Careers in Astronomy

WHAT CAN I DO WITH A DEGREE IN ASTRONOMY?

Many university students are interested in astronomy, but fear that an astronomy major is a sure path to unemployment, or, at best, to a career totally unrelated to science. While only a limited number of astronomy and space science jobs exist, the number of qualified people seeking those jobs is also limited. The next decade should see substantial growth in space-related positions as NASA and the space industry replaces the analysts, engineers and scientists that first entered the field during the period of immense growth that accompanied the Apollo space program 30-40 years ago. Further, a degree in a physical science means that the graduate has developed the concise mathematical problem solving skills which high technology companies desperately need. In general, the employment prospects vary according to the state of the economy and government funding of research, but historically our graduates have been successful in obtaining challenging and rewarding positions. Below we discuss the astronomy programs at Boston University, some of the career opportunities available to our graduates, and examples of Boston University alumni who hold jobs in this exciting field and other fields.

The Department of Astronomy provides a range of courses and programs for students planning careers in astronomy, space science, or related fields. A concentration in astronomy and physics includes a rigorous program of physics and calculus in addition to courses in astronomy. This prepares a student for entry into a graduate program leading to a Masters and/or Ph.D. in astronomy, physics, or a related field. The concentration in astronomy is less intense in physics and calculus, yet still provides a student with a solid foundation in the physical sciences. The planetary and space sciences concentration is a multidisciplinary program including astronomy, geology, geography, physics, and calculus courses. Many students in this concentration enroll in graduate programs in planetary geology.

A BA degree in astronomy, astronomy and physics, or planetary and space sciences prepares students for careers in science education, science management, scientific computing, scientific instrumentation, or science writing (some of which may require one or two years of graduate study). Qualification for such fields is enhanced when students work in the research groups of astronomy professors as work-study, student employment, and/or directed study participants. The opportunity to do so has expanded considerably in recent years as the astronomy faculty has increased in number and in the scope of research projects.

The many alumni with whom we have maintained contact hold a wide variety of professional positions. Several have been data assistants at NASA’s Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore; one became our curator; a number were commissioned as officers in the armed services (through ROTC), one of whom obtained an MA degree in oceanography at the Navy’s Marine/Oceanography School in Monterey; some switched fields to economics, traffic engineering, and other fields in which they used the problem solving skills learned as astronomy majors. Others include scientific computer programmers (one of whom started his own business programming and setting up Web pages for companies), a team member on a telescope construction project at the Naval Research Laboratory, an accountant at the Boston Museum of Science, a data analysis and instrument programmer for NASA’s AXAF X-ray space observatory, a senior research associate in Boston University’s Center for Space Physics, and a few other recent graduates that work in the Center (e.g., one is an instrument designer using CAD programming for satellite and rocket projects).

In addition, there are many examples of graduates who went on to obtain higher-level degrees and rewarding careers. Among recent alumni who obtained master’s degrees, two are professors at colleges in Georgia and Nevada, another is a mission planner at NASA for the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer satellite, and another is an education officer at the Hayden Planetarium of the Boston Museum of Science. Many others received their Ph.D.’s and are now scientists at observatories or university or college professors including our own Professor Spence (B.A. ’83 from Astronomy).

Students with B+ or higher averages in their physics, mathematics, and astronomy courses can usually gain admittance into a first-rate graduate program in astronomy. Such students nearly always obtain financial assistance in the form of fellowships, or research or teaching assistantships. These financial awards usually amount to full tuition remission plus a monthly stipend to cover living expenses. As opposed to most forms of undergraduate aid, graduate school assistance is based on merit rather than financial need.

If past experience is a good guide, a degree in Astronomy, Astronomy-and-Physics, or Planetary and Space Sciences from Boston University is very practical indeed. Visit our alumni page to see the career paths of more of our graduates.