So you want to be an astronomer?

A new study including 478 US astronomers provides a glimpse into the world of those who practice astronomy today. “What Do Astronomers Do: A Survey of U.S. Astronomers’ Attitudes, Tools and Techniques, and Social Interactions Engaged in Through Their Practice of Science” was completed by AUI’s STEM Education Development Officer, Tim Spuck. Click here to download a full copy of the dissertation study.

Major findings include:

  • The vast majority of US astronomers are white, as 91% of the respondents identified their ethnicity as white.
  • US astronomers are “older,” as more than 65% of US astronomers have been practicing for more than 20 years.
  • Today, approximately 27% of US astronomers are women, but this demographic may be changing. Women astronomers make up 19% of US astronomers with more than 15 years of experience, however, women make up 50% of US astronomers with less than 15 years of experience. It is important to note that this finding may also be attributed, at least in part, to the “leaky pipeline” in astronomy.
  • Overall, there are minimal differences in the practice of astronomy as experienced by women and men, and between astronomers at academic and non-academic institutions.
  • Thinking critically, respect for evidence, honesty, objectivity, commitment, openness to uncertainty, imagination, not rushing to judgment, and intuition are attitudes that US astronomers consider either of much importance or extreme importance in the practice of astronomy.
  • US astronomers today spend, on average, just 10-20 hours per year at the instrument (e.g., telescope) collecting data for their research.
  • US astronomers spend on average 70% of their time working at a computer, iPad, or similar device.
  • US astronomers engage in multiple investigations/research projects (more than five) at the same time.
  • US astronomers do not just use models to organize and explain observations, they use them to come up with new questions, and develop new hypothesis.
  • The most common types of data used by US astronomers in their research include images and spectral line or continuum data from visible light and infrared telescopes.
  • Arithmetic, algebra, and statistics are the types of mathematics most frequently used by US astronomers.
  • Research projects in astronomy typically take more than two years to complete.
  • The performance of administrative/management duties and other bureaucratic tasks are identified by US astronomers as the most frequent social interaction they engage in, as well as something they would like to do less of.
  • US astronomers would like to engage in more education and public outreach activities, and this is equally true for both men and women.
  • Astronomers spend a lot of time writing. More than 70% of US astronomers are considered an author or co-author on 40 or more research publications.
  • US astronomers collaborate with 6-10 colleagues per week.
  • US astronomers have more limited collaborations internationally and with scientists from other disciplines. Fifty-five percent report three or fewer collaborations annually with colleagues in another country, and 51% report no collaborations annually with colleagues in a science/engineering discipline outside astronomy.
  • US astronomers at non-academic institutions have a greater number of collaborators in general, as well as more collaborations with individuals outside astronomy, compared to astronomers at academic institutions.
  • The primary factors that influenced US astronomers in their career choice fall into three categories: pop culture, a personal experience, and a mentor.
  • The exploratory nature of astronomy and making discoveries, and sharing (e.g. mentoring, teaching, education and public outreach [EPO]) with others are the things that make astronomy most meaningful to US astronomers.
  • The vast majority of the changes in astronomy education recommended by US astronomers are in alignment with the major US science education reform initiatives.

The sample text that follows has been informed largely by the findings of this study. It has been developed for use in resources that help inform students about a potential career as an astronomer.

Astronomers today are inspired by the exploratory and problem-solving nature of their work, the discoveries they make, and gaining a deeper understanding about the universe. They point to the beauty and awe-inspiring nature of the universe, and the connection between astronomy and humanity as motivators. Additionally, they find meaning in sharing their work with others through mentoring, teaching, and various education outreach activities

For the most part, astronomy is a math- and computation-intensive science. In preparation for a career in astronomy, students should gain the strongest background possible in physics, mathematics, and computer science. In addition, nearly all astronomers have earned a PhD, and serve multiple post-docs prior to securing full-time employment. Approximately 50% of astronomers work at a university or college, and half are employed at observatory-related facilities or science centers supported by the government or private sector. Astronomers also appear to change jobs at the same rate as the average US worker.

Actual duties performed at the place of employment can vary significantly. At the university level, some astronomers might spend the vast majority of their time teaching classes, while others focus on research and teach no classes. However, most astronomers engage in a combination of research and course instruction. Similarly, some astronomers at observatory-related facilities spend significant time at the telescope or observing equipment in support of other astronomers, or designing new equipment (e.g. cameras or other detectors, etc.), while others spend the majority of their time engaged in data collection and management at a facility thousands of miles away from the observatory itself.

While astronomers point to their time at the observatory as a motivating factor, with few exceptions, astronomers today spend very little time at the telescope or other instruments collecting data. More than half of US astronomers report spending no time at the telescope within the past year, and overall the average astronomer spends just 10-20 hours per year at the telescope collecting data. Modern observatories are located in remote areas of the planet or off the planet all together. Instead, astronomers spend the vast majority of their time at the computer. On average, astronomers today spend more than 70% of their time at a computer engaged in a variety of activities including:

  • searching and/or reading literature related to research or science interests,
  • analyzing and interpreting scientific data,
  • writing or modifying computer programs/scripts or app development,
  • retrieving and using data from pre-existing data archives for various research projects,
  • developing computer simulations,
  • performing administrative/management duties,
  • writing/reviewing scientific papers/presentations,
  • writing grant proposals to secure funding for research/projects, and
  • communicating/collaborating with others.

Astronomers today also practice habits of mind or science attitudes. It is important to think critically, maintain a respect for evidence, and remain honest and objective in data analysis and reporting. Further, it is important to be open to uncertainty in the practice of astronomy. The conclusions that the astronomer draws are limited by the data and the tools and techniques that are used. An attitude of commitment is also important. On average, it takes more than two years to complete a single research project, and many can take three years or longer. In addition, being open to uncertainty and using imagination and intuition are important attitudes in the practice of astronomy. It is important to note that while imagination and intuition are important and can lead to new ways of thinking about a problem or a new discovery, astronomers, like other scientists, are bound to the data. New ideas must be subjected to a rigorous, honest and objective data analysis process.

A career in astronomy also means collaboration. In a typical workweek, on average, US astronomers collaborate with six to 10 colleagues. The majority of these colleagues are within the US and are also astronomers themselves. However, some international collaboration and collaboration with scientists from other science and engineering disciplines, does take place.

Collaborations often take place as part of research projects and publications. As an astronomer today, one can expect to engage in, on average, five different investigations/research projects at any one time, and author numerous research publications. Seventy percent of astronomers today have either authored or co-authored more than 40 research publications. Obviously, those who choose a career as an astronomer do a great deal of writing.

In addition to sharing their work through written publications, astronomers attend meetings where they share their research through presentations. Astronomers typically attend two to three professional meetings or conferences each year, and make three to four formal presentations per year about their research.

In considering a career in astronomy, it is also important to think about what inspires you. Are you motivated by the quest for the unknown? Do you like to problem-solve, and for that matter, work on multiple problems at the same time? Does uncertainty make you uncomfortable? In addition, what are your strengths? Do you like math and working with computers? How are your written and oral communication skills? Socially, do you like working with others? Answers to such questions can help an individual answer the question, “Is a career as an astronomer a good fit for me?”

For more information or questions about the study, please feel free to contact Tim Spuck at [email protected].

Featured image (top of page): AUI’s STEM Education Development Officer, Tim Spuck, visits ALMA during the 2016 Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassadors Program (ACEAP)

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