How to become

How to Become an Astronomer

How to Become an Astronomer

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Do planets, stars, galaxies, and solar systems fascinate you? Would you love to understand how and why the universe works the way it does?

The study of astronomy is the oldest of the natural sciences. It is the only science in which you can study and observe physics at work throughout the whole universe, and yet not physically be able to touch what is being studied. Interestingly, it was the invention of the telescope that enabled astronomy to develop into a modern science.

An astronomer will spend his or her time analyzing data, writing research papers, or creating computer programs that allow a more effective search for the data collected.

What Does an Astronomer Do?

A typical astronomer may have a wide variety of responsibilities:

1. Develop hypotheses. 

Astronomers help humankind learn more about the universe, which means that they need to develop new scientific theories to test and prove (or disprove).

2. Write research proposals. 

While many astronomy labs receive funding from the federal government, most teams of astronomers don’t have the funding to simply research their interests. Instead, after they develop their hypotheses, they must compile detailed research proposals to pitch their research goals to their leadership for funding.

3. Gather and analyze data. 

Most astronomers spend their time gathering data—most often through operating telescopes, using powerful cameras, or developing and testing complex models using computer software—and then identifying trends in that data to draw scientific conclusions.

4. Publish research papers. 

After an astronomer rigorously tests a hypothesis, they compose a detailed research paper that outlines their process and conclusions to further everyone’s understanding of their subject.

5. Present their findings. 

Many astronomers travel around to different astronomy conferences to give presentations that detail their findings to other scientists and the general public.

The bulk of an astronomer’s job is heavily based on research, as the focus is on understanding how the universe works, and on trying to discover things about the universe that would be considered scientific breakthroughs.

The main tools used by astronomers are:

  • Telescopes – used to gather light emissions
  • Spectrographs – used to break up light into a spectrum to tell the temperature, composition, and velocity of space objects
  • Cameras – are connected to telescopes and used to gather images
  • Spacecrafts – cameras and telescopes are placed onboard to collect images of space objects
  • Computers – used to analyze data received from telescopes and spacecraft

Astronomers use all these tools quite often, especially telescopes (along with applying a lot of physics and mathematics. They are able to use a variety of telescopes to observe objects in the Universe – some of these telescopes are located here on planet earth and some are sent into space.

Skill Set You Need to Become an Astronomer

Becoming an astronomer requires extensive education and specific skill set, including:

1. A PhD in astronomy. 

Astronomy is a complex field that combines physics and mathematics in high-level computation, so you’ll need a lot of education to be competitive. Most astronomers have bachelor’s and graduate degrees in a scientific field (like physics, astronomy, astrophysics, or mathematics), and continue their education by earning a PhD in astronomy.

2. Work or research experience. 

Most astronomy labs are highly competitive workplaces, meaning it’s difficult to get a job even with the proper education requirements. To make you a more desirable candidate, earn relevant work experience either during or between degrees—whether interning at a laboratory or working on research projects with professors.

3. The ability to synthesize data. 

Astronomers deal with a massive amount of data, analyzing it and distilling it down into identifiable trends and patterns that either prove or disprove their hypotheses. To be a great astronomer, you’ll need to be comfortable synthesizing meaning from large amounts of data, often using computer software and your own problem-solving to help crunch the numbers.

4. An insatiable curiosity. 

The best astronomers aren’t following a specific set of instructions to learn more about the universe—they’re asking questions and then gathering data to answer those questions. If you want to be an astronomer, you need to be very curious about the universe so that you have the capacity and drive to ask questions other people haven’t.

5. Mathematical ability

It is a must for a future astronomer, since calculations are involved in many aspects of astronomy, Thompson says. The ability to simplify and explain complex topics is also necessary, he adds. “If you’ve got communication skills, then you can communicate what you’re doing to the public.” Curiosity and perseverance are essential personality traits for astronomers, according to experts, who note that the difficulty of discovering information about distant objects can only be overcome by people who are highly motivated to find answers.

How to Become an Astronomer

Ready to start down the path to an astronomy position? Here are the steps:

1. Take astronomy-related classes in high school.

 If you’re in high school and considering a career in astronomy, it’s not too early to start. You can take a few classes and see if you like it. Look at your high school catalog for astronomy courses or courses in physics, computer science, or high-level math and try a few out to see what interests you most.

2. Earn an undergraduate degree in a scientific field. 

The first step to becoming an astronomer is to earn at least a bachelor’s degree in a science-related field—usually astronomy, physics, mathematics, or even computer science. Many PhD programs will accept applicants with only a bachelor’s degree, while others require both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree—do some research to decide what PhD programs you’d like to pursue. Try to be well-rounded in your study aim to take a wide variety of coursework, including the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. Taking different classes will also help you figure out what areas of astronomy you want to pursue (black holes, stars, solar systems, or planets, etc.).

3. Meet other aspiring astronomers. 

Joining a local astronomical society or the American Astronomical Society (if you’re in the United States) will also help you network with other aspiring astronomers. Fostering these relationships can lead to future work prospects.

4. Earn a doctorate in astronomy. 

After you earn the right degrees, you’ll need acceptance into a doctorate program for a PhD in astronomy.

5. Get a postdoctoral research position or fellowship. 

Once you’re an astronomy graduate, you can start applying for astronomer positions—but most laboratories will want to see some relevant work experience on your resume first. If you want to get an extra leg up on the competition, look for postdoctoral research positions or fellowships that can show you have what it takes to work as a professional astronomer.

6. Apply for astronomer positions. 

With an astronomy degree and relevant work experience, you can begin applying for work as an astronomer, whether in an office, a laboratory, a space agency, or an observatory.

What are the sub-fields of Astronomy?

Astronomy is the study of everything beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. It applies physics, biology and geology to explain the origin and evolution of space, stars and celestial bodies. Individuals thinking of going into this field of study may wish to focus specifically on one sub-field.

The four sub-fields of Astronomy are: Astrophysics; Astrometry; Astrogeology; and Astrobiology. The following gives a brief description of each sub-field and its focus.


Astrophysics, as a scientific discipline, was born in mid-nineteenth century Europe. Observational astrophysics focuses on recording data by using telescopes and other astronomical equipment to observe celestial objects. Theoretical astrophysics focuses on creating theoretical models and figuring out the observational implications and consequences of those models.

Similar to geophysics, which is the study of Earth’s physics, astrophysics is the branch of astronomy that applies the laws of physics to explain the birth, life, and death of objects in the universe (such as planets, stars, galaxies and nebulae). Interacting with objects in space is done by studying the amount of radiation they emit. These emissions given off by planets, stars etc., are examined by looking at certain properties, such as temperature, density, luminosity, and chemical composition.

Much of astrophysics is focused on developing theories that will help us understand how radiation is produced. Astrophysicists apply many disciplines of physics to do this, including nuclear and particle physics, atomic and molecular physics, electromagnetism, relativity, thermodynamics, classical mechanics, statistical mechanics, and quantum mechanics.

Astrophysics is very tightly knit with both astronomy and cosmology. The differences between the three are: astrophysics creates physical theories of small to medium-size structures in the universe; astronomy calculates motions, positions, and luminosities; and cosmology creates physical theories of the largest structures in the universe and studies the expansion and evolution of the universe as a whole.


Astrometry is the branch of astronomy that focuses on the precise measurement of where stars and other celestial bodies are positioned and move in space. It is the oldest scientific method used to map and detect the positions and movements of extrasolar planets (an extrasolar planet is any planetary body that is outside the solar system and that usually orbits a star other than the Sun). Astrometric measurements can provide invaluable information on the movements and origin of the Solar System and the Milky Way, a frame of reference for the movement of stars and individual objects in space, and can also help to determine the distribution of dark matter in the galaxy.

Another aspect of astrometry is error correction, as there are a few factors that can introduce errors into the measurement of a star’s position. These factors include: errors made by the observer, imperfections in the measuring instruments, and atmospheric conditions. Instrument improvements and making compensations to the data can reduce these errors. The results can then be studied and analyzed by using statistical processes to calculate data estimates and error ranges.


Astrogeology can be viewed as the parent science of the Earth sciences. It is very much like the Earth sciences, but for other bodies in our solar system. Astrogeology (also known as planetary geology or exogeology), focuses on the geology (rocks, terrain, and material) of the planets and their moons, asteroids, comets, and meteorites. Astrogeology looks at understanding what the internal structure is of the terrestrial planets (terrestrial planets are planets that are mainly composed of rocks or metals, such as Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) and looks at volcanoes, lava flows, impact craters, rift valleys, and wind activity on these planets. The structure of the giant planets and their moons as well as the make-up of the minor bodies of the Solar System are also studied.

Research in this field is ongoing, and every discovery helps scientists to better understand the Earth’s evolution in comparison with that of its neighbours in the solar system. Every planet in our solar system has unique geological features which scientists have uncovered over the years through telescope observations or through data returned by space probes.

Each planet in the solar system has its own specialized study:

  • Heliology – the study of the Sun
  • Hermeology – the study of Mercury
  • Cytherology – the study of Venus
  • Selenology – the study of the Moon
  • Areology – the study of Mars
  • Zenology – the study of Jupiter
  • Kronology – the study of Saturn
  • Uranology – the study of Uranus
  • Poseidology – the study of Neptune
  • Hedeology – the study of Pluto


Astrobiology (formerly known as exobiology), is the branch of astronomy that focuses on the search for life outside Earth. It is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe, and considers the question of whether extraterrestrial life exists, and if it does, how humans can detect it. NASA’s current astrobiology program addresses three fundamental questions: How does life begin and evolve? Is there life beyond Earth and, if so, how can we detect it? What is the future of life on Earth and in the universe?

While astrobiology is very much an emerging and developing field, the question of whether extraterrestrial life exists elsewhere in the universe is a justified theory and therefore a valid scientific inquiry. Planetary scientist David Grinspoon calls astrobiology “a field of natural philosophy, grounding speculation on the unknown, in known scientific theory”. The field of astrobiology has made an enormous effort to underline the importance of education, both to train the next generation of scientists, and to also keep the public aware of any breakthroughs.

This field was once considered outside the mainstream of scientific inquiry, but has now become a formalized field of study. Twenty years ago, no universities had dedicated degree programs in astrobiology and very few even offered a course in this field. Today, every major university in the country has at least one course in astrobiology and many have degree programs.

Missions are just starting to take astrobiology to new levels of understanding. Astrobiology will endure long into the future given the endless fascination with questions about the origins and prevalence of life.

How long does it take to become an Astronomer?

Most astronomers have a Doctoral Degree in Astronomy or Physics, as well as a bachelor’s and master’s in one of these same physical sciences. It takes about ten years of education beyond normal high school education to become an astronomer.

After completing a Ph.D. program, aspiring astronomers often enter one or more postdoctoral research positions, which typical take between two and three years to complete.

What is the workplace of an Astronomer like?

Workplaces for astronomers can vary. Typical classroom settings are common for those who teach. Oftentimes, astronomers are invited to give individual talks at other institutions. Most universities (with astronomy departments) hold weekly meetings where they bring in scientists from other universities to talk about their research.

Observatories are also typical workplaces and provide astronomers with labs. The ultimate goal for any astronomer, however, is almost certainly a career at NASA. NASA is a United States government agency that is responsible for science and technology related to air and space.

Working in an office usually involves doing administrative work or working on research. Research could mean a wide variety of things, such as calibrating and analyzing data, to running numerical models, or testing theories. Much time is spent in front of a computer, therefore familiarity with computers and programming is a necessity in this career.

Traveling involves going to several conferences every year, which are held all across the world. For example, the AAS (American Astronomical Society) and IAU (International Astronomical Union) meetings are held at different venues every year. There are fewer than 20,000 astronomers in the world, therefore these conferences provide excellent opportunities to interact with other astronomers and to see what research they are working on.

Observational astronomers often have to travel to various observatories to carry out their research, as these observatories are located all over the world, from Puerto Rico, to Hawaii, Europe, Australia, Chile, or even the South Pole.

Astronomers spend a lot of their time reading publications like the Astrophysical Journal for example, either learning new subjects, or just keeping up with major developments and current research in the field of astronomy. Often, the first part of the day is spent checking out the new astronomy papers that have been uploaded on the arXiv, an open-access archive of new journal articles.

Astronomers also spend a lot of time writing papers and proposals, as writing and publishing papers is necessary in order to display and share research and results. Writing grant proposals is also necessary in order to get funding from various sources for research. Writing observing proposals needs to be done in order to get permission to use different telescopes and facilities to further research.

Best Programs and Courses to Become Astronomer

1. California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, CA) 

Caltech’s astronomy program emphasizes giving students the tools for a successful career in research. The curriculum boasts a wide range of physics, computation, math, and astrophysics courses based on each student’s interests. In addition, the program requires writing and oral presentation courses so astronomy students graduate as effective communicators.

Every astronomy student at Caltech performs multiple research projects. Past research theses include various astronomy subjects such as black holes, infrared sky, surface water on Mars, galaxy alignment, numerical relativity, and galaxy spectroscopy.

Targeted to launch in 2023, SPHEREx is a NASA mission managed collaboratively by Caltech and JPL. The center aims to map the large-scale structure of our universe using infrared spectroscopy. Students working with the center will be at the cutting-edge of space exploration.

2. Princeton University (Princeton, NJ)

While at Princeton, astronomy majors are part of a relatively small department with 15 – 20 students each year. The close-knit program allows for a supportive atmosphere and strong relationships with faculty members. 

Despite the small size, students have access to some of the most advanced technological facilities in the nation.

The university is home to the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, the largest center for space science studies in the United States. Supported by the US Department of Energy, the laboratory aims to explore fusion and the plasma universe. The facility is home to advanced computational simulations, vacuum technology, and high-voltage power systems.

Each summer, astrophysics students participate in the Undergraduate Summer Research Program. Students complete an intensive workshop on computer programming and astronomical statistics, followed by an independent research project. Some students write research articles on the work completed in this program.

3. Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA) 

At Carnegie Mellon, the physics department provides a deeper understanding of what the world is made of and how it works. 

The McWilliams Center for Cosmology helps students to understand the makeup of the universe better. Using an interdisciplinary approach, researchers employ observational, experimental, theoretical, and computational approaches. The facility brings together researchers from many disciplines, from physics to software engineering.

Carnegie Mellon physics graduates go on to find success in the astronomy and astrophysics fields. Alumni of the program work in the industry at renowned companies such as NASA, SpaceX, and Boeing. Others go on to top graduate schools from Stanford to UChicago to further study astrophysics.

4. UC Berkeley (Berkeley, CA)

Since the 1870’s, Berkeley has been an active member in astronomy education and discovery. The astronomy department is recognized for its work on discovering comet orbits and asteroids. Today, Berkeley houses over 30 astronomy faculty and many passionate students.

The courses in the astronomy program are taught by faculty experts, ensuring a more thorough education. At Berkeley, astronomy students gain valuable research experience, computational abilities, and an analytical mindset. This education prepares them to act as a leader and drive innovation in their field.

Astronomy students can participate in research at unique centers, such as the Berkeley SETI Research Center. This program aims to detect electromagnetic signals from other planets. As an intern, students can work alongside scientists and engineers to analyze data from Green Bank Telescope, the world’s largest steerable radio telescope.

5. University of Arizona (Tucson, AZ)

The University of Arizona has one of the nation’s largest astronomy enrollments for non-science majors. Students from all majors can learn directly from astronomy professors, making the program an outstanding option for both the serious aspiring astronomer as well as the student with a basic interest.

During the academic year, undergraduates can participate in paid, part-time research opportunities through the UArizona NASA Space Grant program. Students work alongside practicing scientists to perform innovative research. Topics include zero-gravity effects, mining atmospheric fuel, climate effects, and the development of lunar rovers.

The astronomy club at the University of Arizona aims to foster a passion for astronomy in all students. They provide an array of opportunities to work on astronomy projects with peers and astronomers. Regardless of major, this organization engages undergraduates through astrophotography, model rocketry, planetarium building, stargazing, and more.

6. Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD) 

Johns Hopkins is home to the Maryland Space Grant Consortium (MDSGC), selected for its unique role in Maryland’s astronomy education. The group is made up of other institutions in the area who collaborate closely with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. In order to strengthen scientific education, MDSGC is committed to solidifying Maryland’s visibility as a center of space science.

The flexible astronomy program at Johns Hopkins prepares students to achieve their career goals, whether it is further study, medical school, or technological careers. Students gain a strong understanding of basic subjects, then further specialize in condensed matter physics, particle physics, astronomy and astrophysics, or plasma physics.

Astronomy students can participate in department workshops to discuss a variety of relevant topics. These are hosted by a rotating body of institutions, including Johns Hopkins, Chalmers University, and the University of Florence, 

7. UC Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz, CA)

UC Santa Cruz leads the field in both observational and theoretical research. In 2017, the university was ranked as #1 for research influence in the physical sciences and #4 overall. This is the result of an impressive number of citations by other astronomy researchers.

Along with leading research, students in the astronomy department learn from the top experts in the field. UC Santa Cruz faculty members have earned impressive recognitions, such as the Gruber Cosmology Prize, Benjamin Franklin Medal, and National Medal of Science. Other professors are members of professional societies relating to astronomy and astrophysics.

The university manages the UC Observatories, including the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton. Designed by UC Santa Cruz scientists, the Keck Telescopes on Mauna Kea are the world’s largest optical and infrared telescopes.

8. University of Colorado at Boulder (Boulder, CO)

CU Boulder is recognized for its distinctive program that combines education in both astrophysics and planetary sciences. 

The astronomy department has access to state-of-the-art facilities, such as the Sommers-Bausch Observatory. Conveniently located on campus, the center offers hands-on training in astronomical observations. Astronomy students also gain experience with telescopes, optics, instrumentation, and image processing throughout the curriculum.

In order to keep students engaged, the astronomy department at CU Boulder hosts a variety of events. These include networking opportunities, guest lectures, and open houses. The department colloquia provides a forum to discuss new topics in astronomy with other members of the program.

9. Penn State University (University Park, PA)  

While at Penn State, students learn from over 60 faculty members. 

These educators are committed to helping students understand the universe using an interdisciplinary approach. Alexander Wolszscan, discoverer of the first exoplanets, is just one of the impressive faculty members that astronomy students interact with.

Astronomy students learn how to solve quantitative problems throughout the astronomy and astrophysics field. Courses focus on a wide range of topics including exoplanets, observational cosmology, radiation, space instrumentation, astrostatistics, and astrophysics. In their final years, students can choose whether to focus on physics or computer science to complete their education.

Along with educating college students, Penn State has an active collection of public outreach programs. The astronomy department promotes an interest in science for younger students and other members of the community. 

Through public lectures, workshops, planetarium shows, and stargazing, Penn State encourages an appreciation for astronomy.

10. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Champaign County, IL)

At Illinois, astronomy students have access to unique learning experiences. The university is a leader in observational astronomy, cosmology, and theoretical astrophysics. Courses throughout the curriculum provide modern datasets to give hands-on experience analyzing real data.

Astronomy students at Illinois have access to leading facilities, including the South Pole Telescope, Hubble Space Telescope, and state-of-the-art supercomputers at NCSA. 

From Arizona to Antarctica, students learn on industry-leading equipment. Many undergraduates take advantage of the school’s facilities to complete research projects outside of the classroom.

Illinois is at the forefront of astronomy research, exposing students to groundbreaking discoveries. A new study led by an astronomy department student and professor found a definitive relationship between black holes and their distinctive light-flickering patterns. 

Their work was published in Science.

Employment and Salary Outlook

The BLS reported that the median annual salary for astronomers was $105,680 in 2018. The projected employment growth for astronomers was 5% from 2018-2028, below the national average for all occupations. Federal spending on astronomy research varies from year to year, and the relatively low amount of funding available for many positions can limit the number of jobs in the field. Additionally, competition is expected to be strong for permanent jobs and research grants.

Astronomers study our universe and need to have a Ph.D., along with a strong understanding of physics and math.


  • Should I become an Astronomer?

If you want to be an astronomer, you need to be someone with a burning curiosity about the world. You have to be quite a methodical person. You need to be able to look at large amounts of information and pick out useful patterns. You need to be imaginative to spot those patterns in the first place and be both meticulous and creative to put bits of information together in a way that makes sense. You need a capacity for reflection and contemplative study.

And you need to have great patience to spend long hours in the endeavor to reveal something new about the universe. Only then will you be successful working in a science in which you cannot weigh, touch, or smell your subject matter.

  • Are Astronomers happy?

Astronomers rank among the happiest careers. Overall they rank in the 90th percentile of careers for satisfaction scores. Please note that this number is derived from the data we have collected from our Sokanu members only.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for astronomers is having to continually ask for money to conduct research. To secure funds to visit observatories, pay students to help reduce large amounts of data, and publish papers, astronomers have to frequently write proposals.

These are requests, sometimes quite lengthy, explaining the scientific details of their project, the objectives they aim to achieve, and the estimated costs involved. This process is competitive – only the best proposals receive funding – and it takes away from astronomers’ time to actually conduct the science.

  • What are Astronomers like?

Based on our pool of users, astronomers tend to be predominately investigative people. They are motivated by the ability – and the opportunity – to discover new things, to identify new patterns and configurations, and to understand things that nobody else has understood before. It should be noted, however, that contrary to popular belief, astronomers spend very little time looking through a telescope. According to some estimates, using such equipment occupies less than two percent of the average astronomer’s time.