Astronomy is sometimes considered a subfield of physics. Astrophysics is a specialization in the field of astronomy. Astronomers use the principles of physics and mathematics to learn about the fundamental nature of the universe, including the sun, moon, planets, stars, and galaxies. They also apply their knowledge to solve problems in navigation, space flight, and satellite communications, and to develop the instrumentation and techniques used to observe and collect astronomical data.
Almost all astronomers do research. Some are theoreticians, working on the laws governing the structure and evolution of astronomical objects. Others analyze large quantities of data gathered by observatories and satellites and write scientific papers or reports on their findings. Some astronomers operate large space-based or ground-based telescopes, usually as part of a team. A small number of astronomers work in museums housing planetariums. These astronomers develop and revise programs presented to the public and may direct planetarium operations.
Most jobs in basic research usually require a doctoral degree. It is common for astronomers to spend three to six years in postdoctoral positions before finding a steady position in a university department, national facility, or government lab. Those with master's degrees qualify for some jobs in applied research and development. Those with bachelor's degrees often qualify as research assistants or for other physics-related occupations, such as technicians. Graduates typically work in a wide range of capacities, including business and private industry, education, national observatories, government laboratories, and other related jobs (planetariums, museums, public service, and science journalism).
*Salary and Career Outcomes gathered from the 2020-2021 CSE Graduation Survey. Post-graduation outcomes reflect the percentage of students who were employed full-time in their field or were enrolled in a graduate program at 6 months post-graduation.
**Salary data is national data, not CSE-specific, due to major cohort numbers too small to disclose due to privacy.
What can I do with a major in Astrophysics?
- Research and development
- Intel Corporation
- Lawrence Livermore National Lab
- Lincoln Laboratory
- Los Alamos National Laboratory
- Orbital ATK
- Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
- Space Telescope Science Institute
- The Aerospace Corporation
- UMN Polar Geospatial Center
- UMN Observational Cosmology Group
- C, C++
- Microsoft Office
- MotionLab Software
- Astronomer: Solves problems in navigation, space flight, and satellite communications and develops instrumentation and techniques used to observe and collect astronomical data.
- Data analyst: Analyzes problems and comes up with creative solutions.
- Instrument designer: Uses CAD programming for satellite and rocket projects.
- Physicist: Conducts research into the phases of physical phenomena, develops theories and laws on the basis of observation and experiments, and devises methods to apply laws and theories to industry and other fields.
- Professor/teacher: Develops and teaches astronomy/astrophysics curriculum, which includes scientific experiments.
- Research scientist: Conducts experiments, analyzes findings, operates necessary equipment, develops and tests theories.
- Support astronomer: Provides instruction, assistance, and scientific guidance to observers on the use of the observatory’s telescopes and instruments.
- Telescope engineer: Assists with the design, development, fabrication, and commissioning of telescopes.
**Some of these positions may require an advanced degree.
- Astronomy Club
- National Society of Black Engineers
- Science and Engineering Student Board
- Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers
- Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers
- Society of Physics Students
- Society of Women Engineers
- Solar Vehicle Project
- Tau Beta Pi
Q&A with Nadia Abuisnaineh, Jet Propulsion Laboratory Solar System Ambassador, NASA
What do you do?
As a NASA Solar System Ambassador (SSA), I volunteer my time to speak and engage with the public on topics that include NASA space exploration missions, the latest in space discoveries and events, as well as any space-related topics that people find interesting. I have given talks and presentations at schools, libraries, and museums.
Two of the most memorable events I took part in were a virtual presentation I gave to Palestinian students all the way in Jerusalem, and a tour of a giant Moon exhibit at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum during the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing.
What's a typical work day?
Every event is different and requires different preparations. If I’m giving a presentation, I have the chance to review professional training webinars provided by NASA to make my presentations unique and interesting for my audience. If I’m speaking to younger students, I think of fun ways to engage them—like putting together activities or sharing exciting facts and pictures. And other times, I set up informational booths at museums to engage museum goers on a specific theme.
At every event, I have the chance to pass out NASA lithos and posters that are sent to us from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
What qualities are important for this position?
I think all Solar System Ambassadors have this deep love and fascination for space and space exploration, which makes them so good at what they do. The passion is visible and our love and excitement rubs off on many people. It’s also important to know how to properly engage each audience according to their age and level of understanding. For example, breaking down complicated topics to a younger audience and keeping an older audience engaged with facts and visuals.
I always love to include mind-blowing concepts and out-of-this-world facts in my presentations. I love the moments when I share something and I can see the ‘wow’ faces on kids and adults!
What about technical skills?
Solar System Ambassadors come from all kinds of backgrounds and have many skills. There is so much flexibility in what we do, and so many different ways we can engage the public, that any technical skill will come in handy. They’re not required—but having many technical skills can enhance our work.
What training were you offered for your position?
Our program managers organize webinar training sessions on multiple NASA missions and projects throughout the year. We attend webinars given by engineers and project managers within NASA, where they go through details of specific projects they are working on. We have the chance to ask questions and learn more about their roles and missions.
Our job is to take that information and present it to the public. It’s such a unique opportunity for us to have access and conversations with specialized groups within NASA, and to learn more about the latest NASA and space related missions.
What part of your job is most satisfying?
Being able to talk to people about space!
I always had a passion for it growing up, but I didn’t always have an audience. Now I get invited places to do what I enjoy most. Seeing people enjoy my presentations has been a blessing.
Not having the time to take part in more presentations and events. We are only required to do four events a year, but sometimes I wish I had the time to do one every month. There’s always something happening in space and the night sky, so the opportunities of talking to the public about the universe are endless.
What are your possible career paths now?
After I graduated from college, I knew that I wanted to share my love of the universe with people, but I didn’t know how I would do that. I assumed it would most likely be as a teacher. But when I became an SSA, or NASA Solar System Ambassador, I discovered that there are many other ways a person can engage the public in STEM—the different possibilities of career paths and opportunities opened up.
I had the chance to work at the Bell Museum for a couple years, and that gave me a pretty good idea on what more I could do as a ‘science educator.’ There are museums, nature centers, state parks, nonprofit organizations, and schools that have career opportunities that involve sharing different STEM related topics to the public.
Advice for current students?
My best advice for students is to study something that you have passion and interest in. We are privileged to live in a country where after college, we could become almost anything we dream to be. Take advantage of that, and reach for the stars!
Any other advice you'd like to share?
After I graduated from college, I took a long break from my degree and spent my time working and volunteering for a couple nonprofit organizations in my community. It’s through volunteering my time that I have made the most meaningful connections in my community. I always encourage people to volunteer wherever and whenever they can, because you never know where that will lead you in the end.
Learn more about Nadia and her work with the Bell Museum in CSE News “Eyes for the skies.”