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Professional astronomer - how ?

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#1 Voyager 3

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 08:57 AM

I guess , just about everyone in this forum , who knew about astronomy in everyone's golden age ( 5-20 ) wanted to be a professional astronomer/astrophysisist etc . It is interesting to note that there are many numerous branch in astronomy like radio astronomy , astrobiology, planetary sciences and many other fields . I would like to know what are the steps or what sort of education qualifications are necessary ... If you dreamt about professional astronomy , I would love to hear whether you ended up with it or life pulled you into the realistic world , which maybe a sad reality for some of us .



#2 Allan Wade

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 09:13 AM

I started in astronomy when I was 12, and started flying when I was 14. I guess because astronomy had a couple of years head start, I wanted to be a professional astronomer and an amateur pilot. One of the best decisions I’ve made in life was to swap those two around.


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#3 BFaucett

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 09:36 AM

 I would like to know what are the steps or what sort of education qualifications are necessary ... 

 

Here's one example:

 

 

Emily Levesque

 

"Levesque grew up in Taunton, Massachusetts. She received her undergraduate degree in physics at MIT in 2006, followed by a PhD in astronomy at the University of Hawaii in 2010."

https://en.wikipedia.../Emily_Levesque

 

 

"I’m a professor in the University of Washington’s astronomy department. My research program is focused on improving our overall understanding of how massive stars evolve and die.  ...  I’m the recipient of the 2020 Newton Lacy Pierce prize and the 2014 Annie Jump Cannon award from the American Astronomical Society. I’m also a 2019 Cottrell Scholar and a 2017 Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow. From 2010 to 2015 I was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I received my astronomy PhD at University of Hawaii in 2010 and my S.B. in physics from MIT in 2006."

https://www.emlevesque.com/

 

 

University of Washington - Department of Astronomy 

"Emily Levesque’s research interests are focused on massive stellar astrophysics and the use of massive stars as cosmological tools. Her current research program includes panchromatic observations and models of star-forming galaxies and their young stellar populations; host galaxy and progenitor studies of massive star transients such as LBVs, supernovae, and long-duration gamma-ray bursts; surveys of evolved massive stars in and beyond the Local Group; and the properties of Thorne-Zytkow objects."

https://depts.washin...levesque-emily/

 

 

Bob F.


Edited by BFaucett, 18 May 2021 - 09:42 AM.

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#4 siriusandthepup

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 09:38 AM

Want to be a "real" astronomer? Must get a Doctorate degree. I'm sure there are some rare exceptions, but a PhD is a basic requirement.

 

Just want to work at the observatory? Strong technical training or maintenance skills can get you in the door in a support function.

 

Visit some observatory websites and look at employment opportunities. Read!

 

When I was young, I wanted that too. But as I grew up and life happened, I now realize that I have what I want - I'm a lifelong amateur astronomer. No regrets!

 

Study and read science and astronomy. Get yourself a telescope and learn the constellations. Even if you never get to be a professional astronomer, you will have an appreciation for what they do. And you might even feel sorry for them not having the close relationship with the sky that  you develop.

 

If you are burning to be a professional astronomer, apply your talents to study and getting that advanced degree. (a Masters won't do it) Good luck!


Edited by siriusandthepup, 18 May 2021 - 09:39 AM.

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#5 Mizzmi27

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 09:58 AM

I just discovered my love for astronomy in the last year at age 30. I am somewhat disappointed I didn't figure it out earlier but I have a pretty good job as a Civil/Structural Engineer now. I have looked into what it would take to change careers and it seems daunting; as sirius noted it pretty much requires a PhD. I will probably look at other less intensive astronomy-related jobs at some point (observatory, museum, binocular/telescope manufacturer, etc).

 

Until then I am "diving" in to the "amateur" realm, reading lots of books (covering observing, constellations, astrophysics, etc), watching lots of videos, getting involved with local groups/clubs and the like.



#6 AstroVPK

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 10:11 AM

I was a professional astronomer until 2017. To my mind, to be a 'professional astronomer' you need to be independently supported by grant money to do astronomy/astrophysics research on a consistent basis or be hired by someone with a grant with the purpose of being paid to do astronomical/astrophysical research but not as a student, i.e. either have successfully applied for a few grants, or be paid by someone with a grant (again, not as a student) to do astronomy/astrophysics. This is not my opinion, just the meaning of 'professional' as opposed to amateur. It does not correlate in anyway with importance of contribution - several renowned scientists made their greatest contributions as amateurs, amongst them William Herschel. 

You can write a grant proposal whenever you'd like, but to realistically stand a chance of getting the proposal or getting hired in astronomy/astrophysics, you need a PhD in Physics/Astrophysics or be working towards one (preferably full-time - grant committees will look for every chance to turn a grant down because funds in astronomy & astrophysics are scarce). Universities with a joint Physics and Astronomy/Astrophysics program offer the PhD in Physics and your dissertation will be on a topic in Astronomy/Astrophysics while other places that have a dedicated Astronomy/Astrophysics department will offer the PhD in Astronomy/Astrophysics - it really doesn't matter one you've earned the PhD. When you start working on the PhD, it's better to be in a Physics department because you can choose another area of Physics to write your dissertation on. For example, maybe you decide (after taking a year or two of classes and listening to some of the departmental talks etc...) that trying to make working quantum cubits using low temperature Josephson junctions is cooler in which case you can pick an appropriate advisor - someone who's research interests and areas of expertise match what you're looking for - and get your PhD in solid state physics. If you were in a dedicated Astrophysics department, you'd have to file some paper work with the office of graduate studies to transfer over... Generally, people choose to do a small project with a potential advisor - this project is sometimes used for the oral qualifier and is sometimes required for a Master's degree - and if all goes well, will sign up to be their advisee. 

As you work on your dissertation, you'll end up publishing atleast 3 - 4 papers. You'll go to AAS conferences and do posters and eventually talks on your research. You get your PhD when your advisor thinks you've made a significant enough contribution to the field to merit the PhD. Assuming that you want to stay in Astrophysics after the PhD, you'll need to apply for postdoc positions. You won't get the postdoc unless you've made a significant contribution to the field that others (the researcher or institution offering the postdoc) recognize. So, when you and your advisor think that you're good to go, you start applying for postdocs and fellowships (e.g. Einstein fellowship, Hubble fellowship, Chandra etc...). The day that you're offered a fellowship or postdoc, most reasonable advisors would convene your dissertation committee (this will not be the first convocation) and determine a defense date that works given when the postdoc is supposed to begin. You now go into a hole, furiously write your dissertation and regularly provide drafts to your advisor for review etc... On your defense date, you give a public lecture on your research after which there is a closed round with your dissertation committee during which they get to grill you on your research. Assuming you pass, they'll sign your dissertation and you submit signed copies to the department, the library, etc... At this point, you have your PhD, through there will be a university-wide convocation at some point during which your advisor gets to hood you. You also have to give the most important talk of your PhD - a ten minute talk at the next AAS - usually AAS talks are 5 minutes but they are generous for newly minted PhDs. This is your chance to give a lightning overview of what you've toiled on over the last 3 - 7 years to your new colleagues. You want to get their attention and have them remember you - it is very very stressful and difficult to squeeze so much content into such a short duration of time so you really have to think hard about your message. Lots of faculty who anticipate having a postdoc position open on the future will come to listen to your lightning talk and this is your chance to stand out on their eyes.
Your first postdoc is when you can rightfully call yourself a professional astronomer without question. Assuming you have landed your first postdoc, you now work furiously on writing paper after paper. Think of a postdoc at being like the that time that Jack Aubrey was first given command of the small sloop HMS Surprise and freedom to make his mark while roaming the open seas. This is your chance to direct your own research with your hiring advisor just providing guidance and direction but treating you very much as an equal. It is a very stressful time in your life because your next postdoc depends on the output of the current postdoc. You have no other responsibilities of note - just do research and produce output. If you work incredibly hard and are very lucky, you'll get a second postdoc. Two postdocs are almost mandatory in the field, with only the most outstanding people being able to get away with single postdoc. It is unheard of to be offered a faculty position without a single postdoc. Anyhow, during your second postdoc, you start considering faculty and research positions. A lot of people have to do three postdocs before they are able to secure a faculty position and an even larger number drop out and move onto other things in life (such as was my case). Assuming you secure a tenure-track faculty position, you become an assistant professor without tenure but on tenure-track. You now spend the next 4 - 6 years continuing to work furiously to secure tenure. This is judged on a mix of your research, teaching, and service to the University with different parts being weighted differently. At a smaller liberal arts college, they care more about teaching and service while at a large research university, things are more heavily biased towards your research output. The end goal is to get tenure and be promoted to associate professor at which point your can finally stop obsessing over writing papers.


Edited by AstroVPK, 18 May 2021 - 01:29 PM.

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#7 wrvond

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 10:31 AM

@AstroVPK - you make it all sound so --- easylol.gif


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#8 siriusandthepup

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 10:42 AM

 

@AstroVPK - you make it all sound so --- easy! lol.gif

Well, if that's all it takes....

 

ROFL!

 

Voyager - read post #6 carefully several times. Is this what you really want? The academic life?

 

OR - you can join us here and be a lifelong happy amateur astronomer. The choice is yours. :)


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#9 wrvond

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 10:49 AM

<snip>

 

OR - you can join us here and be a lifelong happy amateur astronomer. The choice is yours. smile.gif

I'm not even that. I'm just a stargazer. grin.gif


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#10 adosaj

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 10:53 AM

@AstroVPK, I’m curious, did you ever work for SOFIA?



#11 sevenofnine

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 10:55 AM

Then there's the other side of the coin. If you want to ruin a perfectly good hobby...do it professionally. imawake.gif


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#12 BradFran

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 11:06 AM

B.S. in Physics here... wanted to be a professional astronomer. While an undergrad learned the reality of the field. For every ten PhDs graduating in astronomy, there is only one available faculty position opening up. Intense competition is putting it mildly. Expect to get a BS in Physics, not easy but very doable in 4-5 years. Then get accepted into a PhD program in Physics, Astronomy or Astrophysics at an institution that does active research. Take grad courses (two years), teach undergrad classes, get an advisor and choose (or get assigned) a topic. Do 3-4 years years of hard work on other people's research projects hoping to get your project (thesis) done as well. Once you've made it through grad school (4-6+ years), you immediately have to start doing post doctoral research to establish yourself in your chosen (or assigned) sub field. Only then do you have a chance at getting a faculty position as an astronomer (tenure track professor). If you do manage to get one, it means you will teach classes, manage grad students and post docs, beg for funding and maybe do a little research when your not doing the first three. Long hours, high competition, lots of collaboration... to be a professional astronomer.


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#13 csrlice12

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 11:25 AM

Simple....just beam in...but be prepared for questions about how you did that.


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#14 DSOGabe

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 11:32 AM

That was one of my dreams as a kid. Later on I discovered the level of math needed and at the same time I discovered that I was and am a total idiot at math. So much for that!


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#15 siriusandthepup

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 11:43 AM

I love music, but can't sing a lick and have no musical talent at all. Sometimes in life we just have to honestly evaluate what we can or can't do.

 

Just because I have no musical talent doesn't impact my enjoyment or appreciation of good music or a brilliant singer. Never really appreciated how tone deaf I am until I watched YouTube videos of vocal coaches judging singers voices and music.  Do enjoy those vocal coach's critiques.

 

The same applies to astronomy. You need no physics or math to appreciate the beauty and wonders of the universe - all you need is desire!


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#16 DEnc

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 11:52 AM

On a different tack, Harold McGee started his education in astronomy at CalTech, then switched to literature; next, a Ph.D. in romantic poetry; then a long career writing...cookbooks!  But in the context of science.  Favorites:--

 

On Food and Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen

 

Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World's Smells

 

 


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#17 sanbai

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 01:07 PM

Well, if that's all it takes....

 

ROFL!

 

Voyager - read post #6 carefully several times. Is this what you really want? The academic life?

 

OR - you can join us here and be a lifelong happy amateur astronomer. The choice is yours. smile.gif

 

Come with us to the dark side site!

 

btw, I'm a happpy man with a PhD in organic chemistry (and subsequent related non-academic jobs), leaving my love for astronomy in the amateur realm. I just enjoy the views, lusting with equipment, and reading books/magazins for amateurs. I liked physics and math, but not as much as required. Astrophysics is physics on astro-stuff. Read "The last stargazers" from Levesque, it will be illustrating.

 

if you are interested in a side astronomy specialty, you have also some possibilities in Chemistry, Biology, Biochemistry, Geology, or even optics, aeronautics or history. Choosing a research group there doing something related to astronomy may be more difficult, and the burdens to become scholar are still there. You can also deviate toward astro-topics once you het a faculty position in scuch disciplines (with lot of reading to get up to the state-of-the-art).



#18 AstroVPK

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 02:21 PM

@AstroVPK, I’m curious, did you ever work for SOFIA?

 

SOFIA is near -> far IR, which is why it tries to fly so high to get as much (variable) water vapor absorption out of the way as is possible. I was looking at AGN variability and pretty much all my data (Kepler + SDSS) was in the visible. It's possible to use a spectral energy distribution (SED) to infer the photometry of the object in a different part of the spectrum (this is called a k-correction) but 

a. unless a visible -> far-IR spectrum exists of the specific AGN that I'm looking at with SOFIA, I'd have to use a template constructed either from a representative set of AGN or from tools that simulate SEDs based on stellar populations, presence or absence of an AGN at the core, dust contamination in the AGN host etc.... These kinds of SEDs are known as synthetic SEDs and work reasonably well for things like using Photo-Zs for certain cosmological studies where the errors from numerous objects average out, but carry too much error for studying the variability of individual objects.

b. AGN exhibit color variability, so even if we used the exact SED of the object, it'd introduce some error because we wouldn't have the tilt of the SED rigt.



#19 Virtus

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 02:55 PM

SOFIA is near -> far IR, which is why it tries to fly so high to get as much (variable) water vapor absorption out of the way as is possible. I was looking at AGN variability and pretty much all my data (Kepler + SDSS) was in the visible. It's possible to use a spectral energy distribution (SED) to infer the photometry of the object in a different part of the spectrum (this is called a k-correction) but 

a. unless a visible -> far-IR spectrum exists of the specific AGN that I'm looking at with SOFIA, I'd have to use a template constructed either from a representative set of AGN or from tools that simulate SEDs based on stellar populations, presence or absence of an AGN at the core, dust contamination in the AGN host etc.... These kinds of SEDs are known as synthetic SEDs and work reasonably well for things like using Photo-Zs for certain cosmological studies where the errors from numerous objects average out, but carry too much error for studying the variability of individual objects.

b. AGN exhibit color variability, so even if we used the exact SED of the object, it'd introduce some error because we wouldn't have the tilt of the SED rigt.

Couldn't have said it better myself! waytogo.gif



#20 Dave Mitsky

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 03:19 PM

https://www.space.co...ng-tougher.html

 

https://astronomy.sw...bes/mercury.pdf

https://aas.org/care...nomy#employment

https://study.com/ar..._Astronomy.html



#21 adosaj

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 03:59 PM

SOFIA is near -> far IR, which is why it tries to fly so high to get as much (variable) water vapor absorption out of the way as is possible. I was looking at AGN variability and pretty much all my data (Kepler + SDSS) was in the visible. It's possible to use a spectral energy distribution (SED) to infer the photometry of the object in a different part of the spectrum (this is called a k-correction) but 

a. unless a visible -> far-IR spectrum exists of the specific AGN that I'm looking at with SOFIA, I'd have to use a template constructed either from a representative set of AGN or from tools that simulate SEDs based on stellar populations, presence or absence of an AGN at the core, dust contamination in the AGN host etc.... These kinds of SEDs are known as synthetic SEDs and work reasonably well for things like using Photo-Zs for certain cosmological studies where the errors from numerous objects average out, but carry too much error for studying the variability of individual objects.

b. AGN exhibit color variability, so even if we used the exact SED of the object, it'd introduce some error because we wouldn't have the tilt of the SED rigt.

I was just wondering if you worked at SOFIA. I see you are in Sunnyvale, so was just wondering :)  I do flight planning for SOFIA. 


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#22 AstroVPK

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 04:53 PM

I was just wondering if you worked at SOFIA. I see you are in Sunnyvale, so was just wondering :) I do flight planning for SOFIA.


Awesome, I'd have loved to have uses SOFIA but no, sadly I did not. I live in Sunnyvale because I work at Intel now making computers go fast (which is also pretty good fun).

#23 rockethead26

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 06:03 PM

I guess , just about everyone in this forum , who knew about astronomy in everyone's golden age ( 5-20 ) wanted to be a professional astronomer/astrophysisist etc . It is interesting to note that there are many numerous branch in astronomy like radio astronomy , astrobiology, planetary sciences and many other fields . I would like to know what are the steps or what sort of education qualifications are necessary ... If you dreamt about professional astronomy , I would love to hear whether you ended up with it or life pulled you into the realistic world , which maybe a sad reality for some of us .

Here are some interesting stories of women astronomers that were just published. Interesting backgrounds and paths to their success. BTW, the individual stories would not open on my Firefox browser, but did in Chrome.

 

Oops, forgot the link:

 

African Stars


Edited by rockethead26, 18 May 2021 - 06:05 PM.


#24 rockethead26

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 06:13 PM

I was just wondering if you worked at SOFIA. I see you are in Sunnyvale, so was just wondering smile.gif  I do flight planning for SOFIA. 

A friend, coworker and (ex) educator at Lowell Observatory is one of the three (I think) telescope operators on SOFIA. She loves her job!

 

To make this on topic for the OP, she started with a college degree in astronomy, started working at Lowell as a public program educator at 21, eventually became a public program supervisor and for grins applied to McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas in 2017 for the position of Telescope Operator. She was hired. Two years later she applied for the Sofia TO position and won that one as well based on her experience running the 100" at McDonald. She is not a professional astronomer, but enables the doing of professional research and she flies all over the world.
 


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#25 adosaj

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 06:27 PM

A friend, coworker and (ex) educator at Lowell Observatory is one of the three (I think) telescope operators on SOFIA. She loves her job!

 

To make this on topic for the OP, she started with a college degree in astronomy, started working at Lowell as a public program educator at 21, eventually became a public program supervisor and for grins applied to McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas in 2017 for the position of Telescope Operator. She was hired. Two years later she applied for the Sofia TO position and won that one as well based on her experience running the 100" at McDonald. She is not a professional astronomer, but enables the doing of professional research and she flies all over the world.
 

I am also not-an-astronomer working in astronomy.  I have MS in astronomy and like many others ended up quitting in my 2nd year of the PhD program I was in.  I have been in an observatory support role for 25+ years and happy with that.  I never had the patience to do visual astronomy or astrophotography until the recent age of cheaper CMOS cameras.  Now it is more like data reduction without having to worry about photometric conditions laugh.gif Much more fun to make pretty pictures than tables or graphs, though that was fun too.


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