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September 2010



  Astronomy Careers

The Southern Pinwheel Galaxy from the Canada France Hawaii Telescope.

Imagine a career in which you get to witness the birth of the universe, or the death of a star! Hundreds of Canadians are exploring the frontiers of astronomy, and sharing their enthusiasm and results with students and the public.

Astronomy is the study of the entire universe beyond the earth, from the Sun and its family of planets, satellites, asteroids, and comets, to the hundreds of billions of other stars that make up our galaxy, to the hundreds of billions of other galaxies in the universe. Astronomers study the origin and evolution of the atoms and molecules of which the universe (and we) are made, and of the planets, stars, galaxies, universe, and perhaps even of life itself.

In the universe, scientists can study how matter behaves in environments never experienced on earth, from ultradense neutron stars to the near-vacuum of intergalactic space, so astronomy attracts the interest of people in all branches of science.

Why study astronomy, and become an astronomer?

First, because it is intrinsically fascinating. But also because it is "useful" in a variety of senses: it is deeply rooted in culture and philosophy; it has obvious practical applications; it is a forefront science that contributes to mathematics, computation, and other technologies; it reveals our cosmic roots, our place in time and space, and a universe that is wondrous and beautiful; it excites curiosity and imagination. It also contributes to education in many ways, and attracts young people to science and technology. (For a more comprehensive discussion of why astronomy is useful, see: Why Astronomy is Important.)

The study of the universe is done in at least five different ways: (i) developing sophisticated ground-based and satellite telescopes and instruments (ii) using such instruments to observe the cosmos; (iii) analyzing astronomical images and measurements with powerful computer software and hardware; (iv) developing new physical theories to understand and explain the universe; and (v) using such theories, in complex computer simulations, to predict the properties and behaviour of celestial objects, and compare these predictions with what is observed.

Research astronomers specialize in one or more of these approaches. Canadian astronomers not only have access to the most powerful telescopes, satellites, and computers on Earth, but they are actively planning and building the next generation of astronomical instruments, including the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, often in collaboration with international partners.

What Does An Astronomer Do?

Dr. Doug Johnstone and Rachel Friesen at the ParkesRadio Telescope.

Most astronomers in Canada work in universities across the country, in government laboratories -- primarily the National Research Council's Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics (and more recently the Canadian Space Agency) -- or in national observatories in which Canada is a partner. In universities, astronomers do research, teach and supervise undergraduate and graduate students, and carry out administrative and outreach activities.

In government laboratories or national observatories, astronomers also do research, as well as develop and maintain sophisticated instruments to observe the cosmos, and assist other astronomers in using these.

Astronomy careers have many benefits that go far beyond mere job description.

Astronomers (including astronomy graduate students) frequently travel to observatories, to conferences, and to collaborate with colleagues. They build up networks of friends around the world. They may communicate their knowledge and enthusiasm to students and the public, through books and articles, lectures, and face-to-face interaction. And there is satisfaction in knowing that, in their chosen way, they are advancing humankind's understanding of the universe.

Those astronomers who develop theories use computers ranging in size from laptops to nationwide networks. These "theorists" work closely with those astronomers that focus on observing the universe. Some of these "observers" may travel to exotic places on Earth to use radio, millimetre, or optical and infrared telescopes. Other observers use satellite observatories, for example, to detect ultraviolet and X-ray radiation which is absorbed by our atmosphere. The whole electromagnetic spectrum is available to astronomers and each part of the spectrum, not only reveals different aspects of the universe, but each has its own characteristic, fascinating style of telescope operation.

A small number of astronomers work in other settings such as colleges, planetariums, science centres, and university observatories, often with a BSc or MSc (see below). And up to half of those trained for astronomy at the undergraduate or graduate level go on to careers outside astronomy -- careers for which they are well-prepared because of their scientific and mathematical education, and their skills in analysis and problem-solving. These careers include computing, remote sensing, medical imaging, science communication and outreach, schoolteaching, financial analysis etc. Some of these careers may have connections with astronomy; for instance, astronomy is now part of the school curriculum in most parts of Canada, so a teacher with an astronomy background is much appreciated.

Conversely, there are many people working in astronomy or with astronomers who are educated in other fields, but play an absolutely essential role in astronomy: engineers, technologists, computer scientists, library and information scientists, communication and outreach specialists. There is a much wider range of astronomy-related careers than most people realize.

Astronomers love their work and you can read about what they do at the CASCA Education website's Profiles of Canadian Astronomers page.

How Do I Become an Astronomer?

Astronomers normally start with an undergraduate Bachelor of Science degree. The core of this degree will be courses in physics and mathematics, but there may be courses in astronomy and other related subjects as well. In these, students develop fundamental science and math skills, such as analysis and problem-solving. Students who are interested in non-research careers may want to include a broader range of courses, such as computing, economics, or professional writing.

Those who wish to become research astronomers will then proceed to a Master of Science (MSc) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees, which may include some coursework, but mostly includes supervised research, culminating in a major original research project for the doctoral thesis. Together the MSc and PhD programs normally take 5-6 years. Graduate students receive financial support, typically $25,000, from scholarships, teaching assistantships, and other sources. After the PhD, they normally work as post-doctoral "fellows" for two or more years, doing research. Pay rates are typically $40,000 as of 2007.

Then, all being well, the astronomer obtains a permanent position, moving up through assistant professor (more than $50,000), associate professor, or full professor (more than $100,000). Or the astronomer moves up through the equivalent positions in a government laboratory or observatory.

Here is a list of links to universities that offer astronomy courses, as well as astronomy graduate programs.

Where can I find other information?

Several links are listed below. The information put out by the American Astronomical Society is particularly good, and most of it also applies to the situation in Canada.

created by the CASCA E/PO Committee, (2007)


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