I meet with incoming first year undergraduate students at Penn State who have chosen the Astronomy & Astrophysics or Planetary Science & Astronomy majors during Penn State’s “New Student Orientation” program (formerly called FTCAP). In the past 10 years, we have also hosted several high school students from around Pennsylvania for job shadowing experiences. In both of these situations, I get asked to share resources about going from high school to a career in astronomy. There are a number of useful links that address this question. Many of them address graduate school and post-graduate careers, but as an undergraduate student, you have to decide if graduate school is your goal, so reading these is useful even if graduate school seems far in the future.
You may also want to read the latest edition of our Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics Undergraduate Handbook, which has information on the career paths in academia and elsewhere pursued by our students.
This first set of links are blog posts written by a Penn State astronomer, Professor Steinn Sigurdsson, and they give the most honest, candid set of information out there about getting started on the path to becoming an astrophysicist. Note that these were originally written over 10 years ago. Also, note that these are one person’s opinion, and some in our field might disagree about some of what he wrote, but you can use these blog posts as a jumping off point for additional reading.
- As noted, some things have changed since 2005. In particular, many astronomy departments are moving away from using the Physics GRE exam in their admissions decisions.
Professor Richard Robinett in the Penn State Department of Physics teaches a required seminar course for Physics majors, and he includes career information in the curriculum of that course. He has collected a great deal of career information for physics majors, much of which is relevant for astrophysics majors (who often double major in physics). He also has many career profiles of Penn State physics alumni, which includes a number of Astro majors in the list:
- Prof. Robinett’s Physics career resource page
- Physics alumni career profiles — in particular, the Astro alumni on the list include: Lee Bassett, Einsig, Finnerty, Viscomi, Tobolewski, Shoemaker, Ricker, Palma (me!), Lang, Jones, Just, Hwang, Hoppa, Ciletti, Lynch, Peth, and others
There is an informal group of astronomers who run a site called “Astrobetter” that is meant for professional astronomers. However, on their wiki, they have information about grad schools and undergraduate programs that may also be useful.
The Associated Universities, Inc. is the organization that manages the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Recently, their STEM Education Development Officer published an article based on his dissertation study, which provides a lot of context about the work of academic astronomers:
The American Institute of Physics collects statistical data about student enrollments in astronomy courses at institutions in the US. They recently published statistics about employment for students graduating with an undergraduate or graduate degree in astronomy between 2010 and 2012. This report contains a lot of great information on starting salaries, types of employment, and other demographics. The popular fivethirtyeight economics blog also had a recent story (Sep 2014) about median salaries for various majors, which is interesting supplemental information to the AIP report.
Many students say they want to work for NASA, and so NASA also has an extensive career website, but it focuses on a diverse set of fields and job opportunities because they do much more than astronomy.
The NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program (NITARP) is a great program for students and teachers to get involved in astronomical research. The program also maintains an excellent page on resources and opportunities for pre-college students to become involved in astronomy.