So, you want to get involved in Astronomy?

"An educational system isn't worth a great deal if it teaches young people how to make a living but doesn't teach them how to make a life." -Unknown

Every now and again, people with all sorts of backgrounds -- from some graduate school all the way to having not finished high school -- ask me about getting involved in Astronomy and Astrophysics. Often, people's interest simply come from looking up at night.

I'm not going to lie, this is a huge question, with many different answers. First off, let's start off assuming that you have no background in math, no background in physics, and that you're interested in exploring the Universe, and possibly contributing to what we scientifically know. Where's the first place to go?

Start with your local amateur astronomy club. Many people have this negative idea associated with amateur astronomy; that it's somehow unprofessional. I've got news for you: the average amateur astronomer knows more about night sky observing, than your above average physics & astronomy professor.

That includes me; those of you who are amateur astronomers have probably looked through more telescopes, resolved more objects, and found -- firsthand -- more interesting things in the night sky than I ever have. (Yes, there are other things that I know, but we'll get to that.)

Pretty much every major area in the United States (and many others in most parts of the world) have an amateur astronomy club, where enthusiasts get together and share knowledge, telescopes, and the skies together. In my current city, Rose City Astronomers has telescope workshops, a lecture series, special interest/information groups, and perhaps the best place to start: star parties. After all, perhaps my favorite time-lapse video was taken by an amateur at a star party.

The best way to learn your sky is to get a telescope or even a good pair of binoculars, some good, clear, dark skies, and to get out there and explore it!

But maybe that's not up your alley. Maybe you aren't into observing the skies through an eyepiece yourself. Maybe you're more interested in looking at the spectacular images taken by the greatest telescopes we've ever developed, and seeing what can be done with them. Well, I suggest you check out Galaxy Zoo.

Since the galaxy zoo project started, over 60 million galaxies have been classified thanks to interested "amateurs." In fact, an amateur named Hanny van Arkle found this object in the image above, which even mystified the professionals for some number of months! The object is known as Hanny's Voorwerp, and although it's thought to be related to a quasar, no quasar has yet been found. In fact, the greenish appearance led to the creation of a whole new class of galaxies!

But maybe you want to make a living doing this stuff. What career options are there? Well, in the education arena, there are jobs at planetaria (above) and science museums, as well as many outreach projects. However, these types of jobs usually -- at minimum -- require a bachelor's degree in physics, astronomy, engineering or education.

But if you're willing to get a bachelor's degree, there's a whole wonderful world that opens up to you...

Instrumentation! From telescope-making to cameras, from automated software to grinding mirrors, instrumentation is one of the most fundamental areas of research into astronomy and astrophysics! Jobs range from working for commercial telescope makers like Celestron and Meade to working for colleges and universities, standalone observatories, or national labs. And while there are many people who go through grad school and get their PhD's, that isn't the only way to get involved in this field! For instance, if you wanted to be McDonald Observatory's Telescope Operator, you don't need any special training to qualify. And McDonald -- my example -- is a world-class observatory in Texas!

But what if you want to actually become a professional astronomer? Long nights writing proposals, flying to the observatory, collecting your data, reducing your data, trying to figure out what's a signal and what's noise, etc. If that sounds like a dream to you, then you'll want to apply to graduate school in astronomy and become a professional observational astronomer!

Contrary to popular opinion, you don't spend most of your time looking through a telescope; you hardly ever use an eyepiece at all! Computers take your data; they're far more reliable and the data is permanent!

You can observe with a terrestrial telescope or with a Space Telescope, depending on your project! The most spectacular images ever taken, like this one...

...were taken by professional observational astronomers!

The other route? If instrumentation or observing doesn't do it for you, there's theory, which is the route I went down. This is incredibly math and physics intensive, and you will spend most of your time writing computer code, running simulations, and trying your best to find approximate solutions to unsolvable equations.

It isn't for everyone; it's for the people who love it! And I'm not going to pull any punches, there's a cost. Graduate school in astronomy or astrophysics -- to get your PhD alone -- usually takes between five and seven years. And even then, there are many more people with PhDs than there are jobs as professional observers or professional theorists!

Which isn't to say you shouldn't do it! But you should only do it if you love it, and only if you love it so much that it will be worth the other things you'll need to give up in order to do it well.

For many people (including myself), the payoff is huge! The end result is that I get to think about the entire Universe...

and, as much as it makes sense to anyone, it seems to make sense to me, too. But it's been a lot of hard work, and even for me, there are still huge gaps in my understanding of many things.

But if you've got the time, energy, and drive to do it, you can do this at any age. (I knew someone in his early 50s who was in graduate school with me when I was in my early 20s; he's a professional physicist now.)

And if you don't want to get involved but you still want to learn about this stuff, well, that's one of the major goals I'm trying to accomplish by writing this blog!

So I hope you have a little better of an appreciation for what opportunities are out there, and I look forward to discovering this Universe with you, from the subatomic to superclusters of galaxies, and everything in between!

More like this

Thank you, Ethan, for posting this. It's a little intimidating for an astronomy enthusiast (with a most-unscientific English degree) to feel like she can participate in any coherent discussion of astronomy. I didn't even know we had an amateur astronomers club in Portland. Your blog makes math sound...(almost)!

What if you want to do astronomy professionally but also want to avoid academia? I'm in that boat now - trying to decide if I want to go to grad school.

Speaking of hardly looking through an eyepiece (the eyepiece was pretty much an anachronism 60 years ago though I know a few professionals who had an occasion to use them as late as 20 years ago) many of the younger astronomers I meet these days never even see the instruments they work with (except perhaps in a photograph). I'll excuse the folks working with the various space telescopes - Hubble is difficult enough to get to and I wouldn't recommend a trip to the L2 point to visit observatories like Planck and Herschel. For me every telescope is different and worth seeing. The large ones like Gemini North and Keck are quite spectacular beasts, but one of my favorites (now destroyed, unfortunately) was a 6-inch refractor with a clockwork equatorial mount driven by weights and with a rate lever which could be pushed to select a suitable speed for tracking the sun, moon, planets, or stars.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 03 May 2010 #permalink

"And even then, there are many more people with PhDs than there are jobs as professional observers or professional theorists!"

Ack! Thanks for reminding us who are already in grad school.....

*curls up in a corner and hides*

Re #4 until recently you could always hire yourself as a Quant out to wall street, as any in astronomy has quite enough math to do that (astronomy is almost rocket science in popular terms). If you became a quant after 10 years or so you might have had enough money to retire, put up your own observatory and harken back to the early days of science where wealthy men did science for fun.

Thanks for presenting the Navier-Stokes Equations in their canonical Scaring-The-Bejeebus-Out-Of-People Form :-)

Thanks for posting this Ethan. It is so true.

As an amateur astronomer for the past 15 years, I've built or rebuilt more than a dozen telescopes, recorded asteroid, TNO and lunar occultations in conjunction with the International Occultation Timing Association and scientists with MIT, light curves for the American Association of Variable Star Observers, saw the last 2 total solar eclipses and taught many many people the wonders of the night sky and telescope making, and all without a degree in physics, astronomy or math. I love what I do in my 'hobby' and write about it frequently in my blog. (Now if I could only figure out how to support my family doing what I love!)

Great inspirational and informative post, Ethan. Thanks.

Where I grew up, in North Easton, Massachusetts, in the 1970s, I was very lucky that a guy named Chet Raymo was a physics and astronomy professor at Stonehill College just down the street and he held telescope viewing nights once a week in a pasture near the college, which I attended avidly. And when I went to the University of Maine, the first course I took was intro astronomy, taught by Neil Comins, who had an incredibly infectious approach to the subject, much like you. After that, I was hooked and have been ever since.

I have to say, "Hanny's Voorwerp" is probably the best name for any astronomical object, ever.

I have an engineering background, but theory appeals to me more. What books/journals/etc should I be reading to learn more about the fundamentals of cosmology, especially high precision anisotropy experiments e.g. COBE, WMAP, Planck?


By Brent Kaplan (not verified) on 06 May 2010 #permalink

As a second year university student hoping to go into physics or astrophysics I'm weighing up the pros and cons. I really don't know if I prefer theoretical of observational astrophysics at the moment I've taken an observational course at uni and it's been pretty exciting I'm taking theoretical next semester though.
Thanks for this article it's really been helpful :) I'm hoping by the time I've finished my undergrad and gone onto PhD it won't be as difficult to find a job as an astrophysicist

Hey Ethan, thanks for the post. I have a question. I have an BS in mathematics, and although I probably won't pursue astronomy in high education or as my career field, I'd like to get involved and apply the my knowledge of mathematics to technical problems in astronomy for fun. Is there any avenue for this or is that the sort of work only graduate/phd students are entrusted with.

The maths you'll need for astronomy are 18th century at best, Neil.

The technical problems come with modelling stellar evolution, the consequential problems of observations and some highly abstruse theoretical stuff for cosmology.

I suppose something to start you on is one of two things fairly common for post-grad work:

1) climate modelling of another solar system body. Mars is usually picked

2) redshift patterns of stellar emission lines for a star with planetary bodies.

Neither really constitute much fun, but depending on whether you want nonlinear systems (climate) or decompositional problems (redshift untangling) to play around with.

the photos are soo amazing. creation,essence......we. i like existence

By سمیرا - samira (not verified) on 07 Dec 2012 #permalink

I am into the time of ACTUALLY choosing my subjects based on the profession I want to join and this was very helpful! Made me want to become an astronomist even more. Thank you so much for this post. I'm ready! :D

Thank you for this post. I am in school for a bachelor's in IT but my lifelong dream has always been studying the universe, namely through observation. It helps to know that people of all ages can become involved. I recently celebrated my 31st birthday and thought it perhaps may be too late to restart but I am rethinking it.

I'm from an arts background and I'm really seriously thinking about going to do a math bridging course then studying astrophysics. It's a dramatic change. I'm just really worried about what people will think and if I'll just completely fail. Math isn't my strong point. If anyone reads this, do you think it's a good/possibly okay idea?

A yo this is the job its what I might do its complicated never mind

Ethen, I only a freshman in highschool, I am not in any ap classes or honors or any of that just the basics. I live in chicago where I am not really able to look at the stars, and that's part of the reason that I want to go into astronomy. Anyway, I really want to persue this but the problem is that I am not to good at math or science and we don't get along very well, I really want to do this but as you said there are more people than there are jobs for this, so what should I do if an extremely average person wants to have a job relating to this?

@ Sarah

join an astronomy club in your city. I'm guessing Chicago has more than one. As for a job... look for a job in something your actually good at. "I suck at science, but I want a job as a scientist" is a silly statement to say the least.

By Sinisa Lazarek (not verified) on 19 Mar 2014 #permalink

Thank you for providing the community with this helpful information! Not only was it helpful, but it was also inspiring in some form. Maybe when I get a little older, I'll apply for a job at the VLA. Though getting to that point will be tough, it's a battle worth while!

Thanks for sharing this!

I'm an eleven year old girl this may sound wierd but...... I love astronomy! I started looking into it when I was 9 I think its kinda wierd because I'm young and I'm sure most ppl my age would rather be an astronaut than a astronomer honestly I would want to be both but I need to look up to see if that's possible in any carrer ^_^ i know u probly didn't read this far but anyway..........

I m a 12 year old girl.
I know it is little weird...but me too
Love Astronomy.
I m going to plan for my carrier ...
I would too like to be a true Astronaut..
Hope I would reach to my goal..
Well thanks...,

That was awesome! I mean I don't have any help. i mean I'm all alone wondering what should I do. I LOVE Astronomy! Don't know where it came from..but don't have the least idea how to learn or go through that. Thanks for the uplifting!!! Appreciate a lot..

By Lihini Rajapaksha (not verified) on 20 Oct 2014 #permalink

Thanks Ethan, I enjoyed /got intrigued by treading your views. The damn picture of universe and time line has taken me back to "step one" - WHAT is outside the envelope? More sleepless nights........

And season greetings to all.

By Ronnie Veitch (not verified) on 24 Dec 2014 #permalink

I have always loved this topic since as far back as I can ever remember, and want so badly to make it my future. I can learn anything I am shown, but my past put me on a different road than graduate school. I landed at Finance in the telecommunications field. I will always keep hope.

Wow! I am only 12 years old,but I just feel something telling me that this is the path I should follow. It is so disappointing that there is no coarse in astronomy in Botswana.I just wanna say soon I will be coming in this world on discovery with a big bang.
DISCOVERY AWAITS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thank you for sharing this with us. I am 33 and starting college classes this fall, I am and always been really interested in astronomy. I have been thinking about what to major in, my heart is set on astronomy but my head says im to old. Hearing you say your never to old and about the 50 yr old in your class lets me no its not to late. Thank you

Thanks for sharing your information with us,i am 16 and i am still studing,since i was 10 years i have been dreaming of being an Astronaut,but now i want to fullfill my dream,but i planning on going to the U.S to reach my dream maybe is a sign of a good thing and thank you for encouraging thanks

I'am a student of 11th standard.I love to watch the skies and I dare to know more.Thank you for the information,THANKS

hi , please help me and tell me what shoud id im so poor in maths and i want to take part in astro field resarcher

Hii.I am now studing in 9th grade and i wants to be an i want to ask u that is nasa have any vacancies for astonomer job..because in future i was thinking for joining nasa as an astronomer ....hope nasa give job to well qualified astronomers from india.

please kindly if possible then reply to my comment fast because i need to know urgently....
Advance thank u for replying.

please waiting...!!!!:D

HAI, iam thamizhini iam very interested in astronomy and i want to become a well known astronaut iam a middleclass family but although i want to be an astronaut i believe i can reach my goal in future iam only 12 years old but i want a pair to share all my ideas if any body is willing to keep partership with me please call me at 9943724667.

By THAMIZHINI.M.G (not verified) on 01 Jun 2016 #permalink

i wanna study in astrophysics to spaces and planets so give me a right a guideline to 7226903442

Variant questions come all the time in my mind, such as Who created this huge universe? If God created it, then who created God? What was God doing before the creation of Universe? If God didn't create the universe, then how it was created on her own. Big Bang theory doesn't satisfy me as Big Bang was, according to scientists, come out from a tiny ball. But the question remains to be asked that where the tiny ball came from? What was before the tiny ball? if there is God, why he/she doesn't come out to show her/his face? Why is he/she hiding himself/herself? Who we are? Why we are here? Why billions of species are created?.................etc. I have such kind of thousands of questions? I think the secret of universe is the most serious issue among all issues of the world. How can we enjoy our lives even we don't know who we are? All people must strive to discover the secret of the universe? I want to spend my whole life in discovering the secret of the universe? I want to do PHD in Cosmology. But there is a problem. I have done M.A. in Arabic and don't have school background. I studied in Madrasa which only teaches outdated Islamic teachings. What should I do now? Would someone plz help me? My Email Address is:

By Abdul Ghafir Javed (not verified) on 27 Oct 2016 #permalink

"Variant questions come all the time in my mind, such as Who created this huge universe?"

Why must someone have created this universe?

Why have you never asked yourself that question?

Why would it be god, if all it did was make a universe?

"Big Bang was, according to scientists, come out from a tiny ball."

No, that's according to you, not the scientists. Given that your claim is your own, maybe the scientists are right, it's merely you who are wrong.

Why did that question never occur to you?

Thanks for this contribution. I am also interested on the theoretical side of astronomy --- astrophysics. I have an engineering degree, but looking at the (mathematical models) basics of astrophysics, it does look mind boggling. I'm only at the starting point of knowing the navier-stokes equation, which i am hoping to start me off with the next level - magnetohydrodynamics - an even more difficult than navier-stokes because, as i heard, it combines NS equations and Maxwell's equations.

I dont know how far it will take me but, just like most, i'm doing it for fun!

The main reason that stirred my interest in astronomy (astrophysics) is beacuse I've got a theory on planetary evolution, which may include orbital and rotational evolution.

Can you advice which software can i best use (efficiently and economically) to simulate my theory? Thanks!

thank you so much for posting this, I have learned alot from this blog thank you so much

By Andrei Ward (not verified) on 12 Mar 2017 #permalink