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I think I'd like to become an astronomer. What degrees and training/experience do I need to become one? I've heard I should take science and mathematics, but I don't know which specific courses I should take and which degrees I would need to become an astronomer.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Jon Ericson Sep 27 '13 at 19:21

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm closing this question since, well, it depends on what you mean by astronomer. If you mean cutting edge researcher in astronomy, the path is pretty clear: get advanced degree(s). On the other hand, I'd say that the first step toward becoming an astronomer is to go outside and look up at night. I would label people who primarily teach the subject as astronomers. But others would disagree. Hence, "opinion based". $\endgroup$ – Jon Ericson Sep 27 '13 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ I think that closing the question rather than asking for clarification is plain wrong. You could simply point the OP to Swinburne Astronomy Online or even Galaxy Zoo and answer their question. In fact, almost every single "star tour" that I give people ask "How can I become an astronomer". The field is so broad, and there is so much work for amateurs to do, that you are doing the OP and the community a disservice by closing this common, valid question. $\endgroup$ – dotancohen Nov 3 '14 at 8:17
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To get into scientific fields as a professional pretty much requires a doctorate these days. This can be in astronomy or your chosen specialty (see below), but many are also in physics; what the subject is called may depend on the institution you attend to get the Ph.D.

Realize that what you and the general public thinks of as "Astronomy" is likely not the same as what the professional scientific world calls "Astronomy". An "Astronomer" studies stars and groupings of stars. Someone who studies our Sun is usually called a "Solar Physicist" or something similar. Someone who studies other planets is a "Planetary Scientist"; this can be further subdivided into "Atmospheric Scientist" (which can be even further divided into "Atmospheric Chemist", "Atmospheric Dynamicist", etc.) and "Planetary Geologist", and so on. A scientist studying the origins of the universe is a "Cosmologist". If you have a particular area you are interested in, research this to find out what you need to learn to move into that field.

Regardless of the degree you pursue, you will need a lot of mathematics and science. During your undergraduate degree, I would recommend the following minimums: 3 semesters of Calculus, 1 semester of Ordinary Differential Equations, 1 semester of Linear Algebra (some schools combine ODE and LA), 3 semesters of Introductory Physics. I'd recommend a semester or two of introductory astronomy, although some schools don't consider that as absolutely necessary, surprisingly. Other useful undergraduate courses will depend on what you think you will want to specialize in, but would include more physics, more astronomy, chemistry, geology, meteorology, etc.

If you aren't yet in college, take all the mathematics and physical science courses you can in high school... unless you're interested in becoming a astrobiologist (someone who studies living organisms on other planets - a speculative field at this point, but it does exist), in which case you should get some biology courses too!

Learning computer programming would be good also, as these fields often require programming for data processing and simulations. Amongst general purpose languages, the Python programming language may be the most popular in scientific environments. Others used include IDL and MatLab. Linux and Mac computers are used more in the science world than in the broader populace.

As noted in Jeremy's answer and its comments, job prospects aren't great for astronomers and related fields. That said, I don't want to discourage you, just prepare you for reality.

Of course, as another answer noted, if you just want to observe the skies, no degree is required, just time and patience.

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  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't define "an astronomer" as "someone who studies stars and groupings of stars", but more than "an observer", in opposition to "an astrophysicist" who is "a theoretician". I'm curious where your definition of an astronomer comes from, since it seems to me that the accepted meaning in the field is closer to what I just said. $\endgroup$ – MBR Sep 27 '13 at 13:20
  • $\begingroup$ @MBR: Perhaps it's a linguistic challenge, but your 1st sentence doesn't really make sense to me. The point of defining "Astronomer" as I did was to differentiate what much of the (American at least) public thinks of as a professional astronomer vs. professionals in the field. This is based on my experiences (providing IT support) at a large scientific space exploration and astronomy institution. My understanding of what you're saying is that there are no professional "astronomers". $\endgroup$ – GreenMatt Sep 27 '13 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, my comment was unclear. In your second paragraph, you say that an "Astronomer" is someone who studies stars and groups of stars. And then you give different names for different subtopics of the field. I would just say that "Astronomer" is a professional observer, whatever you observer (you can be an astronomer and work on galaxies, for example). The main distinction I tend to make in the field is Astronomer vs. Astrophysicist, and therefore "professional observer" vs. "theoretician". Then, there are different "flavors" of both astronomers and astrophysicists. $\endgroup$ – MBR Sep 27 '13 at 14:30
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Well, if you want to become a professional astronomer, there is no obvious answer, since education systems can be quite different depending on your country. But astronomy & astrophysics is physics in the end, so a good training and strong knownledge in physics are definitely required (that involves math for sure). And in countries/universities where you can find an astronomy-oriented degree (at master level most of the time, before that it does not really make sense), you won't be surprised that most of the lectures are actually just physics or math.

Then, to get a PhD in the field is the way to go.

As for the positions, you can find some statistics in this paper released by ESO (the European Southern Observatory) for jobs in astronomy in the 2009/2010 hiring season. Bottom line is there were 65 opened positions worldwilde, that cannot be consider as "a lot".

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There are degrees in astronomy but many astronomers have physics degrees. But there aren't a lot of positions going for professional astronomers (and those that are, you'd better be doing it for love, not money) so besides the degree, you're going to need to stand out from the crowd.

Or you could become what I prefer to call an 'independently funded astronomer' which doesn't require a degree at all, and you still get to do the stuff you love.

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  • $\begingroup$ Do you have a source that says there aren't a lot of jobs going or is this just speculation? $\endgroup$ – RhysW Sep 26 '13 at 11:14
  • $\begingroup$ There really aren't a lot of jobs in this field - although there are a slowly increasing number in the spinoff analysis area, but these aren't astronomy roles as such $\endgroup$ – Rory Alsop Sep 26 '13 at 12:55
  • $\begingroup$ @RhysW: The relative lack of jobs in astronomy has been well known to those in and around the field for decades. I forget the source, but several years ago read that only 1 out of 5 people getting PhD's in astronomy get jobs as astronomers. As Rory said, the others often get jobs in related areas: analysis, support (e.g. Cliff Stoll was a sys admin in a lab), management, education and public outreach, etc. $\endgroup$ – GreenMatt Sep 26 '13 at 14:41
  • $\begingroup$ @RhysW: These are a couple or so years old, but I don't think things have changed a lot since then: blog.professorastronomy.com/2010/03/… and aip.org/statistics/trends/emptrends.html $\endgroup$ – GreenMatt Sep 26 '13 at 14:51

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