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Professional astronomer - how ?

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#26 adosaj

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 06:38 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!

 

Also, she will be going to Tahiti in mid-July grin.gif



#27 rockethead26

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 06:41 PM

Also, she will be going to Tahiti in mid-July grin.gif

Yeah, I know. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it!


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#28 Napp

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 06:47 PM

I wanted to be a professional astronomer.  I majored in physics when I went to college.  Along the way I discovered what was involved.  I also started taking electronics courses.  At the time just an engineering degree and a pulse meant multiple job offers at good starting salaries.  I ended up lured by the opportunities of being an electrical engineer and changed majors.  When I went to work for IBM at the Kennedy Space Center working on the Space Shuttle Program.  Eventually IBM pulled most of its folks out for other pressing IBM projects.  I decided to stay with IBM.  I don't really regret the decision not to chase being an astronomer.  However, I sometimes question if leaving the space program was a good decision.  I really enjoyed it there. 


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#29 Hax

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Posted 18 May 2021 - 06:47 PM

Math
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#30 fate187

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Posted 19 May 2021 - 09:11 AM

I wanted to study astronomy just prior finishing school. But hobbies slightly shifted when I became an adult and so I studied physics instead. Astronomy wouldn't have been too different, at least for the first 2-3 years. I still chose to specialize in semiconductor physics. Overall I would say it was a good choice. I noticed, that I am not as eager in the whole science and research as some other much more knowledgeable people. So I gave them room smile.gif. Also salary is better in industry jobs compared to public subsided facilities and jobs like observatories. Which may have been the deciding factor back then. I do enjoy the hobby as it is though grin.gif bounce.gif


Edited by fate187, 19 May 2021 - 09:12 AM.

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#31 csrlice12

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Posted 19 May 2021 - 10:07 AM

There are quite a few older folks out there now who had career changes due to wars....not a fun fact, but a fact nonetheless.



#32 Tim Hager

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Posted 19 May 2021 - 12:00 PM

I looked into it about 30 years ago and actually got a master's degree in astronomy.  However already supporting a family and with the probability of moving several times for postdoc jobs and the uncertainty in employment prospects, I decided to stick to amateur astronomy. 

 

Read everything AstroVPK says in his first post.  That is the classical path to professional astronomy these days. You need a ton of math, physics and it's pretty much essential these days to be able to know a few computer langauges and packages today.  Know that even if you become an observational astronomer, you'll be spending most of your time looking at a computer monitor and working on your data.  But if you enjoy that sort of thing, it can be fun.

 

You can get pretty sophisticated as an amateur in the science end of things doing photometry and spectroscopy.  However most of the time your funding agency will be yourself unless you're lucky enough to somehow be associated with a local club or educational non-profit observatory.  The advantage to that is that you and pick and choose your projects and work as much or as little as you want on them. 


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#33 RalphMeisterTigerMan

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Posted 19 May 2021 - 12:43 PM

Thank-you AstroVPK. You explained it beautifully. I would like you to hear my thoughts on Amateur and Professional Astronomers. No disrespect intended towards our Professional counter-parts!

 

When I tell people that I am an Amateur Astronomer, people ask what the difference is. So I tell them, Professional Astronomersget paid to do Astronomy and I do it for fun. So when they ask me, why don't you do it Professionaly so that you can "get paid to do it".

 

Because I say (without getting into the whole rigamarole about years of University education and student loans that my great-grand-children would still be paying off) Then IT Wouldn't Be "Fun" Anymore!

 

What's the point of being an Amateur Astronomer if it isn't Fun and Enjoyable!

 

Clear skies and keep looking up!

RalphMeisterTigerMan


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#34 bortle2

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Posted 19 May 2021 - 01:35 PM

 

SOFIA

Another very important requirement (along with PhD, postdocs, etc.) is to be able to invent cool acronyms for your proposals. If you can't do that, no-one will take you seriously, ever!

 

Astronomers lead the way for the humanity in that area, so you must be at least on par.



#35 AstroVPK

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Posted 19 May 2021 - 04:44 PM

Thank-you AstroVPK. You explained it beautifully. I would like you to hear my thoughts on Amateur and Professional Astronomers. No disrespect intended towards our Professional counter-parts!

 

When I tell people that I am an Amateur Astronomer, people ask what the difference is. So I tell them, Professional Astronomersget paid to do Astronomy and I do it for fun. So when they ask me, why don't you do it Professionaly so that you can "get paid to do it".

 

Because I say (without getting into the whole rigamarole about years of University education and student loans that my great-grand-children would still be paying off) Then IT Wouldn't Be "Fun" Anymore!

 

What's the point of being an Amateur Astronomer if it isn't Fun and Enjoyable!

 

Clear skies and keep looking up!

RalphMeisterTigerMan

 

Student loans aren't a huge concern - your education will be loan free after your BS (and potentially also during your BS). Pretty much every graduate program of worth supports its students through a mix of teaching duties and research grants. It is very important to ask what fraction of students are supported on research grants and what the department guarantees when it comes to supporting the rest via teaching assistantships. It helps if the University has a large engineering program since every engineering major has to take a full year of basic physics.

 

Now, with federal funding on the decline (my former advisor likes to say that when he was a grad student, it was 1 in 2 grants and now it is closer to 1 in 12 or so...), you need a correspondingly larger student body to support teaching assistantships.


Edited by AstroVPK, 19 May 2021 - 04:48 PM.

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#36 Voyager 3

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Posted 20 May 2021 - 12:07 AM

Also did any of you have astronomy related lessons in your syllabus ? I'm 10th grade and I'm ashamed to say that I've not had lessons related to astronomy after 3rd Garde and that too they were just solar system ! I would like to add at least a single lesson related to astronomy in science at least till school level ! It's the only way , we can increase the general public's knowledge in astronomy .



#37 LauraMS

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Posted 20 May 2021 - 12:32 AM

I wanted to become an astronomer since I was a child. Went to the German equivalent of highschool and during that time ground my own 6 inch mirror and built my own Newtonian telescope. And got started with my interest in computers (at that time a single board computer KIM-I with the incredible size of 1kB of memory, which had to be programmed in hexcode - not even assemlber language. Since those times I do know how to deal with bits and bytes gramps.gif ) And later started studying physics for the reasons AstroVPK described. At the end, during my last two years, I had to chose a minor field of study which of course was astrophysics. This subject was the reason why I selected the university I selected for my studies: they had an what I thought was an university observatory. Basically, it was an astrophysics institute. Listened to introductory lectures on astrophysics, some more specialized ones on stellar development and hydrodynamics. Did the required  internship which was prerequisite to be allowed later to write a diploma thesis there.

 

However, I went to a institute which developed special ccd detectors for the XMM-Newton x-ray satellite mission. I wanted to understand how these strange devices they called "CCD" would work grin.gif  (it was during the time when the Berlin wall fell, so looong times ago).

 

I had a key experience during my astrophysics studies: we students who were interested in a later thesis in astrophysics also had to attend a seminar series on an actual research topic, and also we had to give a talk on current science. In my case it was supernova SN1987a which had occured just a few years before, and first research papers had been coming out.

 

I attended a seminar series on SN1987a - a whole semester only talks on that fascinating supernova: type IIa, which is quite unusual. And there was the initial impression that radiation from the supernova would travel with a speed significantly quicker than light - which is impossible. One of the many aspects of Einstein's theory of relativity. Quite soon it became clear that this was a geometrical effect.

 

Personally, it was great to realize as a student that I was able to understand current cutting edge research papers. And I did great in front of all the astronomers listening to my talk. But what caused lots of irritation in myself was that I understood the strange remoteness of astrophysics research: one of the interesting observations related to SN1987a was the observation of a total of 25 neutrino events related to that supernova that were observed at four places around the earth. And there were probably the same number of theories published to explain those rare events. My irritation came from the fact that these theories were all completely different from each other, and I realized that nobody living on this planet would ever be able to go there and see which theory would be correct. And nobody would ever be able to make an experiment i.e.change something and observe what happens to understand reality.

 

Today I do know that this is just how research works, not only in astronomy. But at that time it irritated me so much that I wanted to earn my living with something more 'down to earth', something more directly for the benefit of humans, that I decided against a career in astronomy and turned to biomedical research.

 

I still have that interest in amateur astrononomy and computers, occasionally read reserach papers on solar astrophysics and instrumentation (in my research we do a lot of applied computer simulations and also use AI methods like machine and deep learning), but it is not my profession  ... .

 

Professional astronomy, just like every professional research, is not a romantic science with sitting below the romantic night sky gazing at some stars. Just like every cutting edge research (or business) it is mostly: professional. Strong rules if you are young, intensive competition. AstroVPK has nicely described the path to it, Emiliy Levesque in her recent book described some of it as well in a lividly. You like that or not. If not, there still is amateuer astronomy Dobsonian.gif


Edited by LauraMS, 20 May 2021 - 12:39 AM.

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#38 Gastrol

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Posted 20 May 2021 - 01:28 AM

Hmm, it was never my thing to seek a career out of any of the hobbies I’m currently or have been involved with.


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#39 edwincjones

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Posted 20 May 2021 - 05:15 AM

it has been my experience that what began as a fun hobby

becomes less fun/enjoymenet as one gets deeper into it.

 

 

edj


Edited by edwincjones, 21 May 2021 - 04:33 AM.


#40 sanbai

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Posted 20 May 2021 - 06:24 AM

My recommendation would be to start a major in physics and realize which topics one likes the most. As one approach the moment of specializing (in astronophysics or whatever) there will be a better understanding of the job and which ones would really like to do in the broad field of physics.

 

During my college years I realized that Organic chemistry was what I liked the most within Chemistry, so there I went.

 

If understand well, the first year in US college is quite a mix of topics, even unrelated. Maybe one realizes there that physics is not really the topic (or that yes, it is).

 

In college, approach an astrophysics department/professor for a sumner internship (paid or not), helping a research group. That will show you soon enough the guts of the job.


Edited by sanbai, 20 May 2021 - 10:20 AM.

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#41 rockethead26

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Posted 20 May 2021 - 09:55 AM

To the OP, remember too, that the field of astronomy is no longer limited to physics, astrophysics and planetary science. Careers are now open to astrochemistry, astrobiology and astrogeology where the udergraduate work is in the specified field with graduate work focused on the astro/planetary sides.


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#42 sunrag

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Posted 20 May 2021 - 01:42 PM

I too wish I could have studied Astronomy. Will be nice to have access to the best telescopes in the world!

But after reading AstroVPK's post, I was reminded of my own struggles with getting a Ph.D and doing Post-doc - don't ever want to re-live that again. 


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#43 siriusandthepup

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Posted 20 May 2021 - 03:51 PM

 

My recommendation would be to start a major in physics and realize which topics one likes the most.

My recommendation as well. (I also have a BS in Physics).

 

To be clear - one of the most clarifying thoughts about Physics that I have heard (don't remember where): "You don't get into Physics to learn answers - You get into Physics to learn new questions". Physics will give you a basis for that process.

 

My math skills don't support an advanced/doctoral Astronomy degree. I know that. How do I know? Because I struggled to get through the undergrad high level math and math intensive physics (or insert any engineering degree here) courses. And I studied with students that had those skills. They did the high level math without any stress at all, it was like breathing to them, effortless. I respect those individuals and know that I'm not one of them.

 

Never take Physics to find answers, that's Philosophy. smile.gif

 

If you resemble me in this - get a Physics undergrad for yourself. Then look for something that you enjoy doing to make some money. Something easier - like making semiconductor chips or running a commercial power plant. Then you can afford some astronomy toys/telescopes and support a family. No shame in that path either.


Edited by siriusandthepup, 20 May 2021 - 03:52 PM.

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#44 Astro-Master

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Posted 20 May 2021 - 04:06 PM

When I was 12 years old and bought my first telescope I thought it would be great to be an astronomer and get to look through large telescopes.  My Dad took me to Mt. Palomar several times, and I dreamed about being able to look through the giant 200" telescope.

 

During my high school years I learned just how hard it would be to become an astronomer, and just how little time they had using the telescope.  All I wanted to do was to explore the heavens with a big telescope.

 

It was sometime in the 1980's when the local astronomy club (SDAA) was invited to use the 60" telescope at Mt. Palomar on 4 different nights when it happened, by a twist of luck, or fate, a lightning storm had knocked out the power on Mt. Palomar on one of those nights, and the backup generators were not working well enough for the research computers on the 200" scope.

 

My childhood dream came true that night, we got to look at M15 through the Coude' focus of the 200" telescope.  My 10 year old son was with me that night, and we talked about the view through the giant scope, and how lucky we were to see it on the long drive home.

 

Now in my retirement years, my big scope is my 18" Obsession, and I'm still exploring the heavens from the dark desert skies.  I'm glad I never became a professional astronomer, I get more time observing then they ever will.


Edited by Astro-Master, 20 May 2021 - 04:09 PM.

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#45 AstroVPK

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Posted 20 May 2021 - 05:07 PM

I must admit that the best part of being a professional scientist is that you are encouraged to think about and work on whatever is of greatest interest to you - the level of intellectual freedom is fantastic.

In comparison, I help design chips now - basically I work on hardware-software co-design for AI, which also is very cool, but being commercial, has much less intellectual freedom. I'm encouraged to think about whatever I want as long as there is a good bottom line. Of course, I get paid much better, and most importantly, if I need money/resources to do something, it's available - I don't have to write a 40 page grant proposal and wait 6 months to hear if it'll get funded.

The key is to find a job that gives you the right mix of intellectual freedom and practicality.

Edited by AstroVPK, 20 May 2021 - 05:09 PM.

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#46 Bill Weir

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Posted 20 May 2021 - 08:44 PM

To the OP, remember too, that the field of astronomy is no longer limited to physics, astrophysics and planetary science. Careers are now open to astrochemistry, astrobiology and astrogeology where the udergraduate work is in the specified field with graduate work focused on the astro/planetary sides.

There is also the tech side of things. Someone I know who used to work at the observatory here in my town now lives on the Big Island of Hawaii and is one of the instrument techs for CFHT. He probably spends as much time on the summit of Mauna Kea as anyone. There are many ways to be astronomy associated. 

 

Bill


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#47 gwd

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Posted 20 May 2021 - 09:44 PM

There are many good responses to the question.   I see some "I'm not good at math." comments that remind me that when I graduated High School my teachers and counselors had convinced me that "I'm not good at math."  I was advised not to go to college.  My Algebra teacher said to me "Your brain just can't handle mathematical thinking.".  The career counselor told me to try auto-mechanics or "truck farming".   A science teacher in my last semester was shocked at my knowledge of astronomy and encouraged me to try college and if not that to get a job at an observatory.   He even gave me several blank letterheads with his signature at the bottom and told me if I needed them just type in whatever I needed above his signature.   Long story short I began in remedial math at the local community college- flipping burgers and doing janitorial work at night - and ended up with a "High Honors" degree in mathematics and MS in Engineering.   I never used the fake letters.   

 

So for the young people here,  other people don't define you.  You define yourself over the course of your life.  You work very hard at defining your true abilities, interests  and limits.  Then you die content.    The responses to the question gave you a good idea of what to expect.  Give it a try, work hard and see how it goes.  

 

 


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#48 dr.planet

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Posted 21 May 2021 - 02:58 AM

In general, a Ph.D. is required to be a "professional astronomer" and get research funding through grants or teach at a university.  But there are also a lot of opportunities for people with bachelors and masters degrees, especially if you want to work more on the engineering/technical side of things like design and operation of spacecraft and telescopes, or laboratory work.  I got my bachelors degree in physics and worked with an astronomy professor during my junior and senior year of university, and decided to pursue a Ph.D. in planetary science.  Some of my fellow students were also physics or astronomy majors, but a lot majored in geology or other fields.  For most traditional astronomy Ph.D. programs, most of the students would have majored in physics and/or astronomy as undergrads.  If you're interested in physics, that's a great college/university major because it will give you a good background for a future Ph.D. program in astronomy, but will also prepare you for a lot of possible careers even if you don't decide to pursue astronomy.  And if you can get an internship during college/university at a place like ISRO (I think that's the main Indian space agency), that will be good experience and also expose you to the range of opportunities available in astronomy and space exploration, including many that may not require a full Ph.D.


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#49 VeraZwicky

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Posted 21 May 2021 - 07:28 AM

I'll say what others have basically said.  It is a difficult, but achievable, road to become a professional astronomer, astrophysicist, etc. but there are lots of ways to be intimately connected, without getting the Ph'd.  Writing, technical prowess, and public outreach are three good entry points.  


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#50 dustyc

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Posted 22 May 2021 - 09:21 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.
 

Awhile back, Lowell posted a job for a telescope operator. My first thought was "that would be fun running a scope for research". Alas, one of the requirements was a degree in astronomy. I guess it helps to know where targets are! I was thinking a more mechanical background would be required for something like that.




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