courses you need for astronomy, maybe you can branch out to computer courses. They will not only look good on your resume, but most astronomy jobs these days are going to require that you have a strong efficiency in the computer programming industry.