A lot of people have written us recently as part of a school project, asking what astronomers do. Unfortunately, we don't have the time to answer each question individually (there are a lot of you!) To try and help, we've answered some of the common questions below.
Q: What is a normal day for an astronomer?
A:Most astronomers don't stay awake all night every night, working at a telescope! We tend to work fairly normal daytime hours most of the year, and only go to telescopes a few times a year. On typical workdays, we work on analyzing our pictures from the telescope and write computer programs to help us in that work. We talk to our co-workers about projects we are working on together. We plan for our next nights at the telescopes. We go to talks by other astronomers to learn about what they are studying.
When we go to the telescopes to work, a typical night might go like this: We arrive in the late afternoon and check out the telescopes and make sure everything is working. Then we eat dinner and wait for the sun to go down. Shortly after sundown, we open the telescope dome and let the telescope cool down to the air temperature. As it gets darker, we start taking test images and work on focusing the telescope. As soon as everything is dark and prepared to go, we start taking pictures, following the schedule we worked out in our offices in advance. At sunrise, we take a few more test images and close up the dome. Then we go to bed for some much-needed sleep!
Q: What kind of training does an astronomer need?
A:Astronomers need lots and lots of math and physics courses while at college. Most astronomers graduate with degrees in physics and/or astronomy. Once out of college, we enter graduate school to earn our doctorate degrees. In graduate school, we take specialized classes in astronomy. We also start to do research work for professors. This teaches us the basics of how to be an astronomer, and it helps us find an area of astronomy that we are interested in. We then pick a research project for our thesis, and hopefully earn our PhD!
After we earn our doctorate, we get a job as a "postdoctoral research assistant," or "postdoc" for short. A postdoc is usually part of a research team, but can carry out his or her own research projects, too. A postdoc is usually paid for by a senior astronomer. During this time, postdocs continue to refine their astronomer skills.
After being a postdoc, many astronomers get a job as a professor at a university, or as a researcher at a government institution (like NASA or a National Laboratory). There are several levels of professors, and the more experienced and more prestigious an astronomer is, the higher a position he or she can get.
There are many other jobs related to astronomy that many astronomers take along the way. They can become astronomers at an observatory, running telescopes and making sure everything is in working order for the visiting astronomers. Or they may go into computer programming, or aerospace engineering. The path described above is just one of the most traditional paths to becoming an astronomer.
Q: What is the difference between astronomy and astrophysics? How are physics and astronomy related?
A: Essentially, there is no difference between astronomy and astrophysics, other than the fact that "astrophysics" sounds more impressive to some people. Physics is the study of the laws of nature, and how particles interact with one another. Astronomy is a science where we observe physics at work throughout the universe! Astronomers use physics to help us understand what we are seeing in all the pretty pictures that come off of the telescopes. Astronomers have helped physicists discover all kinds of exciting things, like Relativity, black holes, and nuclear fusion. Physics has helped astronomers to understand what makes spiral galaxies have spiral shapes, how stars form, and even how to detect other planets around other stars!
Q: How much money do astronomers make?
A: It's hard to get rich by being an astronomer, but most astronomers make enough money to live comfortably. The amount astronomers are paid depends on where the astronomer is working, how much experience the astronomer has, and even how prestigious the astronomer is. For more detailed numbers, see the link below.
Q: You didn't answer my question. Where can I find out more information?
A: The American Astronomical Society has created a very nice web site describing astronomers and how to become one. The web site is: http://www.aas.org/education/career.html. We'd suggest starting there!
Last Updated: 30 November 2000
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