Career Opportunities in

Career Opportunities in Astronomy

Astronomy / September 27, 2016

I'm writing this mail to you for collecting some information on astrophysics career in USA. I'm requestion information for the following: Qualifications, Best institutions to work in this field, Average annual income, Necessary skills to develop in 11th and 12th grade for this career in future, different options of work in this field.

It's great that you are excited about astrophysics! Here are some quick answers to your questions:

1. Qualifications: To become a graduate student in astronomy or astrophysics, applicants need to have a strong physical sciences background. Most applicants are astronomy or physics majors during their undergraduate years, and many have a second major or minor in mathematics or computer science. In addition to coursework, most applicants also have some research background in physics or astronomy.

For graduate admissions, applicants are required to submit their university transcripts, General GRE and Physics GRE test scores, and if international, a TOEFL English language exam score as well. You will also need to write a statement of purpose and submit letters of recommendation from your professors or research advisors. For reference, here are the admissions instructions for UC Berkeley: Admissions requirements at other institutions will be similar.

2. Best Institutions: The best institutions for studying astronomy/astrophysics will depend on your specific area of interest. Some institutions have better resources for observations (i.e. access to telescopes), while others specialize more in theory (i.e. better access to computing clusters). Some departments have broader research opportunities, while others are more specialized. Often, people choose a particular university based on faculty members they are most interested in working with.
I'd recommend doing some simple searches online for general or specific rankings of graduate programs. You can also look up people working on the subfields you are most interested in, then take a look at which institutions they are at.

3. Average Annual Income: This depends a lot on which level you are at in your progression, as well as where you work. Here's a very rough breakdown:

  • Graduate Student: $20, 000 - $35, 000 / year
  • Post-doctoral: $45, 000 - $65, 000 / year
  • Faculty/Researcher: $60, 000 - $150, 000 / year, strongly dependent on what type of institution you work at and your seniority

4. Necessary skills: My recommendation is to start learning computer coding as early as possible. Basically all subfields in astronomy will require you to write some type of computer code. Observers use computers to analyze their data; theorists use computers to create simulations; and instrumentalists use computers to interface with their instruments, etc.
Python is probably the most versatile coding language right now. You can find tutorials online if your school doesn't offer computer classes.

5. Different career options: Within academia, astronomy PhDs can become faculty members or research scientists, and can work at universities or government institutions like NASA. Faculty positions can be more research-focused or more teaching-focused, and some universities have better access to the telescopes and computing clusters necessary for cutting-edge research, while others prioritize undergraduate instruction. Research scientists can also work at universities, or else they can work for governmental labs and institutions. These positions might be more focused on a specific mission or telescope, and might include administrative or logistical components as well as pure research.