Sunday, November 6, 2011

What is a Professional Astronomer? - Part I

One of the goals my astrophysics professor has for our class is for us to come away with an understanding of what it means to be a professional astronomer.  But before doing any research or interviews on the subject, we are supposed to record our own assumptions and impressions on what it is professional astronomers do and how somebody gets to be a professional astronomer in the first place.  So here is "What is a Professional Astronomer? - Part I"  More parts will follow after I have been hit with a dose of professional astronomer reality.

Ever since I was 12 or so, I believed I wanted to be a physicist.  Eventually it dawned on me that I had no idea what a physicist did.  I've slowly built up an idea since then, but beyond knowing that there are two sorts of physicists, theoretical and experimental, I still don't know what these physicists actually do from day to day.  I know that astrophysics is not the same as physics, but I still think this assignment will be tremendously helpful for me to figure out the general evolution of a professional scientist's career.

Let's start with how you become a professional astronomer.  I assume that at some point before or during your undergraduate studies, you somehow become interested in astronomy.  This could be through pictures, lectures, natural curiosity, whatever.  Something about astronomy just sticks with you.  Then comes an undergraduate program in astronomy, astrophysics, or physics.  This involves taking the courses that your school deems necessary to be an astronomer.  Perhaps you will do some astronomy research during the summer or get the chance to use a telescope.  Eventually you'll graduate from the undergrad program, and most likely move on the graduate school in astronomy, although physics may still be acceptable at this point depending on what kind of physics you specialize in.

In grad school you'll pick an adviser and start specializing.  I suppose astronomy may also be split between experiment and theory.  If you do theory, you'll probably be doing lots of computer simulations and math to make predictions.  If you do experiment, you'll probably be doing lots of observing and data analysis to test those predictions.  You may also have to specialize in a type of instrumentation and wavelength, for example spectral, optical, x-ray imaging, and so on.  In either case, you will have to narrow your focus to one or a few closely related astronomical phenomena.  This does not mean that you have to stop studying everything else, but you'll start to become a specialist in one area, such as star formation or extra solar planets or black holes.  As an astronomy grad student, you'll probably go to many, many conferences and observing sessions in less enchanting places, like Arizona, while your adviser goes to all of the observing runs in Hawaii.  After 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 or 8 years you'll probably defend your thesis and get your Ph. D.  Then you'll get to be a postdoc somewhere!

I actually have no idea what postdocs are.  I think they sort of float in limbo between being a grad student and being an assistant professor.  They probably continue their grad research, or maybe start to branch off in a slightly different direction.  The have probably switched advisers, but now have to do some research on their own.  I'm not sure what astronomy grad students do after they have finished grad school if they do not go into academia and become postdocs.  Guess I'll find out later!

Continuing down the academia sequence, after you're done with your postdocs, you'll probably be an assistant prof somewhere.  I'm not actually sure what makes an assistant prof an assistant.  I guess you may be allowed to lecture occasionally and you still have to do you own research and you don't have tenure yet.  That's pretty much all I have for the life of an assistant professor.

Eventually you'll be an astronomy professor!  You'll have classes to teach, your own group of grad students to manage, and you'll be the one going to observe in Hawaii.  You'll also have to write lots and lots of grant proposals.  You'll continue to gather data and publish papers until you're either disproved by another group of astronomers or your ideas become widely accepted.  In the latter case there will be much cake and celebration, hooray!

If you do not become a professor, you may still spend your time doing research and writing grant proposals at labs or observatories.  You may spend your time as the director of a telescope.  Maybe you'll design planetarium exhibits.  As I said before, I don't really know what astronomers do outside of academia.

I suppose the ultimate goal of an astronomer is the same as the ultimate goal of any scientist, just applied to the field of astronomy.  This may include deepening the understanding of the phenomena that make up the universe, and simply investigating questions that are interesting to them.  Astronomers have to be well-organized and hard-working, but also creative and able to look for solutions in brand new ways, just like any scientist.  I also think that astronomy is a highly collaborative field.  I find the projects that publicly publish information directly after discovery, like the Catalina Real-Time Transient Sky Survey and projects that encourage at-home interaction, like Galaxy Zoo, to be an interesting new way of doing science, and I wonder if other fields have projects like these as well.

Well, those are my initial assumptions of what it would be like to be a professional astronomer and what it takes to get to that position.  Most of my hypothesis comes from knowledge gained from PhD comics:  Stay tuned as I gather data on what it actually takes to be a professional astronomer!


  1. This is a very well written post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it this evening.

    Good job just putting your thoughts on the page before setting off to gather data to test your hypotheses about professional astronomers. It'll be a lot of fun seeing how your ideas evolve as you go along.

  2. Wow, Joanna! A lot of the description of grad students really rings true! You already know much more about grad school than I did when I started grad school. Hahaha, I can see the Hawaii comments connecting to the PhD comics. Unlike electrical engineering grad students in comics, astronomy grad students do get to go observing in Hawaii sometimes!

  3. Hi Joanna! I loved reading your blog on what a professional astronomer might be and also your journey starting in childhood on how your interest developed. These are all great things to think about and reflect on since many college students might pick a career and not even know what is involved in the day-to-day work of that career. So kudos to you!
    Funny coincidence that your dad sent me the link to your blog today - I was just watching the Today show and Matt Lauer is in Jungfraujoch, Switzerland. They showed the Sphinx Observatory there on the top of a cliff - it was pretty amazing and looked like a place you would love to see! Made me think of you and then I saw my e-mail and the link to your blog! Love, Aunt Ann