Researcher Q&A FAQ-Astronomy as a Profession

These questions have been answered by the scientists who are part of the Ask a High-Energy Astronmer program.

Becoming an Astronomer/Astrophysicist

QUESTION:
Hi, I'm doing a report on astronomers and I would like to know how it feels to be one. Where did you go to college? Are there any special accomplishments that you have achieved? If you could write back A.S.A.P. it would really help. Thanks.

ANSWER:
Like most astronomers nowadays, I spend most of my work hours in front of a computer. All the data are in digital form, stored on computer tapes and disks; we manipulate and plot the data and theoretical models on the computers to try to discover what is going on. Most of my observations are done using satellites; whenever I actually observe with telescopes at observatories, I really enjoy it because, in addition to taking data with sophisticated instruments, I can go outside and see the night sky full of thousands of stars, without city lights and clouds.

I was born and grew up in Japan; after my undergraduate degree (University of Tokyo), I moved to England and did my doctorate at Oxford --- researchers in any field are very international; I'm one example of that.

I hope you will come back to our web site again in the future: for one thing, we're preparing one-page profiles of various members of this group. Since we take turns answering the questions sent in from people like you, we will have one profile linked from our pages at any given time --- the profile of the person behind these answers. So if you visit our site often, you will be able to learn about other people at the learning center (although this may be too late for your report!).

Hope this helps,

Koji Mukai

QUESTION:
Hi, I am a grade nine student from Edmonton. When I was asked to pick a career, I chose astronomy as the field I wish to study in. This assignment requires us to ask an astronomer several questions about the job. Below are examples of job interview questions and I hope you are able to answer the following.
1. What kind of training is required?
2. What part of the job that you like most?
3. What part of the job that you dislike?
4. What are the company benefits?
5. How can one be promoted?
6. In this type of work, do you need a good background knowledge about computers?
7. Will there be any trips out of the city for work purposes?
8. What are your job responsibilities?
9. Are there any dress codes or uniforms required to wear while at work?
10. What projects are you working on now?
11. What kind of qualifications do I need to become a astronomer?
12. What unions do you belong to?

Thank you very much for your time.

ANSWER:
Hello,

1. See http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/ask_astro/answers/961118b.html

2. I like to think of the universe as a puzzle that we are trying to piece together. Every new discovery I make is fitting another piece of the puzzle.

3. There is a lot of paperwork involved in proposing for more funding. Every job has some bureaucratic parts, but it's not the most fun.

4. I work for a contractor (Universities Space Research Association) to NASA and the benefits are good: retirement benefits, health and dental insurance, generous vacation time and sick leave benefits, etc. The good universities that hire astronomers will all have comparable benefits.

5. Promotions can be in the form of permanent positions, raises, and better titles. Also improved recognition in the astronomy community.

6. It is very unusual in today's day and age for an astronomer not to have a good to very good background in computers and programming.

7. I regularly travel to remote sites for observations, as well as considerable travel to other cities to meet other astronomers.

8. My job responsibilities include designing, building, testing, and flying various scientific instruments. After they've flown, I analyze the scientific data to figure out what we've learned from the experiment and where we should look for the next piece of the puzzle.

9. No dress code. I tend to wear t-shirts and blue jeans unless I'm going to a meeting in which case I'll wear at least a dress shirt and slacks, and sometime suit and tie if I'm giving a talk.

10. Most of my time is currently spent working on a spacecraft called the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) for which I'm Deputy Project Scientist. You can look at: http://helios.gsfc.nasa.gov/ace/ace.html for more information

11. See 1.

12. I don't belong to any unions. There are several scientific organizations that many astronomers belong to: The American Physical Society and the American Astronomical Society for example.

Thanks for your questions

Eric Christian
for Ask a High-Energy Astronomer

QUESTION:
I am a girl in the tenth grade at Westlake High School in Maryland. I am writing to you for information on careers in the field of astrophysics. I have recently been assigned a research paper on the subject of my choice, and I chose to research information on my future career goals. Ever since I was young, I have been intrigued with two things: space and physics. This led me to astrophysics, and I have enjoyed learning facts about the subject ever since.

I would appreciate it if you could send any information you have on the subject, such as: Career listings, pictures, brochures, anything would be of value. I understand fully if you can not reply due to a busy schedule.

Thank you for your time.

ANSWER:
If you are interested in astronomy or astrophysics as a career then much of what you might want to know is contained in a brochure put out by the American Astronomical Society. This is available on-line at

http://www.aas.org/education/career.html

or you can write and get a paper copy from

The American Astronomical Society Education Office,
University of Texas,
Astronomy Department, RLM 15.308,
Austin Texas 78712-1083.

Astronomy is a tremendously exciting field, and speaking from my personal experience it is also a lot of fun. I would encourage you to pursue it if you are seriously interested. At the present time the job market is very tight, but it is risky to predict the situation by the time you finish school.

Sincerely,
Tim Kallman

QUESTION:
About how much would an astrophysicist make in one year's time?

ANSWER:
Your question about an astrophysicist's salary is not easy to answer. There are many factors which determine a scientist's salary -- such as: do you work for an academic institution, private industry, or the government? how many year's ago did you obtain your Ph.D.? in the United States, what part of the country do you live in? All of these factors, and many more, will affect how much your annual salary is.

I can tell you this....every couple of years, there is a survey of scientists working in the United States who have obtained their Ph.D. within the previous two years. The salaries of these folks are averaged into values which "should" be representative of what an astrophysicist makes when starting their career (but it is still not sensitive to what part of the United States one lives in!). The latest values I saw were that the average starting salary for an astrophysicist working at an academic institution was about $40,000 US; for working in private industry, it was about $50,000 US.

Hope this helps you.

Regards,
Laura Whitlock

QUESTION:
I hate to burden your mail box with a possible already asked question, but I am at a critical crossroad in my life. I am an undergraduate attending a local university. I have always had an intense love of mathematics and astronomy and my current major (physics) reflects that. I would like nothing more than to work my way to a Ph.D and spend the rest of my days as an astronomer. My question is this: am I pursuing a degree in a dry field? Will there be any jobs? I have spent many hours wrestling with this dilemma and am now seeking advice. Thank you for your time.

ANSWER:
You ask a question that every one of us who work in the field of astronomy has asked themselves at one time or another. And there is good reason to worry about future job prospects....but then again, you have to ask yourself "would I be happy doing anything else?"

The job market has been, is, and will probably remain very difficult in astronomy. However, it is also a very exciting time for astronomers -- with lots of missions on-going and soon to be launched. There will always be jobs available for those who are talented, eager, and hard-working. This is, I believe, true for all fields...not just astronomy.

You are wise to get your degree in Physics, however. It will afford you many other job opportunities than just astronomy. (I am biased about this ....I got my degree in Physics).

Hope this is of some help to you. Good luck with whatever you decide.

Regards,
Laura Whitlock

QUESTION:
Who (other than NASA) employs high-energy astrophysicists?

ANSWER:
High energy astrophysicists produce new knowledge that then becomes freely accessible to all once it is is published. The production of this new knowledge is considered a 'public good' (to use an economics term) and is therefore funded by the federal government (and the governments of many other countries). This is the case with all of astrophysics and most-all basic research. High energy astrophysics, in particular, is funded in the United States primarily through NASA because the telescopes must be located in space, for the reasons explained at the web site you were browsing (http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov).

As far as actual jobs go, there are many high energy astrophysicists scattered in the physics and astronomy departments of colleges and universities across the nation. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, MA, in addition, hires quite a number of High Energy Astrophysicists. But, the gist of your question is basically correct, regardless of where we reside most-all research in high energy astrophysics is supported by NASA and its counterparts in other countries.

As it turns out, the freedom to study fascinating phenomena is attractive enough that many more young astrophysicists are produced then there are permanent jobs for. The problem is not as extreme as in the arts and professional sports, but it still poses a problem for the newly minted Ph.D. However, unlike many other overly-sought professions, the skills one develops while studying astrophysics are highly transferable to the private sector -- especially the rapidly growing high-tech industry. In fact, these careers are often just as challenging, and much more lucrative, than those actually studying far-away objects.

In short, if you are thinking of a career in astrophysics (or you are advising somebody who is) and are worried about the job opportunities, you are right to be. On the other hand, a degree in astrophysics is excellent preparation for the modern working world --- and you get to study the wonders of the Universe along the way!

Jonathan Keohane
for Ask a High-Energy Astronomer

QUESTION:
I am planning on majoring in Astronomy/Astrophysics. Do you have any information on which institutions are offering the best programs in this field.

ANSWER:
Your question is a good one, but it would be easier to answer it if you told us what your long term goals are. This is because, if you are interested in a career in astronomy, you will probably want to attend graduate school after college and get a Ph.D. If so, then the choice of graduate school is more important to your future career than is the choice of college. In fact, many students in graduate schools in astronomy have undergraduate degrees in fields other than astronomy, such as physics or mathematics. My list of the top graduate schools in astronomy includes: Princeton, Caltech, UC Berkeley, and University of Chicago as the top few.

For undergraduate astronomy, I think you can get a good education at many colleges or universities. As with many things, what you put into your education can determine what you get out of it. I think that you would find that if you polled the students entering the top graduate schools that they come from a wide range of college backgrounds, including both public and private institutions, liberal arts colleges and large universities.

I hope this helps!

Tim Kallman
for the Ask a High-Energy Astronomer Team

QUESTION:
I am extremely intrigued by bioastronomy and I was wondering where you go to study this field of science and how many college degrees you must obtain?

ANSWER:
Bioastronomy, or astrobiology, is interdisciplinary by its very nature, and (as I understand it) includes several different elements, such as

You might be interested in "The Astrobiology Web" at:

http://www2.astrobiology.com/astro/

which includes a directory listing of 'related Organizations, Societies, Institutes, and Programs' --- note, though, that this list includes groups that focuses exclusively on astrobiology and those that are much wider (e.g., the American Astronomical Society).

Best wishes,

Koji Mukai
for Ask a High-Energy Astronomer

QUESTION:
I have a new theory concerning astrophysics. I am writing a study about it and am proving it. Please give me any tips on how to make my theory copyrighted!

ANSWER:
Scientific theories cannot be copyrighted. Science advances by the free exchange of ideas. Publications which discuss theories can be copyrighted, to ensure that authors and publishers receive proper credit for their work. If you would like details of that process, which typically results in the publisher holding the copyright, you might want to talk to the publisher of an appropriate scientific journal or a copyright lawyer. Copyright law is well outside our area of expertise. You could establish priority for your ideas by releasing them on the Internet (to a newsgroup or on a web page).

We are glad that you are interested in astrophysics, but we're concerned that you seem unfamiliar with the way that scientists communicate their work through publication. If you haven't received much training in science it is very unlikely that you will be able to make important contributions to astrophysical theory until you have thoroughly learned the craft. It usually takes several years of intense study and practice at a good university to become competent in even a small sub-field of modern astrophysics - but, quoting a colleague, 'Only those who are familiar with the current state of the art can hope to surpass it'.

Becoming a Physicist

QUESTION:
I'm 14, in the 9th grade and wish to become a theoretical physicist. I have wanted to be one since the first grade (actually I wanted to be a rocket scientist and became more specific). I was hoping you could give me some advice to help me on my way. Any books, magazines, web sites, people, colleges, or any other general advice. Thank you for your time.

ANSWER:
The most important thing for you to worry about at this point is to do well in your classes, especially in math and science. To get a good overview of what we do here at NASA in the area of high-energy astrophysics, check out our learning center:

http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/

There are science-based activities that you may want to get involved with, like space camps. Here is a URL with info. along those lines: http://www.treknet.net:80/spacereport/educlnks.html or

Info. on "Quantum", a magazine put out by the National Science Teachers Association on physics and math is available at: http://www.nsta.org/quantum/

Finally, "Imagine", is put out by the Johns Hopkins University with info. for pre-college students. A recent issue focused on Physics and Astronomy, including some profiles of some of the scientists in our lab. The URL is: http://jhunix.hcf.jhu.edu/~setmentr/imagine.html

I suspect you are already reading magazines like Discover and Scientific American to hear about recent developments.

Good luck,
Andy Ptak

Becoming a NASA Scientist

QUESTION:
Hello. I would like to know what it is like to work for NASA; and does it take a real love for astronomy, to do what you do? What does it take to be able to work for NASA? How long would it take for a high school student to reach that point?

ANSWER:
We're not the best group to compare NASA with other places to work. Because we're here, it must be an organization that particularly suits us! We do think that most people here feel a sense of pride in the NASA mission and that many other people would enjoy working at a NASA Center.

We hope that everyone here cares about and enjoys what they do, whether that is research (in the space, Earth and life sciences) or engineering, or computer programming, or any of the other jobs that must be done for the Agency to accomplish its goals. Work is mere drudgery when it is neither meaningful nor pleasant.

There are many different jobs within NASA. In addition to scientists, engineers and programmers, there are accountants, secretaries, librarians, cooks, security guards, etc. You name it - NASA probably needs it somewhere.

Scientists will typically need to have earned a Ph.D degree in a field relevant to NASA, so they are often in their mid-twenties when they arrive. Engineers and programmers might come straight out of college or later in their careers.

Our advice, if you are interested in working here one day, is to get as broad a preparation as you can. It you're interested in the more technical positions you should work hard on math, the sciences (especially physics) and using computers. Your objectives might change. Also, NASA might be very different in five or ten years - and may be smaller than today. If you've given yourself a good technical education though, you'll be ready for most opportunities.

Good luck!

QUESTION:
How much of a social life do you have?

ANSWER:
If you are wondering whether scientists are all nerds and have no social lives, fear not! Like any other profession, scientists certainly have a range of personalities and are not all alike. However, most scientists do have a love of irreverence and a sense of adventure, which not only makes them fun to party with but also means you meet people who have traveled all over the globe and usually have fascinating hobbies. In addition to taking in the latest concerts and movies when not at work, members of the "Ask a High-Energy Astronomer" team have been known to go white-water rafting, make home-brew beer, sing in rock bands (and get paid for it!), perform on stage, and do some *serious* biking (mountain and touring)!

Also, another common (and untrue) assumption about scientists are that they are all men. About half the "Ask a High-Energy Astronomer" team are women, and the group contains married and single people of all ages.

Whatever career you choose, we hope it provides you with the opportunity to be around as many fun people as being at NASA does for us.

Sincerely,
The Men and Women of the
"Ask a High-Energy Astronomer" Team

Becoming an Engineer

QUESTION:
I am 13 years old and I have long been interested in space and astronomy. I like to construct all kinds of things. I have set a high goal for myself and I was hoping you would have some suggestions on what colleges to attend. I would like to be a robotics engineer for NASA and design space probes. Well, if you have any suggestions about what to do please let me know.

ANSWER:
It is great that you are interested in becoming an engineer and working on robotics for space. Most of us here at Ask a High-Energy Astronomer are physicists or astronomers, so we don't have experience with exactly the things you are interested in. However, we do work for NASA in one form or another, and many of the courses we took in college were the same as those taken by engineers, so we know something about the subject. I would separate the answer into the following parts:

(i) It is generally true that 'better' (i.e. more competitive) colleges provide better educations and job opportunities for their graduates. However, this is certainly not always true. State universities, for example, often provide as good educations as private universities. Some names of private universities which are known for good engineering programs are MIT and Cal Tech. Some of these will have their own laboratories which may be working with NASA on the kind of engineering applications you are interested in; you may be able to get work experience while you are still in school.

(ii) Once you are in college there are summer school programs which can give you an overview of the kind of work going on inside NASA. Our laboratory, Goddard Space Flight Center, operates one of these, and I am sure that there are others at other NASA centers. You can get information by writing to Ms. Maybelline Burrell, Code 100, NASA/GSFC, Greenbelt, MD 20771.

(iii) Finally, I would caution against deciding on your career choice too early. There are many interesting things to do, and by keeping your mind somewhat open you may happen onto something wonderful and unexpected.

I hope this helps.

Tim Kallman
for the Ask a High-Energy Astronomer team