Tips for Aspiring Astronomers

An astronaut aboard ISS.
An astronaut in the International Space Station cupola, looking over the Earth and Stars. People such as these have made great contributions to astronomy and astrophysics. NASA

Have you ever sat outside under a starry night sky and wondered what it would be like to be an astronomer? If you're a regular stargazer, it turns out, you already are an astronomer—what is often called an "amateur astronomer", someone with a love of stargazing. 

But if you want to know even more about what those points of light are in the sky, that's when you take steps toward becoming a professional astronomer. These days, the pros are exploring the farthest reaches of the universe. They use incredibly powerful telescopes on the ground and in space to study objects as close as our Moon and as far away as the most distant galaxy. 

If you've ever thought about being an astronomer, here's a handy list of things to keep in mind as you pursue a deeper study of the sky.

Taking the Amateur Route to the Stars

As you've just learned, there are two types of astronomers: amateur and professional. Let's talk about amateurs first. Many are exquisitely talented observers and know the sky very well. Others are "backyard-type" observers, gazing at the sky not for any scientific reason, but to simply enjoy the view. Until recently the hobby seemed to be a male-only one, but in recent years more women and young ladies have taken to watching the skies and doing some amazing observational work.

Amateur astronomers do their gazing from smaller observatories, often from their backyards. In the past few decades, professionals have begun collaborating with amateurs, sharing their knowledge with the amateurs and as the amateurs share their images with the professionals. 

You don't need a fancy telescope to get started in astronomy. You need your eyes and a good dark, safe observing spot. It helps to have good star charts and other observing aids such as a smartphone astronomy app, so that when you spot something intriguing, you'll have the resources to learn about it.

Advanced amateur observers generally have good binoculars or use telescopes mounted in backyard or nearby observatories. They focus on specific types of objects, such as the planets, or variable stars (stars that dim and brighten in a predictable way). Some are fascinated by galaxies, while others focus on nebulae. A great many amateur observers also have cameras attached to their telescopes and spend many hours imaging dim and distant objects.

Turning Pro

What about professional astronomers? What does it take to become one?

Most professional astronomers have doctorates in physics or astrophysics, or at least a masters' degree in their area of study. These topics require calculus, physics, astrophysics topics (such as stellar interiors, radiative transfer, planetary science), plus statistical analysis and computer programming. 

Today's astronomers who use the big professional observatories do not necessarily need to visit those observatories. Instead, for example, users of the Gemini Observatory submit their observing proposals and then wait as the instruments execute do the observing run. Eventually, the data show up at the astronomer's institution for analysis. The same is true for data from all the space-based observatories and most of the ground-based ones. 

Professional astronomers come from all walks of life and every part of the planet. While there are more men than women astronomers, the numbers of women and minorities entering astronomy is slowly rising. 

Heading Back to School

To progress in astronomy as a graduate student, it's a good idea to major in physics or astronomy at the undergraduate level first. You should also learn computer coding and how to work with large databases. Plan to spend at least 4-6 years doing your graduate work. Your last years will be taken up with advanced research, and you will write a thesis (or a dissertation) describing that work. To graduate with a Ph.D., you will very likely need to "defend" that thesis before a team of your professors and peers. You will make a short presentation, and then they will question you about your work. If it's all acceptable, you will be awarded the doctorate. Then, it's time to look for a job!

Entering the Astronomy Job Market

Many professional astronomers also teach, particularly at the college and university level. They (or their graduate students) handle the beginning levels of astronomy (often referred to as Astro 101) to undergraduates, as well as upper-division and graduate course work.

What You End Up Doing

Astronomers often work in large teams focused on specific projects. For example, they might all be using Hubble Space Telescope to survey distant galaxies. Or, a group of astronomers might be interested in observing a comet up-close, using a specialized spacecraft. Or, teams may propose a mission to a distant planet, such as the New Horizons mission to dwarf planet Pluto. The historical days of individual observers making discoveries on their own at the telescope are largely over, replaced by new generations of observers who work together to understand the cosmos.