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I realize there are very few to none universities that offer direct specialization of astronomy. If I aspired to be make astronomy my career choice, I'd likely have to pick something like physics and specialize later - or something similar - but that's just my hunch, and I'd prefer to know for sure.

What educational and professional paths optimize one's education and skill set for the occupation of astronomer? How do I become one?

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you should have tried some job requirements site for this. Instead of this one..you might have found a better answer...as you might get some incorrect info here..:) Good luck – Afzaal Ahmad Zeeshan Oct 16 '13 at 7:07
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@AfzaalAhmadZeeshan: Job requirements sites will list necessary skills, but not the necessary paths to obtain them. They also often contain skillsets thought up by HR and recruitment agencies as opposed to actually required for given job. I definitely prefer to hear that from proverbial horse's mouth. – SF. Oct 16 '13 at 7:31
    
To know how you can achieve a skill, you must get a guideline from one who have those skills :) – Afzaal Ahmad Zeeshan Oct 16 '13 at 12:28
    
This question appears to be off-topic because it is about professional skills – Envite May 28 '14 at 8:49
up vote 9 down vote accepted

What you need would be at least the following:

  • Physics: astronomy is physics in the end, and you'll need strong basis in physics;
  • Math: as for any good education in physics, you'll need a reasonable amount of math to be able to become an astronomer;
  • Programming: it's almost impossible nowadays to get away from it. Being an astronomer today implies lots of data processing (to reduce the data, to interpret it etc.), and it involves a lot of coding.

And, as far as I know, in lots of countries/universities, you can find at least few astronomy & astrophysics courses. In some countries, you can even find dedicated master degrees.

With all of that, you'll be ready to start a PhD in astronomy to become a professional astronomer.

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Very true on all points - and here is an example of a Masters in Science (Astronomy) - future.swinburne.edu.au/courses/… – user8 Oct 16 '13 at 8:58
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For French speaking people, there's also a bunch of Masters: at Paris Observatory, at Strasbourg Observatory, in University of Grenoble, at Toulouse Observatory etc. – MBR Oct 16 '13 at 9:02
    
I have heard claims that having a masters degree is not sufficient to be accepted as a "real" astronomer. If your goal is to get a job as an astronomer, I would plan on and expect that a PhD will be necessary. – Donald.McLean May 27 '14 at 4:07
    
For planetary science, maybe geophysics and geology is an alternative? And since astrobiology has become so popular maybe even biology? – LocalFluff May 27 '14 at 6:42
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@LocalFluff Indeed, if you want to go in planetary science, geophysics/geology could be useful (I know a bunch of people with geophysical background who did a PhD in planetary science). As for exobiology, perhaps it is popular in the media, but in practice I know very few people in labs (not to say nobody) working in this area... Some background in biology could be nice, but I would not advise a PhD candidate to focus too much on biology. – MBR May 27 '14 at 15:41

My career path:3-year Bachelor's degree in "Physics with Astrophysics"; PhD in X-ray astronomy; 5-years as a postdoctoral research assistant (two separate posts); got a lectureship at a UK university doing teaching and research in Physics and Astrophysics.

This is reasonably typical. These days, the content of the first degree is not so important - Physics, Astrophysics, Applied Maths all would be ok. "Astronomy" would put you at a disadvantage, since the implication is a non-physical, observational approach; but you would have to look at the course content.

A masters degree or 4-year first degree is usually necessary to get onto PhD programmes in the best places (this has changed since my day). Doing your PhD quickly and writing several publications is usually necessary to proceed any further.

The normal next step is to get a postdoctoral position; preferably somewhere other than your PhD institute. Then after 2-3 years of producing more research papers (2-3 per year), you could try for personal research fellowships. If you can get one of these, or perhaps a second/third postdoc position, and your research is going well and is productive, then there is a few year window in which to get into a tenured or tenure-track position. Getting some teaching experience at this stage is probably important.

For someone on a "normal" career path, it would be unusual to get a University position before the age of 30 (i.e. 8-9 years after your first degree). The large majority of people with a PhD in Astrophysics do not end up doing that for a living.

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