So you want to be an astronomer

Astronomy research makes for an interesting and challenging career! In my experience, it’s one of the more collaborative physical sciences, and it’s one of the most fascinating things I could possibly be doing with my time. I’m regularly asked for my advice by high school and college/university students on what they should do to become a professional astronomer, so I’m sharing it all here. Other professional astronomers like Prof. Katie Mack also have advice on their websites!

High school

Take physics, math, and computer programming (if offered). It will be most helpful to you if you can take pre-calculus and calculus 1 in high school, and AP/IB/honors physics (if available). Statistics is also very useful, but unfortunately you may have to choose stats OR calc, and I would probably recommend calculus for now (but listen to your teacher’s advice, since they know you and your program best). Much of astronomy is actually done with writing scientific research software for data analysis or simulations, so having a programming background is SUPER useful!

You can also look into summer research opportunities at your local college or university. As a researcher, it is often difficult to hire a high school student on their own for research, so it’s best to go through established programs. Check online for summer research opportunities both in your area and (non-local) residential programs.

When looking at colleges/universities, keep in mind that not all programs are equally rigorous. Many times, astronomy is part of a physics (or sometimes physics & astronomy) department, so you will take lots of physics classes. Do undergrads take two semesters of upper-level Electricity & Magnetism? Two semesters of upper-level Quantum Mechanics? Can undergrads take graduate-level classes if they complete the pre-requisites? Both small liberal arts colleges and massive public research universities can have rigorous physics and astronomy programs, so ask questions! Also ask what research opportunities there are for undergrads on campus (in addition to summer research), and how many students go on to grad school (if you think that’s something you might want to do).

Keep up with your athletic and artistic pursuits. Hobbies are good for the soul.

College/university

Again, take physics, math, computer programming, and astronomy (if offered), and meet with your advisor to be sure you’re fulfilling the course requirements for your degree. Make study groups with your classmates, and ask questions at office hours with your prof and/or teaching assistant. College is when the training wheels start to come off and you transition to being a self-driven learner, so your coursework will transition from being formulaic plug-and-play to being multi-stage problems that help you synthesize different aspects of the course material.

Talk with your academic advisor about research opportunities, both during the semester and the summer. Different universities have policies about doing this for course credit vs. being an hourly employee, so ask questions, accept advice from your mentor(s), and do whatever is best for your personal situation. Building on a former student’s research project is great experience, and is true to how most research actually goes!

Applying to grad school

If you decide that you really like research and want to pursue graduate school, talk with your academic advisor (and research advisor, if they’re different people). Again, listen to their advice. Chat with grad students, postdocs, and profs who work in areas you’re interested in, and ask them what classes are most helpful for studying that field. Remember that grad school in the US and Canada (and post-MSc PhD programs elsewhere) is *paid* and tuition is either covered by grants or very inexpensive. You should not be taking out a loan to go to grad school in the sciences. Iterate with your advisor (and even a writing tutor) on grad school application materials, and give your letter writers ample time (like 4 weeks notice) for the letters of recommendation. You can also ask a letter writer to include specific pieces of information to explain any discrepancy in your transcript, like if you had health problems and that’s why your grades dropped one semester.

Policies vary based on country and school, but often times you’ll be invited to visit either as an interview stage or after you’ve been accepted to grad school. Take this opportunity to chat with professors you want to work with, grad students (to see how happy they are and how much they’d recommend the program), and get a feel for the location and whether or not you could realistically live there for 6ish years. If you’re part of an underrepresented demographic and you don’t see anyone else from that demographic at that school, ask questions of mentors and current grad students (there and elsewhere) to figure out whether there’s a notable systemic problem there, or there just don’t happen to be any students of that demographic there at that time.

You should know that there’s a mental health crisis among graduate students, and graduate school is HARD (both emotionally and mentally). Part of the difficulty is because you’ve chosen a particular path and that path is challenging (research is part exploration and part banging your head against a wall). You’re also in a life stage with a lot of existential angst and growing pains as you figure out what kind of adult you are and what kind of life you want. Advisor fit is one of the better predictors of mental wellbeing among graduate students, so pick someone who you mesh well with and who you think will support and inspire you. Your advisor makes or breaks your grad school experience — a great advisor will help you find a niche that plays to your strengths in whatever sub-field you find interesting (like high-energy astronomy, or exoplanets, or quantum information, or optics); a negligent advisor will amplify feelings of loneliness and isolation, which can cause you to dislike a research topic that you might otherwise think you love. It can be tricky to judge the quality of a working relationship based on short interactions, but chatting with grad students (both in their group and not) can help fill in the picture.

Some final thoughts

Above all, know that it is very normal to change your dreams, and change your major, and change your job. There are new and varied challenges to being an astronomer as you move along the path from undergrad to grad to postdoc (and presumably to professor). There is more than one way to be an astronomer, and the community as a whole needs people with varied talents and areas of expertise — not just research, but also outreach, teaching, advocacy, etc. Building your own support network of peers and mentors (more senior grad students, postdocs, and profs) can help you find your own path to success!

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