“An educational system isn’t worth a great deal if it teaches young people how to make a living but doesn’t teach them how to make a life.” -Unknown

Every now and again, people with all sorts of backgrounds — from some graduate school all the way to having not finished high school — ask me about getting involved in Astronomy and Astrophysics. Often, people’s interest simply come from looking up at night.

I’m not going to lie, this is a huge question, with many different answers. First off, let’s start off assuming that you have no background in math, no background in physics, and that you’re interested in exploring the Universe, and possibly contributing to what we scientifically know. Where’s the first place to go?

Start with your local amateur astronomy club. Many people have this negative idea associated with amateur astronomy; that it’s somehow unprofessional. I’ve got news for you: the average amateur astronomer knows more about night sky observing, than your above average physics & astronomy professor.

That includes me; those of you who are amateur astronomers have probably looked through more telescopes, resolved more objects, and found — firsthand — more interesting things in the night sky than I ever have. (Yes, there are other things that I know, but we’ll get to that.)

Pretty much every major area in the United States (and many others in most parts of the world) have an amateur astronomy club, where enthusiasts get together and share knowledge, telescopes, and the skies together. In my current city, Rose City Astronomers has telescope workshops, a lecture series, special interest/information groups, and perhaps the best place to start: star parties. After all, perhaps my favorite time-lapse video was taken by an amateur at a star party.

The best way to learn your sky is to get a telescope or even a good pair of binoculars, some good, clear, dark skies, and to get out there and explore it!

But maybe that’s not up your alley. Maybe you aren’t into observing the skies through an eyepiece yourself. Maybe you’re more interested in looking at the spectacular images taken by the greatest telescopes we’ve ever developed, and seeing what can be done with them. Well, I suggest you check out Galaxy Zoo.

Since the galaxy zoo project started, over 60 million galaxies have been classified thanks to interested “amateurs.” In fact, an amateur named Hanny van Arkle found this object in the image above, which even mystified the professionals for some number of months! The object is known as Hanny’s Voorwerp, and although it’s thought to be related to a quasar, no quasar has yet been found. In fact, the greenish appearance led to the creation of a whole new class of galaxies!

But maybe you want to make a living doing this stuff. What career options are there? Well, in the education arena, there are jobs at planetaria (above) and science museums, as well as many outreach projects. However, these types of jobs usually — at minimum — require a bachelor’s degree in physics, astronomy, engineering or education.

But if you’re willing to get a bachelor’s degree, there’s a whole wonderful world that opens up to you…

Instrumentation! From telescope-making to cameras, from automated software to grinding mirrors, instrumentation is one of the most fundamental areas of research into astronomy and astrophysics! Jobs range from working for commercial telescope makers like Celestron and Meade to working for colleges and universities, standalone observatories, or national labs. And while there are many people who go through grad school and get their PhD’s, that isn’t the only way to get involved in this field! For instance, if you wanted to be McDonald Observatory’s Telescope Operator, you don’t need any special training to qualify. And McDonald — my example — is a world-class observatory in Texas!

But what if you want to actually become a professional astronomer? Long nights writing proposals, flying to the observatory, collecting your data, reducing your data, trying to figure out what’s a signal and what’s noise, etc. If that sounds like a dream to you, then you’ll want to apply to graduate school in astronomy and become a professional observational astronomer!

Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t spend most of your time looking through a telescope; you hardly ever use an eyepiece at all! Computers take your data; they’re far more reliable and the data is permanent!

You can observe with a terrestrial telescope or with a Space Telescope, depending on your project! The most spectacular images ever taken, like this one…

…were taken by professional observational astronomers!

The other route? If instrumentation or observing doesn’t do it for you, there’s theory, which is the route I went down. This is incredibly math and physics intensive, and you will spend most of your time writing computer code, running simulations, and trying your best to find approximate solutions to unsolvable equations.

It isn’t for everyone; it’s for the people who love it! And I’m not going to pull any punches, there’s a cost. Graduate school in astronomy or astrophysics — to get your PhD alone — usually takes between five and seven years. And even then, there are many more people with PhDs than there are jobs as professional observers or professional theorists!

Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t do it! But you should only do it if you love it, and only if you love it so much that it will be worth the other things you’ll need to give up in order to do it well.

For many people (including myself), the payoff is huge! The end result is that I get to think about the entire Universe…

and, as much as it makes sense to anyone, it seems to make sense to me, too. But it’s been a lot of hard work, and even for me, there are still huge gaps in my understanding of many things.

But if you’ve got the time, energy, and drive to do it, you can do this at any age. (I knew someone in his early 50s who was in graduate school with me when I was in my early 20s; he’s a professional physicist now.)

And if you don’t want to get involved but you still want to learn about this stuff, well, that’s one of the major goals I’m trying to accomplish by writing this blog!

So I hope you have a little better of an appreciation for what opportunities are out there, and I look forward to discovering this Universe with you, from the subatomic to superclusters of galaxies, and everything in between!

Comments

  1. #1 Charity
    May 3, 2010

    Thank you, Ethan, for posting this. It’s a little intimidating for an astronomy enthusiast (with a most-unscientific English degree) to feel like she can participate in any coherent discussion of astronomy. I didn’t even know we had an amateur astronomers club in Portland. Your blog makes math sound…(almost)…fun!

  2. #2 Justin S
    May 3, 2010

    What if you want to do astronomy professionally but also want to avoid academia? I’m in that boat now – trying to decide if I want to go to grad school.

  3. #3 MadScientist
    May 4, 2010

    Speaking of hardly looking through an eyepiece (the eyepiece was pretty much an anachronism 60 years ago though I know a few professionals who had an occasion to use them as late as 20 years ago) many of the younger astronomers I meet these days never even see the instruments they work with (except perhaps in a photograph). I’ll excuse the folks working with the various space telescopes – Hubble is difficult enough to get to and I wouldn’t recommend a trip to the L2 point to visit observatories like Planck and Herschel. For me every telescope is different and worth seeing. The large ones like Gemini North and Keck are quite spectacular beasts, but one of my favorites (now destroyed, unfortunately) was a 6-inch refractor with a clockwork equatorial mount driven by weights and with a rate lever which could be pushed to select a suitable speed for tracking the sun, moon, planets, or stars.

  4. #4 Nicole
    May 4, 2010

    “And even then, there are many more people with PhDs than there are jobs as professional observers or professional theorists!”

    Ack! Thanks for reminding us who are already in grad school…..

    *curls up in a corner and hides*

  5. #5 Lyle
    May 4, 2010

    Re #4 until recently you could always hire yourself as a Quant out to wall street, as any in astronomy has quite enough math to do that (astronomy is almost rocket science in popular terms). If you became a quant after 10 years or so you might have had enough money to retire, put up your own observatory and harken back to the early days of science where wealthy men did science for fun.

  6. #6 csrster
    May 4, 2010

    Thanks for presenting the Navier-Stokes Equations in their canonical Scaring-The-Bejeebus-Out-Of-People Form :-)

  7. #7 John M
    May 4, 2010

    The Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston (ATMoB) has a public Astronomy Day 2010 event in Brookline from 4-10pm on Saturday May 15. http://www.atmob.org/events/displayevent.php?id=373

  8. #8 Bruce Berger
    May 4, 2010

    Thanks for posting this Ethan. It is so true.

    As an amateur astronomer for the past 15 years, I’ve built or rebuilt more than a dozen telescopes, recorded asteroid, TNO and lunar occultations in conjunction with the International Occultation Timing Association and scientists with MIT, light curves for the American Association of Variable Star Observers, saw the last 2 total solar eclipses and taught many many people the wonders of the night sky and telescope making, and all without a degree in physics, astronomy or math. I love what I do in my ‘hobby’ and write about it frequently in my blog. (Now if I could only figure out how to support my family doing what I love!)

  9. #9 Douglas Watts
    May 5, 2010

    Great inspirational and informative post, Ethan. Thanks.

    Where I grew up, in North Easton, Massachusetts, in the 1970s, I was very lucky that a guy named Chet Raymo was a physics and astronomy professor at Stonehill College just down the street and he held telescope viewing nights once a week in a pasture near the college, which I attended avidly. And when I went to the University of Maine, the first course I took was intro astronomy, taught by Neil Comins, who had an incredibly infectious approach to the subject, much like you. After that, I was hooked and have been ever since.

  10. #10 tacroy
    May 5, 2010

    I have to say, “Hanny’s Voorwerp” is probably the best name for any astronomical object, ever.

  11. #11 Brent Kaplan
    May 6, 2010

    I have an engineering background, but theory appeals to me more. What books/journals/etc should I be reading to learn more about the fundamentals of cosmology, especially high precision anisotropy experiments e.g. COBE, WMAP, Planck?

    Thanks.

  12. #12 Allan
    May 9, 2010

    As a second year university student hoping to go into physics or astrophysics I’m weighing up the pros and cons. I really don’t know if I prefer theoretical of observational astrophysics at the moment I’ve taken an observational course at uni and it’s been pretty exciting I’m taking theoretical next semester though.
    Thanks for this article it’s really been helpful :) I’m hoping by the time I’ve finished my undergrad and gone onto PhD it won’t be as difficult to find a job as an astrophysicist

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  14. #14 janet
    June 1, 2010

    The observations are great.and the photos are very cute.

  15. #15 fix it pro
    June 1, 2010

    As a second year university student hoping to go into physics or astrophysics I’m weighing up the pros and cons.

  16. #16 Lillian
    October 5, 2011

    Thanks for this post! :) It brought a huge smile to my face.

  17. #17 Neil
    Boston
    June 13, 2012

    Hey Ethan, thanks for the post. I have a question. I have an BS in mathematics, and although I probably won’t pursue astronomy in high education or as my career field, I’d like to get involved and apply the my knowledge of mathematics to technical problems in astronomy for fun. Is there any avenue for this or is that the sort of work only graduate/phd students are entrusted with.

  18. #18 Wow
    June 13, 2012

    The maths you’ll need for astronomy are 18th century at best, Neil.

    The technical problems come with modelling stellar evolution, the consequential problems of observations and some highly abstruse theoretical stuff for cosmology.

    I suppose something to start you on is one of two things fairly common for post-grad work:

    1) climate modelling of another solar system body. Mars is usually picked

    2) redshift patterns of stellar emission lines for a star with planetary bodies.

    Neither really constitute much fun, but depending on whether you want nonlinear systems (climate) or decompositional problems (redshift untangling) to play around with.

  19. #19 سمیرا - samira
    ایران - iran
    December 7, 2012

    the photos are soo amazing. creation,essence……we. i like existence

  20. #20 Anna-Kay
    Jamaica
    March 12, 2013

    I am into the time of ACTUALLY choosing my subjects based on the profession I want to join and this was very helpful! Made me want to become an astronomist even more. Thank you so much for this post. I’m ready! :D

  21. #21 Luis
    Florida, USA
    August 17, 2013

    Thank you for this post. I am in school for a bachelor’s in IT but my lifelong dream has always been studying the universe, namely through observation. It helps to know that people of all ages can become involved. I recently celebrated my 31st birthday and thought it perhaps may be too late to restart but I am rethinking it.

  22. #22 Jordyn
    Australia
    August 25, 2013

    I’m from an arts background and I’m really seriously thinking about going to do a math bridging course then studying astrophysics. It’s a dramatic change. I’m just really worried about what people will think and if I’ll just completely fail. Math isn’t my strong point. If anyone reads this, do you think it’s a good/possibly okay idea?

  23. #23 Eminem
    Detriot,michigan
    November 11, 2013

    A yo this is the job its what I might do its complicated never mind

  24. #24 Sarah
    Chicago
    March 19, 2014

    Ethen, I only a freshman in highschool, I am not in any ap classes or honors or any of that just the basics. I live in chicago where I am not really able to look at the stars, and that’s part of the reason that I want to go into astronomy. Anyway, I really want to persue this but the problem is that I am not to good at math or science and we don’t get along very well, I really want to do this but as you said there are more people than there are jobs for this, so what should I do if an extremely average person wants to have a job relating to this?

  25. #25 Sinisa Lazarek
    March 19, 2014

    @ Sarah

    join an astronomy club in your city. I’m guessing Chicago has more than one. As for a job… look for a job in something your actually good at. “I suck at science, but I want a job as a scientist” is a silly statement to say the least.

  26. #26 Ben
    Albuquerque, NM
    May 3, 2014

    Thank you for providing the community with this helpful information! Not only was it helpful, but it was also inspiring in some form. Maybe when I get a little older, I’ll apply for a job at the VLA. Though getting to that point will be tough, it’s a battle worth while!

  27. #27 Frank W.
    México D.F.
    September 8, 2014

    Thanks for sharing this!

  28. #28 alexis
    geargia
    October 1, 2014

    I’m an eleven year old girl this may sound wierd but…… I love astronomy! I started looking into it when I was 9 I think its kinda wierd because I’m young and I’m sure most ppl my age would rather be an astronaut than a astronomer honestly I would want to be both but I need to look up to see if that’s possible in any carrer ^_^ i know u probly didn’t read this far but anyway……….

  29. #29 Priya
    U.P, India
    October 11, 2014

    I m a 12 year old girl.
    I know it is little weird…but me too
    Love Astronomy.
    I m going to plan for my carrier …
    I would too like to be a true Astronaut..
    Hope I would reach to my goal..
    Well thanks…,

  30. #30 Lihini Rajapaksha
    Colombo, Sri Lanka
    October 20, 2014

    That was awesome! I mean I don’t have any help. i mean I’m all alone wondering what should I do. I LOVE Astronomy! Don’t know where it came from..but don’t have the least idea how to learn or go through that. Thanks for the uplifting!!! Appreciate a lot..

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