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Getting an Astronomy Job

Week of October 5, 1998
I get the occasional email from someone interested in becoming a professional astronomer, asking for career advice. These days professional astronomers are asked that a lot. There are lots of people out there passionate about the sciences, but terrified that after years (and tens of thousands of dollars) of schooling, they may still not be able to get a job. This fear is very well grounded. During my seven year stay in graduate school (I got my degree in 1994) I watched many friends and colleagues leave the field. No one goes into grad school thinking they are guaranteed a job, but for years now there have been ads on TV saying we need more scientists and engineers, and the implied message from many sources is that training means getting a good job. It ain't so. Two very good friends of mine --both PhD'd astronomers-- could not find jobs in astronomy even with excellent recommendations and strong backgrounds in their field. Both now are software engineers, designing internet games and loving it. They both make a lot more money than I do, too. :-)

I am one of maybe half the grad students between 1990 and 1997 from the University of Virginia who got jobs doing actual astronomy, and technically I am not a full time astronomer; my job title is senior programmer, and I help support other astronomers on my project. I am involved in some active independent research but mostly I do analysis and programming. To be honest, I love it. I get to do some cutting edge science, I see data before most everyone else, I get to help calibrate a space based telescope, and it even pays well.

I wonder if that is not the future of PhDs. There are simply more PhDs graduating than there are academic slots for them. There is a need for people with excellent software skills and a background in astronomy to do what I do; write programs that other astronomers can use.

The problem there is an interesting, if paradoxical one: people with PhDs usually are unwilling to take jobs that do not involve pure research (I did not have that problem), and most employers in the Industry do not want to hire PhDs because they want more money, and may not be satisfied working on programming. It's as if studying for the doctorate prices yourself out of the best market you could be in!

Do you see where I am heading here? I am asked for career advice by many people; most of them with a college degree in an unrelated or somewhat different field than astronomy, but they have The Bug. What to do?

My advice: do NOT go for a PhD, unless you want to do research. The best thing to do is probably get a Master's degree. My reasoning for that is manyfold:

  1. More schools give Master's degrees than PhDs, upping your odds of getting in.

  2. You will take quite a few astronomy classes and get a good all around education in advanced astronomy.

  3. You probably won't paint yourself into a corner by overspecializing in one area of astronomy. In 1994 I was one of two people in the world that studied high-resolution images of the ring around Supernova 1987A. A job became available studying a different type of high-res image of 87A. I did not get the job; the other guy did. Overspecialization makes it more difficult to evolve.

  4. A Master's degree only takes a couple of years on average, while a PhD takes between 5 and 7 on average (these are survey results). You'll be in the field actually working, and making money sooner, than if you get a PhD.

  5. As I said, most employers in the Industry (that is, people that work on calibrating space instruments, or more generally science companies like Hughes, Raytheon, Computer Science Corporation, etc) are more willing to hire Master's degree recipients for more basic jobs. They ask for less money to start and are less likely to pine away for the research.

  6. Finally, a Master's will still give you the taste of astronomy you want. I actually did an observing project for my MS and had a blast, and I still do some work relating to that field today, 7 years later.

Anyway, one last piece of advice: everything I have said here might be completely wrong. This is my opinion, and may not reflect the ways things are now. I have not needed to apply for a job in four years, and things may have changed (though I doubt it). The market fluctuates, and so do the number of job openings.

Actually, one really last piece of advice: if you are truly interested in astronomy, and are thinking of pursuing it as a career, join a local astronomy club. Nothing beats getting an interest stoked up than actually going out and doing it. A night under the stars may give you the time and insight you need to think more clearly about career decisions.

The American Astronomical Society is the premier organization of astronomers in the U.S. The AAS webpage has an excellent discussion of career paths in astronomy.

My colleague Lucy Ann McFadden reviewed the book ``Rethinking Science as a Career'' on her website, and provides a flavor of current problems in choosing astronomy as a profession.

Professional astronomer (and a friend of mine) Sten Odenwald has written an extensive diary about his career, which may help. His experience is not typical, I'd wager, but it may give you insight into what's involved.

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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