- Understand what being a professional astronomer entails.
The word ‘astronomer’ is used to describe both amateur and professional astronomers. If you are deeply passionate about the Universe and you want to understand how it works on a fundamental level, then professional astronomy is probably for you.
In the old days, astronomers spent their time staying up at night peering through telescopes and doing complex calculations by hand. However, the nature of astronomy has changed a lot in the past 50 years, and everything is computerised now. As a professional astronomer in this day and age, you’ll spend nearly all your time crunching numbers at a computer behind your desk.
If you prefer the idea of staying up at night looking at the sky for yourself, consider becoming an amateur astronomer instead. Contrary to what the name suggests, it’s not really ‘amateur’. You can learn things on your own terms, and can go on to make important contributions to astronomy.
- Be prepared to study. A lot.
To qualify as a professional astronomer, you need a PhD in astronomy at the very minimum. This isn’t necessarily an expensive undertaking – most universities offer funding for astronomy and astrophysics programmes beyond undergraduate level. That being said, you should expect to conduct colossal amounts of research and publish work regularly, both during and after your PhD.
- Don’t leave the physics and maths behind.
Astronomers use physics to understand and make sense of what they observe. In fact, a professional astronomer is essentially an astrophysicist. An iron grasp on physics and mathematics is absolutely crucial if you want to go down this path, so make sure that you take both subjects in high school, and major in either one at undergraduate level.
- Get comfortable programming.
Gone are the days of labouring over equations with pen and paper – computers make sophisticated calculations faster and much more accurately than us humans. To analyse astronomical data, you need to learn to speak computer, so learn a programming language or two as quickly as you can. I highly recommend Python – it’s fairly easy to pick up, and it has lots of ready-made packages specifically tailored to astronomy problems.
- Never stop asking questions.
Most of your work as an astronomer comprises of research, and research is basically asking questions and trying to answer them with data. As an astrophysicist (or a scientist of any kind), it’s important to constantly ask questions about everything.
6. Don’t be afraid to question conventional wisdom.
If Albert Einstein hadn’t thought to question Newton’s assumptions about the nature of space and time, the world wouldn’t have General Relativity, the most sophisticated and well-tested theory of gravity. As an professional astronomer, your goal should be to come up with better, more elegant explanations for observed phenomena. This often means going against current ideas and assumptions about the nature of reality.
- Make sure you’ve explored all your options.
Becoming an astronomer is not the only path into the space industry – from astronauts and engineers to technicians and even politicians, the space industry accommodates a wide range of skills and qualifications. If you’re absolutely sure you want to work in the space industry but you don’t like the work involved in being an astronomer, there are lots of other careers to explore that might suit your skills and interests.
Samyukta has a BSc. Hons from the University of Cape Town in Applied Mathematics, with a focus on cosmology. She has also been trained in radio astronomy through the DARA programme. Samyukta is an amateur astronomer and has worked in astronomy outreach, development, science communication, and design. She writes about amateur astronomy at The Bast.