Colleges

Sky's the Limit: Majoring in Astronomy

If you take frequent trips to your local planetarium, enjoy perusing the writings of Carl Sagan, or have ever set your alarm for 2 a.m. so you can run out to the backyard to spy a meteor shower, it may make sense to explore whether becoming an astronomy major would be a good fit for your undergraduate stay. This major can lead to a career in astronomy, which studies everything skyward: the stars, planets, galaxies, and mostly anything else with the word “celestial” in front of it. In this role, you’ll likely research and collect data using specialized equipment, including optical and radio telescopes, typically for either a college or university, private research facility, or for government agencies such as NASA or the Department of Defense.

What’s the scholastic path for an astronomy major?

You’ll be taking coursework leaning heavily on math and science, especially physics, as well as astronomy-specific classes that focus on galaxies, celestial bodies, geochemistry and geology, petrology, and even the search for extraterrestrial life.

You can find certain jobs with just a bachelor’s degree in astronomy, but to advance to higher-level positions at colleges and universities and in research capacities, you’ll need to go beyond the bachelor’s degree and get a Ph.D. in astronomy. Once you have that Ph.D., you’ll likely serve in a temporary capacity as a post-doc research assistant for a few years, working under senior mentors. After that, you can literally shoot for the stars for the big-ticket jobs.

So where can you expect an astronomy major to lead you?

Astronomers can study the skies in a variety of earthbound roles.

Graduates with an astronomy degree can become astronomers or astrophysicists, share their interstellar knowledge by teaching at a college or university, or manage a planetarium or observatory, which collects data on and studies astronomical events. With a bachelor’s degree alone, you may continue on to become a secondary school science or even math teacher (with the proper educational certification), find work as an observatory or planetarium assistant, or help build the instruments and tools needed to observe the skies. There are also some government jobs for which you may be eligible.

Your salary could end up in the stratosphere.

The median salary for astronomers in 2016 was nearly $105,000, and the rate of job growth between 2016 and 2016 is set for 14%—a faster-than-average tick.

You’ll likely work in a setting where others are as excited about the work as you are.

Imagine heading every day into a lab or observatory with cutting-edge equipment, ready to scrutinize the latest white dwarf or talk electromagnetic radiation with others who are just as juiced to do the same. Those who gravitate (no pun intended) toward this kind of career usually aren’t clock-watchers—they entered this field because they’re fascinated with the universe and everything in it. There’s nothing better than working in a job that’s a labor of love and passion for everyone involved.

Prestige and fame may await the most ambitious-minded.

If you think you have a mind for figuring out the universe’s most baffling phenomena, you might look forward to becoming a theoretical astrophysicist or cosmologist in the vein of Stephen Hawking or Edwin Hubble, using your mind to help solve outer space’s deepest puzzles. There are even esteemed awards and honors that are up for grabs, including the money prize: the Nobel. Not saying it’s easy, but in 2017, three US scientists won that honor for discovering gravitational waves based on merging black holes. You could end up finishing your career with a big bang!

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