Careers in Astronomy

the light of day fades away, the astronomer slowly walks from his cabin to the nearby observatory dome atop a pine-covered mountain. After laboring up the stairs, he reaches out to turn on the dome lights illuminating a large telescope, the small control desk placed nearby, and the interior of the grand dome of the observatory roof. Pressing a button on the wall, he opens the dome to prepare the telescope for a night of observing. The dim glow of twilight remains outside in the sky, but the brightest stars are surfacing into view through the fading twilight. Casually paging through the latest astronomical telegrams, the astronomer notices that a new asteroid has been spotted by a colleague in Spain earlier in the week and decides to begin his leisurely evening of star hopping by taking a peek at this newly found member of the solar system. He manually skews the telescope to his chosen subject for the night, opens the back of the camera to insert a sensitive photographic plate, and prepares to sit at the eyepiece of the guide-scope carefully adjusting the telescope's rate of motion to accurately track the sky.

Or so goes the popular view of an astronomical career.

In the early part of the century, that picture may even have been a reasonably accurate representation of reality. Today, however, it is nothing more than an appealing fantasy. Modern astronomers come from all walks of life, and in recentyears, 20 percent ofPh.D. recipients in astronomy have been women. While still a small percentage, it is double the percentage ofwomen who receive Ph.D.s in physics. Unlike the romantic vision presented above, astronomers use computers in every aspect of their work, not only to control telescopes but also to record and process data. Modern electronics (e.g., CCDs; see Chapter 2) have given astronomers amazing instruments far more sensitive and flexible than either photographic film or the human eye, though not without their own limitations. And many fundamental astronomical results, such as the discovery of an expanding universe, detection of common elements in the sun and other celestial objects, and measurements of the temperature and density of various objects and regions in space, are not derived from optical images at all but from spectros-copy, requiring extensive instrumentation and careful analysis.

These days, astronomers also find work in nonacademic settings (about 20 percent, according to a recent American Institute of Physics survey—see Chapter 8). NASA and its contractors hire astronomers to support space missions. Many ofthese missions gather astronomical data and therefore require trained astronomers to decide the ways in which the data are taken and interpreted, to oversee the scheduling of the instruments, and to generate publishable results. Some NASA and ESA missions study the Earth's local environment and even the Earth itself. The data gathering and processing in these studies call for methods similar to those used by astronomers, and so astronomers often are employed even in a variety of space missions that study objects other than "the stars."

A small fraction of astronomers find employment within the U.S. military. The navy and air force are particularly interested in research that can be accomplished by well-trained astronomers. Industries involving communications technologies, which rely on the passage of electromagnetic radiation (often at radio frequencies) through space or the Earth's atmosphere, also have need for astronomers. With an extensive training in the generation, propagation, and detection of electromagnetic radiation, astronomers can work in a variety of physics-oriented careers, such as laser research and microwave propagation. The daily work of the adult astronomer is frequently very different from the life he or she imagined as a child looking through a backyard telescope.

Due to budget restrictions and an overabundance of astronomers interested in tenure-track teaching and research positions, other astronomers may take on a variety of nonresearch jobs. Some working astronomers with experience in computer programming, for example, are finding employment opportunities with Wall Street firms or large industrial corporations. The rise of the dot-com economy in the 1990s expanded the number and the nature of companies in which astronomers (many of whom develop considerable computer talent along the way to their Ph.D.s) have found work. Its recent unraveling may provide a larger pool of applicants for astronomy positions in the coming years. Creating and maintaining Web pages for their graduate departments or observatories, astronomers discover they often have a set of high-tech skills that are desired by computer or software firms. System management skills, the organized design and operation of computer systems, are also part of the package of alternative skills astronomers often possess.

In the course oftheir education, many astronomers become talented public speakers and educators, having given many talks about astronomy to the public or having taught classes as graduate teaching assistants. These skills are useful in a wide variety of careers and are especially advantageous in corporate management. A small number of scientifically trained individuals find careers in the public service arena, both in government and with organizations that interact with the government. All major universities have government relations offices, and most corporations and nonprofit organizations do as well. Astronomers well versed in public affairs find they can fit readily into a government relations career, thanks to their technical skills and ability to begin a task even in the absence of ground rules. Such, after all, is often the nature of scientific research.

Although a modernized version of the romanticized scenario of our first paragraph still exists for a small number of astronomers around the world, it is no longer the normal standard life. Astronomers, like members of many professions, are finding they must learn and develop a wider variety of skills to find a challenging and fulfilling career. The good news is that they are taking up this challenge and moving into rewarding positions across industry and the public sector, as well as in more traditional academic regimes.

In this chapter, we will outline the areas in which astronomers currently work and provide four short vignettes from individuals actually working in these areas. We will also discuss results from the American Institute of Physics workforce surveys as they apply to astronomers.

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