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Steps needed to become an Astronomer and/or Cosmologist?

  1. Apr 17, 2015 #1
    Hello friends!

    I have a dream to become a legitimate astronomer and cosmologist like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. But I would appreciate the realistic steps in order to achieve this dream.

    Do I really need to become a teacher first or really need my PhD in Astronomy before I can really do anything like them?

    What are the roads they have taken to get where they did? Thank you!!!
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 17, 2015 #2
    Welcome to the forum! :)

    To be like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, follow your interests as closely as possible and stay diligent. Generally, if you're interested in cosmology and astronomy, you would do the following:

    B.S. in Astrophysics, Astronomy or Physics -> Masters/PhD in Astrophysics or Astronomy

    Make sure to take as many classes in math/programming/physics outside of your astronomy requirements as you can. Make sure to get involved in as much research as possible (though only one at a time) during your undergrad. That is the most important. Doing well in your classes and memorizing physics formulas and problem solutions is important for the Physics GRE (and thus grad school admission).

    Here are some things you can do right NOW:
    - learn how to use a telescope and research/find stars and objects in the night sky. star charts and the internet are helpful for this.
    - look for opportunities, educational programs, stargazing nights, etc to learn about astronomy and the technology involved
    - find an intro math/physics book at whatever your current level is, and do the problems. solving problems is one of the most productive things you can do to prepare yourself for cosmology research
    - start learning how to program (python is a good place to start)

    Remember to stay focused and dedicate 1-2 hours minimum per day to any one chosen task.
  4. Apr 17, 2015 #3

    Wow! Thank you so much for your great reply. May I ask why programming is recommended? I never heard of Python. Is it one of those languages that will go away soon where all my work learning it will be for nothing?

    Any more information and advice is greatly appreciated!!! :)
  5. Apr 17, 2015 #4
    Astronomers use programing languages like IDL to read and analyze CCD images. Many cosmologists use programming in python and C++ to do physics simulations. They do things like calculating trajectories and orbits of celestial bodies, simulating fluids and gases around blackholes or stars, or figuring out what elements are left over after the big bang.

    Python is simpler than most languages, which makes writing programs a lot faster. Traditionally you are introduced to programming with C, which is very tedious, but sometimes necessary. Python is also versatile and very well documented online.

    Here's a good website to start learning.

    In my opinion, solving physics problems with pen and paper, at first, is more fun. But so is programming to a certain extent.
  6. Apr 17, 2015 #5


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    Staff: Mentor

    When you are in your 30s you will probably be programming in something that hasn't even been invented yet. :biggrin: That's the way things go in the programming world. Something new is always coming along. However, the general programming concepts that you learn along with the specific details of a particular language will still be valid, no matter what language you use. I don't consider it a waste of time to have started out in Fortran 30+ years ago, even though most of the programming I've done in the last 15 years has been in either Perl or C++.
  7. Apr 19, 2015 #6
    If I can add a different take... Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson are more entertainers/educators/communicators than physicists. They are excellent orators. If you wish to emulate them, work on your communication skills, particularly oral communication (presentations, videos, even science journalism). It's my understanding that neither one of them are brilliant scientists, but they are brilliant communicators who are able to reach out to and touch the general public. I would even say that a doctorate isn't necessary, though it would help for credibility/marketing purposes.

    If you wish to be an astronomer or cosmologist, that's an entirely different question.
  8. Apr 19, 2015 #7


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    Education Advisor

    It's important to bear in mind that Carl Sagan and Neil Tyson serve(d) roles as science popularizers. They were often presenting material that they were not involved in researching at all. They devoted their careers to educating the public to science, which means less time to actually spend researching. Communicating science to the public is a very important job, and they both excel at it. However, a lot of what they do is more along the lines of communication and writing than it is scientific research.

    Neil Tyson has never contributed anything significant to the body of knowledge of physics or astronomy as far as I know, but he has done a lot in communicating the work that others have done in a way that the public responds well to. Sagan was involved in more of an active research role than Tyson, but his own contributions to the field were fairly limited as well.
  9. Apr 19, 2015 #8
    I'm with QuantumCurt, very few of the people you hear about are really doing significant research. They serve as publicizers (pretty sure that isn't a word) and little more.
  10. Apr 20, 2015 #9
    You should also have a gander at the vast world of physics outside astronomy/cosmology before you head down that route, since there are many interesting things out there.
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