What are the pros and cons of a career in astronomy?

The good things about astronomy are too numerous to count. For many of us, it is a pleasure to be studying the universe. The pluses are that you get to do this as a DAY JOB!!! You are actually paid by your college, or a government contract or grant, to investigate some very exciting aspects of the universe and the objects in it. You are doing work that is truly fundamental, and contributes to the sum total of human knowledge. Your research papers and findings will live on for hundreds of years after you are gone. You might even get to name a new category of astronomical object, or discover something very remarkable and unexpected. Perhaps a new neighboring galaxy to the Milky Way that was hidden from view until you decided to use some new technology to look for it! During off- times, you can even write books or articles for the layman that express your excitement, and communicate some of the exciting discoveries about the universe.

The down side is that the quality of jobs in astronomy is decreasing as more temporary positions lasting 1-2 years, at low salary, are offsetting the traditional secure, tenured or civil service, positions. Most of us are constantly under stress since graduate school, about whether this is our last job in astronomy or not. Many young astronomers may get a 'post-doc' after a long hard battle to get a Phd, and then find their careers terminated because there were no openings for them. Even us 'middle agers' have these stresses, with spades, because after 10 or 15 years as active researchers, some of us may find ourselves too expensive for what we do than younger astronomers willing to do nearly the same work at 20 - 30 percent lower salaries, and with less experience. I have not seen any examples of this, but I cannot imagine it isn't happening. Does this sound familiar? The other stress is the repeated forecasts that the NASA space research budget will be declining by over 30 percent in the next 7 years. For many astronomers, NASA grants are the difference between astronomy as a career and a hobby!

Would I get into astronomy again if I had it all to do over? Yes...absolutely, but I sure would have conducted myself a bit differently in graduate school. I would have 1) Made certain that I got into a very active research group doing projects that consistently won grant money, 2) Tailored my interests to projects that I was technically capable of executing, and 3) Got out of graduate school as fast as I could to beat the crowd!! I mention Point 2 because many of us went into graduate school thinking that we wanted to be cosmologists studying general relativity and black holes. We wasted several valuable years spinning our wheels, in an area that was badly overcrowded with physicists and REALLY SMART PEOPLE!

Return to Dr. Odenwald's FAQ page at the Astronomy Cafe Blog.