Most astronomers have at least a bachelor's degree in physics. There used to be a distinction between "astronomers" and "astrophysicists," but this is rapidly dying out as the requirement for a strong physics background becomes more widespread. A Ph.D. in astronomy or physics is a basic requirement for becoming a researcher; it takes about six years, on average, after obtaining a bachelor's degree. Be warned, though: less than 25 percent of people with Ph.D.'s in astronomy get jobs as professors or researchers at institutes such as NOAO. Some take positions that support research in various ways, often associated with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), but many end up working in jobs not related to astronomy at all. Completing a Ph.D. in astronomy could be one of the most enjoyable things you do during your life, but it is very important not to have any expectations of long-term employment in the field.
Selecting a graduate school is an important step. Some people already know the specialty in which they're most interested and select a department that concentrates on that area. Other people select departments whose astronomy faculty has a wide range of interests. In general, people coming from the best graduate departments have the most career options open to them, but there are many fine astronomers in small departments from whom you can learn a lot. It is good to visit a few departments before making your choice.
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