Supernova remnants and other

Astronomy Career path

Astronomy / October 24, 2016

Michael D. Bicay, Ph.D.
Spitzer Science Center
California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, California USA

One question that is frequently asked by children is: How do you become an astronomer? Well, there are many paths that can lead to this exciting and satisfying career. An important element, however, is to obtain a broad-based education in the physical sciences and in mathematics. In most cases, professional astronomers have not only attended college but have also gone onto graduate school and obtained a doctorate or masters degree. While there are many fine universities offering degrees in astronomy and astrophysics, I would urge most young people to consider a broader-based approach. That is, to obtain training in some combination of physics, mathematics and computer sciences. With these skills under your belt, you can become an astronomer with numerous skills while becoming more attractive to employers if you ever decide to pursue other interests.

Let me tell you a little more about my experiences. While I had my own small telescope while growing up in Minnesota, my greater interest was in the weather and in becoming a meteorologist. When entering college for the first time, it is not necessary to have a career path mapped out in advance. I enrolled in college at the Eau Claire campus of the University of Wisconsin, with the intention of transferring to the main campus in Madison to study meteorology. And then fate intervened. One of my first-semester professors was an Armenian-American astronomer studying a particular type of galaxy. He immediately drafted me to assist him in his research programs in radio astronomy. Typically, new students concentrate on their academic studies and defer doing research until graduate school or until their last year of undergraduate school. Through hard work and a bit of luck, I was able to participate (and eventually lead) our research investigations. This allowed me to travel to various observatories, including the National Radio Astronomy Observatory facilities in Green Bank, West Virginia and in Socorro, New Mexico.