At the end of this page are pointers to excellent references for those thinking about going into astronomy as a career but first, some brief comments of my own. The professional research astronomy field is small (not a lot of jobs) so you truly need to have a passion for the subject---a passion for figuring out the underlying physics of how things work, solving puzzles, and tackling huge questions that might take many years to find the answer to. Questions like: "where did we come from?", "how was the world created?", "how was the universe created?", "are there other universes?", "how will the world (i.e., Earth as a planet) end?", "how will the universe end (will it end)?", "are there other intelligent civilizations out there (beyond the Earth)?", "what does it take to make a habitable planet?", "what is the universe made of?" and other "big picture" questions.
You need to like solving physics and math problems because you will take A LOT of physics and math classes in undergraduate college to get your bachelors degree. In fact, many astronomers get a physics bachelors degree and then go on to get a masters or doctorate (PhD) in astronomy/astrophysics. For professional research astronomy, a PhD is required. For strictly teaching jobs, a minimum of a masters is required. Either way, it is A LOT of school, so you need to have a passion, or love, for the subject in order to get through all of that college work. You need to like working with computers as the huge data sets (measured in terrabytes) and complex multi-variable modeling require a lot of computer processing. You also need to like working with other people in teams because current and future problems or questions require the ingenuity of many people working together on a single project to solve a problem or answer a question.
Finally, you need to know how to communicate with other people verbally and in formal writing (sorry, facebooking and texting works only with your friends, not in the professional world and the larger society). You may be the smartest person in the world but if you cannot articulate your ideas in a logical, convincing way (using evidence), no one beyond your parents and closest friends will think so and your ideas won't be known beyond them. A critical (essential) part of science is communicating your results in professional journals, conferences, and sometimes to the general public, who directly or indirectly pay your salary through their taxes. Being able to write well in a formal manner to those who do not know you is essential to your success in a research or teaching job (and getting paid).
A majority of astronomers work in colleges and universities. Usually, that means teaching as well as working on a favorite research project. About a third of the astronomers work for the government or government-supported institutions (e.g., NASA, National Optical Astronomy Observatories, National Radio Astronomy Observatories, U.S. Naval Observatory, Space Telescope Science Institute, etc.). Another ten percent (or so) work in business and private industry either on space-related projects or other areas where an analytical person with great problem-solving skills is needed. The remainder work in science centers, planetariums, and other (informal) education & public outreach (EPO) efforts.
I left the money part of the job to the last because it should be the least important part of the reason why you go into astronomy as a career. While you won't be poor in an astronomy job, you probably won't get rich (monetarily) either. Your passion/love for research and/or teaching astronomy is the reason you make astronomy a career. Current salary figures are hard to come by. The most recent information is a few years old from the American Institute of Physics. That data shows median salaries (back then) for physicists and astronomers ranging from $51,000 to $115,000 for colleges and universities, from $92,000 to $135,000 for government and government-supported institutions, and from $93,000 to $136,000 for business and private industry.
The most recent information looks at median salaries vs. education levels for all professions. It is the "Education Pays!" data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It shows that our economy is (by and large) based on knowledge and analytical (critical) thinking---just the thing your teachers always talk about. The better you are able to analyze and solve a problem, the more you get paid. So, even if astronomy isn't for you, stay in college and get your degree!
last updated: May 4, 2013