Questions and Answers about Careers in Astronomy

1. My question is, what was Einstein's biggest and most important contribution to the world of physics, and how does this affect your personal views on space as an astronomer?

Einstein made a number of contributions to physics of which not all have changed our conception of space.  His contributions that shape our modern view of space are two.  The first deals with a branch of physics known as quantum mechanics, which is a theory of how the microscopic world of atoms, molecules, protons and electrons behaves.  The implications of this theory about space can be summarized in the statement that our world is non-local.  This can be explained as follows.  If you wish to communicate with a distant friend, the fastest way you know of doing that is by using the phone.  When you pronounce a word, the impulse that you generate with your voice travels at the speed of light through some cable and is received by your friend's receiver at the other end.  It may take only a tiny fraction of a second for your friend to receive that signal but it is a fact that you generated that signal, that message, and it had to travel through space to get to your friend.

  What I am trying to get you to see from this example is the impression that we acquire of space as being some kind of substance that permeates the region between you and your friend.   In other words, we think of space as being defined by the fact that all material objects are related to one another by the existence of this substance that separates us.  This is how we think of space in classical physics.  Some of the work that Einstein did in quantum mechanics suggests to us that space cannot be thought of in this way.  Einstein's other contribution that changed our conception of space is his theory of general relativity which deals with the interactions of large massive bodies like planets, stars and galaxies.  This theory says that space is not the fixed quantity we think it is so that if one person says the distance between us and the moon is a certain value, this would not be the case for some other person or being looking at the Earth-moon distance from a different perspective in the universe.  In short, Einstein is responsible for bringing about both the concept of non-locality and that of the relativity of space.  These two concepts have not yet been made compatible so we don't yet have a clear idea of what it means for space to be non-local and relative.  People working in quantum gravity and string theory are trying to unite the ideas of general relativity and quantum mechanics.  Once this theory is obtained,  we will be able to begin to address the question of what it means for space to be both non-local and relative.

David Garofalo

2. I was wondering about what kind of career opportunities would I expect in this field.

The classic careers would involve teaching and research at a university (or maybe primarily teaching at a teaching college), or work at a government laboratory, such as a NASA center or Los Alamos National Laboratory.  There are many opportunities of this type, but it is tough to say exactly how competitive it would be by the time you'd earned a Ph.D. and taken one or two post-doctoral positions.  Something else to consider is that the quantitative training you receive as an astrophysicist would allow you to step right in to many other positions, if you wished.  For example, I have many friends who are quantitative analysts on Wall Street.  Good problem solving skills go a long way!

Cole Miller

3. Is there a lot of politics involved in your profession?

In Astronomy, most of the politics involves the process of getting funded and remaining funded.  This is so because almost all of astronomical research funding comes from federal grants, either directly to astronomers or to their institutions. To give one example, astronomers have lobbied Congress and NASA headquarters to keep the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit and functioning. If these political efforts fail, much of the basic research done with HST will stop.

But when an astronomer has gotten his grant funded (or his satellite launched, or his telescope completed), politics becomes a side issue, and outside of funding issues, politics is minimal within the profession.

Edward Schmahl

4. Does government interfere with your studies and discovery?

The only major issue that I can think of in which government, and in this case, state government, has interfered with astronomical science, is the case of certain states which have tried, and are trying, to bring creationism into the schools.  This interferes with Astronomy (as well as Geology and Biology), because it conflicts with our knowledge that the universe is billions of years old.

Edward Schmahl

5. I would like to know how you have change your point of view of the universe since you were a high school student to the present day that you are an astronomer now.

When I was in high school, I already knew I wanted to be an astronomer, so read everything I could on the subject. Especially books by Carl Sagan, who is undoubtedly the master writer of popular astronomy. As a professional astronomer, my high-school point of view that "The Universe is very big and Man is very small" has been reinforced.  But I've also learned some other important lessons:  There are some things we will never know, even if they are knowable.  The Universe will always surprise you.  Forget the science once in a while and just revel in the beautiful pictures.

Marc Pound

6. What are the different types of jobs it would Include? when people learn of my interest in astronomy, they tell me how broad the field is and all the different things I could do. What are all of these different things, do you know? If I wanted to pursue this career, what colleges should I look into? Right now I am still pretty open to any school, the only problem is that I don't have unlimited funding for school. I am really interested in hearing what you have to say about this and any advice you want to include!

A. What careers would involve astronomy?

  The ones directly involving astronomy are academic jobs and government jobs.  Academic jobs would include faculty positions at research universities, where your primary job is to publish papers and do original research, and faculty positions at teaching colleges, where your primary job is to teach classes.  Government jobs include positions at NASA centers (e.g., JPL, Goddard, Ames, and others), and other labs (e.g., Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore). To get any of these positions would (essentially) require that you get a Ph.D. in astronomy or physics.  The typical path would be as follows:

            Undergraduate degree in astronomy or physics (4 years)             Ph.D. in astronomy or physics (4-7 years)             One, two, or three postdoctoral positions (3-10 years)             Permanent position (faculty or lab position).   The postdoctoral positions are where you are paid by a grant obtained by a senior researcher.  In this phase you only do research, so this would be most relevant for the lab or research university track; you might be able to go to a teaching college without doing a postdoc.

B. Colleges to consider.

  The better the college, the better it is for you.  Remember, at every level (high school, college, graduate school, postdoc, faculty) you are competing with a more and more select group. You'll be paid in graduate school (although not much, it's enough to live on), so if you have established a great record in college you'll have a better opportunity to choose a good graduate school. A good record at a top-notch college will carry more weight than a great record at a mediocre college, because your training will really be that much better at a top-notch college.  You'll have to determine, based on your record and resources, what is the best college you can go to.  There are lots that could be named, but you could look at US News & World Report for some ideas.

C. Other points.

  Even if you don't end up in a career in astronomy, the training you will get will mean that you never have to be unemployed if you don't want to be.  Quantitative analysis is useful to lots of people, including financial analysts.

  You should major in physics!  You can also major in astronomy if you want, but your general capability in astronomy (and attractiveness to graduate schools) will be *greatly* enhanced if you have a strong physics background.  Many of our applicants to Maryland for graduate school have done well in astronomy but poorly in physics.  We don't even consider them because we know that they will not be able to handle the more rigorous aspects of the field.

  Learn to program a computer.  The language C is especially good. It isn't enough to be able to use Microsoft software :).  You want to be able to write programs so that you can test out your ideas or do statistical analyses.  If you can't do that, you'll be at a disadvantage.

Cole Miller

7. I would like to go into the field of astronomy and I was wondering what part of astronomy I could go into. I am very intelligent in math and would like that to be part of what I do in an astronomy course. What college courses or fields of astronomy would be best for me to take in college considering I like math?

I am glad to hear that you are interested in astronomy AND math. Having an interest in math and the ability to understand it gives you an excellent background in ANY type of astronomy.

In fact, basically any field of astronomy requires some mathematics. For example, if you want to use a telescope (even an automated one) to observe an astronomical object, you have to know how to calculate when that object will be up in the sky, how long it will be visible, and how long you need to observe it for because of how bright it is. Once you have taken the telescopic images, you need to ANALYZE them. What that usually means is that you have to make measurements from your image and then use different mathematical functions to convert that measurement into some type of physical quantity, like the luminosity of a star or the radius of a planet.


If you're not so interested in making telescopic observations but you really want to get into some serious astronomical math, then you might think about doing theoretical modeling with computer simulations. What does that involve? Let me talk about this generally and then give you an example. First you think about an astronomical problem that astronomers have not figured out to your satisfaction. Then you think of what the astronomical conditions would be at the beginning of the problem would be, and you write those into a computer program. Then you include in the program how the physical laws of the universe work, such as how gravity works, how light is transmitted and absorbed, and so on. This is the tough step, and I'll talk more about it in a moment. Then you run your computer simulation and see what happens. If your result matches up with what we see happening in real life, then you are on the right track to figuring out the problem. If it doesn't, then it means that something in the simulation isn't following what happens in reality, so you've made a mistake or not included something important - probably in the tough step I mentioned, which I'll talk about again soon.

Now for a real astronomical example. One astronomical problem that many astronomers using theoretical models with computers simulations to try to figure out is how the solar system formed. We know that the Sun and the planets (and asteroids, comets, moons, etc.) formed from a large cloud of gas...but how? The theorists working on this problem have written computer programs that include what we believe typical gas clouds are like: what they are made of, how hot they are, how big they are, and many other properties.

Next, they also program into the computer the relevant physical laws, such as how gravity works and how gases change into liquids and solids. This step is the hard step (I mentioned it above) because there are lots and lots of physical laws and if you put ALL of them into the computer program it would run WAY too slowly. So astronomers have to pick the ones they think are important in this case. Finally, they run the simulation for "millions of years" in the program and see what happens.

Current theoretical models for how the solar system formed have been programmed into simulations that result in "solar systems" that look a lot like our own: a Sun in the center, terrestrial planets close to the Sun, and gas giant planets farther from the Sun. The models tell us that the cloud of gas shrank in size from gravity, flattened into a disk around a protosun, and then gas within the disk condensed into solid bits which gradually accumulated and became the planets. I say this as if we have figured out everything about this problem - that's not the case. Astronomers have agreed on the main events that occurred, but there are still lots of things we don't understand about the smaller details in how the solar system formed.

However, many computer simulations end up with wacky objects that we don't see in real life. What went wrong? Probably there was a physical law (or two) that was not included that really is important. Also, we might not know correctly the properties of the initial gas cloud. In either case, astronomers have to change the theoretical model, adjust the computer program accordingly, and try again.

What topics are being explored by astronomers using theoretical modeling like this? Here are a few:

1. Solar system formation

2. What the insides of stars are like. We can't actually go into any stars to explore, so we have to figure it all out from the outside!

3. How galaxies form. Galaxies formed billions of years ago shortly after the Big Bang, so we don't see any forming today to help us figure it out.

4. Stellar evolution. This is how stars change as they age and then how they die. Some stars (like the Sun) will become white dwarfs, while other will explode in supernovae and leave behind neutron stars and black holes. Understanding the overall sequence as well as individual parts is hard to do, since we can't watch a star for billions of years to see how it dies.

5. Dark matter. We cannot see this material, and we think it's made of a particle that hasn't been discovered yet. It only interacts with normal matter by gravity - we learn about this through theoretical models and simulations.

6. Gravitational lensing. Objects, like clusters of galaxies, that have very strong gravity can actually bend the path of light. By studying how the light is bent, we can infer how much mass is there and what it is like.

7. Dark energy and the Big Bang. Exactly how did the universe begin, and how much of a role does dark energy have?


For any field of astronomy that you might choose, it's an excellent idea to have a strong physics background (which requires a strong math background). In fact, it's often a good decision to major in physics in college and take an astronomy minor or astronomy electives. If the idea of theoretical modeling and computer simulations is appealing, you should consider taking a few computer programming courses. Many physics departments also offer specific courses on the mathematics and programming needed for theoretical modeling on computers.

After your four years in college, if you still want to pursue math in astronomy, you should head to graduate school in astronomy. Astronomy graduate schools are very pleased to accept students who major in physics as an undergraduate. In graduate school, you will begin to work on major projects on astronomical problems that you are interested in. I personally double-majored in physics and planetary science as an undergraduate at MIT and then went on to graduate school in astronomy at Boston University.

OK, I hope I've answered your question to your satisfaction. In fact, I hope my answer isn't overwhelming. I get carried away talking about astronomy! There are lots of exciting topics to study in astronomy, so I'm sure that you could find one that is especially interesting to you. Good luck!

Dr. Melissa Hayes-Gehrke

8. I'm taking an astronomy class at my highschool, and I'm really enjoying it. In fact, I'm enjoying it so much that im considering pursuing the subject in my college career. I was wondering what sort of career options I would have after college.

I'm very happy that you are enjoying your astronomy class and thinking about a career in astronomy. While in high school, you should take as much math and science as allowed. If your school offers AP classes, this is excellent preparation. A college major in either (or both) physics or astronomy will prepare you for either employment after graduation with a Bachelor's degree or for graduate school. Students who finish their education with a bachelor's degree unusally need some expertise in computer skills. They are usually part of a group of people working on a problem. Those students who go on to graduate school complete a master's degree and most complete a Ph.D. With more education comes more independence. Astronomers do research at universities, government facilities (like NASA), observatories, or private industry. Astronomers also are employed by colleges and universities to do research and also teach. Smaller colleges or community colleges require more teaching than research.

If you have more questions, please email again.

Grace Deming

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