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Is it difficult to secure a job at an observatory?

  1. Jan 12, 2014 #1
    I don't know if anyone has any direct experience with this, but is it difficult to secure a job at an observatory?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 12, 2014 #2


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  4. Jan 12, 2014 #3

    Simon Bridge

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    You mean an astronomy observatory? Depends on the job but, in general, yes.

    There are a LOT of astronomers and not so many observatories
    I imagine, but don't really know, that a janitor position at an observatory would be harder to get than, say, getting a job cleaning someone's yard too. This would be because you have to be trusted to clean around the more expensive hardware and leave research stuff alone. I guess I could check?
  5. Jan 13, 2014 #4
    Well, I'm at my second semester of college, so I know it's kinda silly to think that far in the future. I'm sorta curious however. My plan is to get a doctorate in Physics or Astrophysics(not sure if there would be a major difference from employer perspective). Personally, working at an observatory as an astronomer has been my desire since I was 5. I'm older now, and I know that isn't necessarily realistic. The other possibilities are NASA and Academia(which are long shots as well, from what I've read). The only private industry I would be interested would be the spaceflight companies(e.g. SpaceX). All things considered, though, my main interest would be an observatory.
  6. Jan 13, 2014 #5
    It was my understanding that astronomy majors didn't really exist anymore. At least that's what I have read in some places. From what I have read, astronomy has mainly been absorbed into physics.
  7. Jan 13, 2014 #6


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    Yes, you are probably right but you understand what I mean right? Astronomy or Astrophysics majors would be preferred unless its for operational maintenance where an EE, ME or CS major would be needed.
  8. Jan 13, 2014 #7
    Yes, I understand. But that brings up a good point, in that I have considered for the undergrad degree either Physics/Math as a double major or Physics/CS. I wonder if as a back up, it would be more advantageous to pursue a Physics/CS pathway. According to my science adviser, the pre-reqs i'll be taking will give me a math minor regardless.
  9. Apr 9, 2015 #8
    Astronomy's still alive and well as a major course of study, but whether you can pursue a degree in astronomy will depend more on the college or university you're attending than whether the major exists at all. At places like University of Texas Astronomy still has its own department and degree plans.

    To answer your question, though, it depends. Most astronomers aren't attached directly to an observatory. Most work at universities and use a variety of observatories around the world, depending on their affiliations, grants, etc. With some observatories this will mean traveling to the observatory to observe. With others the astronomers submit proposals to the observatory, and the observations themselves are made by a professional observer.

    That being said there are still astronomer positions at most observatories. When applying for a job it helps if you already have an affiliation and a history with the observatory in question (e.g. having observed there or being a PI for a program there), but it's not strictly necessary.

    As far as support jobs go (e.g. observers, optics, electronics, detectors, software, etc.) any number of degrees are useful. But there's still plenty of competition for these spots as well. An engineering degree isn't strictly necessary, but it helps to have one if you're working in an engineering field.

    If you're a student something you can do that'll help your chances of getting a foot in the door is to do as many internships as you can find while you're in school. Don't be afraid to approach your department head or your advisor to ask for letters of introduction, information on existing internships, etc. Also don't be afraid to contact an observatory directly and express your interest. A number of our interns went this route, and wound up having some really productive internships.

    Best of luck in your endeavors, stardust.
  10. Apr 9, 2015 #9


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    I recently went on a tour of the telescopes at Mona Kea, Hawaii. Something that our guide pointed out that I hadn't considered was that not that many astronomers are actually on site. The majority of people at the telescopes are technicians, engineers, or support staff that keep the facilities up and running the way they're supposed to. Different astronomers book time on the units and these days all the data can be gathered and sent to the researchers remotely.
  11. Jun 16, 2015 #10
    One critical thing I would recommend to undergrads (even underclassmen!) if they're interested in astronomy is to try to find a way to participate in a research project. This can be in astronomy, physics or even engineering but one of the best ways to distinguish students from one another during PhD admissions is to see that a particular candidate has a proven track record of research skills (a great way to showcase this is by presenting original research work at a professional conference or publishing a paper). Working on research with a professor from your home institution or doing a summer 'research experience for undergraduates' stint is a great way to boost your chances towards getting into a solid program and ultimately advancing a career in astronomy. Don't be shy about soliciting potential research opportunities - email professors at your home institution to see whether they have any projects you can work on. A nice bonus of working on such research projects is that it will help you grow skills which are critical even outside academia or the research community.
  12. Jun 17, 2015 #11


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    Here is a question I would have. If it is the case (as I would suspect to be, and what others state here) that it is difficult to secure a job at an observatory for astronomy PhDs (or really anyone else), and that tenure-track academic positions are also hard to come by, where do most astronomy PhDs actually end up working, not including postdoc positions, which are at best temporary positions?
  13. Jun 17, 2015 #12
    There are plenty of jobs outside of astronomy that astronomers are qualified to do and end up working at. Many astronomers end up working in programming, consulting, finance, IT, science communication, defense, teaching and administration jobs. AAS does a pretty good job providing profiles of a number of these directions: http://aas.org/careers/career-profiles

    The nice thing is that many of these areas ask for similar analytical, management, communication and computational skills that astronomers develop during research - and they often pay better! I think there's a growing realization in the astronomy community that astronomy phd's should prepare themselves for a potential future in the field while also developing skills for and understanding the job market outside astronomy.
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