After completing their education, many astronomers choose to go into the private sector, working for companies with job titles like “laboratory scientist”, “research scientist”, “data analyst”, “software developer”, and various types of engineers.
Other common employment sectors are at colleges and universities, civilian government, including national labs, and the military.
The astronomer profiles posted here show just a sample of the types of careers you can pursue with an astronomy degree, whether it is a bachelor’s , master’s , or PhD degree. Astronomers and physicists many times share similar career paths, so you can also check out the physicist profiles on the physics careers website. The American Astronomical Society and the American Physical Society give more information on their websites. The American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy sponsors a relevant blog that you may want to consult as well.
Paul Edmon (Astrophysics PhD, UMN Alum)
Research Computing Associate, Harvard Institute for Theory and Computation
Paul loved space and stars, and wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up. He discovered a knack and love for physics in high school, and knew that you needed a PhD to be an astronaut, so off he went to the University of Washington to study physics.
As an undergraduate, Paul worked in a cosmic ray group running a local cosmic ray detector in high schools. In graduate school at the University of Minnesota, he became interested in the origins of the cosmic rays he studied in college, and worked on numerical simulations of particle acceleration. Through this work, he got to use the supercomputing assets at the Minnesota Supercomputing Institute
“I found that I really enjoyed using the largest machines in the world to simulate the largest explosions in the universe, which accelerate the fastest particles we know of.”
After working as a postdoc at University of Manitoba, Paul applied for a job as a liaison between the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA), and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Research Computing at Harvard. Now he runs the Cannon cluster, a high performance computing cluster.
“While I don’t do day to day work as an astronomer anymore, the knowledge I gained in my PhD work has allowed me to think at multiple scales, as well as understand that the astronomers at CfA are trying to accomplish.”
Mark Madland (Astrophysics BSc, UMN Alum)
Manufacturing Process Engineer
Medtronic - Brooklyn Center, MN
Mark always liked to figure out how things worked. Enjoying all sciences, an outstanding senior year high school physics experience led him to an astrophysics major in college.
“A technical foundation in physics and ability to comprehend complex problems allowed me to get a job that wasn’t asking specifically for a physicist.”
As an engineer making medical devices, Mark gets to determine and improve upon how they are made. He also uses data gathering and critical thinking to get at root causes of manufacturing issues and to improve the processes.
“The projects I work on are sometimes like my undergraduate physics laboratory classes. Hypothesize, experiment, report. Almost every day I use skills I learned in school such as how to take, analyze and report data.”
Jessica Kirkpatrick (Astrophysics PhD)
Director of Data Science and Digital Exploration at KoBold Metals
Neither of Jessica’s parents worked in technical fields, so it wasn’t until her first physics class in high school that she realized how physics uses math to understand the world. She did so well in her AP Physics class, that her teacher told her to pursue physics in college.
“That was the first time a teacher had ever said to me, ‘You have a talent, you should do this,” Jessica says.
After earning her PhD in Astrophysics at UC Berkeley, Jessica applied to a variety of jobs, eventually choosing to work in the tech industry.
“What attracted me to tech in particular was that it felt like a good way to apply my technical skills but in a way that was more down to earth.”
She has since worked as a data scientist at a variety of companies, including Microsoft, Chegg, and Slack. Now, as Director of Data Science and Digital Exploration at KoBold Metals, she focuses on modeling and machine learning.
“[Data science is] really fun because I’m constantly working on different areas and different focuses.”
Beth Brown (Astronomy PhD)
Astrophysicist at NASA
As a child, Beth had a natural curiosity about the world, and was drawn to science as a way to find out why things existed and how they worked. Her love of science focused on astronomy in high school, when she saw the Ring Nebula through a telescope on a school assignment.
“I thought that was just so cool-to know that I was looking at something that was so unfathomable in terms of distance.”
As an undergraduate studying physics and astronomy at Howard University, Beth participated in two internships at NASA, gaining research skills and learning more about the science of the stars. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she went on to grad school at the University of Michigan, and became the first black woman to get an Astronomy PhD there.
After earning her PhD, Beth returned to NASA, first for a post-doc position, then as a full-time employee studying elliptical galaxies. In addition to research, Beth also takes advantage of opportunities to share science with the public, and helping women and minorities succeed in physics.
“[I want others to] have a connection to the physical universe we live in,” she said. “...I want them to know there are fascinating things in the night sky, and understand what they see.”
Alicia Oshlack (Astronomy PhD)
Head of Bioinformatics at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute
Alicia had never heard of the field of bioinformatics when she started looking for a job outside academia after earning her PhD. She met another PhD student working in that field who mentioned a pot-soc position they were having trouble filling, and Alicia decided to apply.
After seven years with that original group, Alicia now leads her own group in bioinformatics at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Australia. She never felt like she had as much passion for astronomy as others in academia, and she feels like she’s found a field that really fits.
“I am fascinated with my new field of genomics and I feel like I can make a significant contribution to science in this field. I even feel like I can help make discoveries that benefit people - something that I never felt in [academia].”
Although quite different from her original field of astronomy, Alicia gained valuable skills while completing her degree that she wouldn’t otherwise have, particularly when it comes to analyzing data.
“I know ‘how’ to do research,” she says. “I know how to look at data and ask scientific questions about data.”
Andre Wong (Astronomy MS)
ASIC Design Engineer, Teledyne Imaging Sensors
Andre wanted to find a job outside of academia, and he immediately started working as a test engineer at Teledyne after completing his masters degree. He was looking for more flexibility than academia, and didn’t want to have to word about constantly looking for funding sources or earning tenure.
“Another important factor was my desire to have an even more ‘hands on laboratory’ type job than I believed I would eventually have in academia,” he says.
After a couple of years, Andre transitioned from a test engineer to ASIC design engineer, with more electrical engineering oriented duties. His job description ranges from developing assembly code, operating and developing test equipment, analyzing data, writing reports, and interacting with subcontractors and customers. Andre says that his astronomy degree has been very helpful for his career.
“Since Teledyne produces infrared detectors, my experience in graduate school operating and handling infrared detectors and electronics was experience which became directly applicable for my current job.”
Hannah Krug (Astronomy PhD)
High School Math and Physics Teacher
Hannah discovered how much she loved teaching as a TA in grad school, and had a gift for communicating complex concepts to people with no background in the topic. Grad school taught her that independent research wasn’t the right path for her, but she did want to make a difference with young women. She decided to become a high school teacher instead of continuing in academia.
“I was frustrated with the leaky pipeline of women in STEM and though I could have the most impact if I helped inspire young women before they reached college.”
Teaching is a tough job, with long hours, and Hannah spends her days with a mix of teaching, meeting with students, lesson planning, grading and faculty meetings. Although the hours can be long, she really enjoys developing bonds with her students, and getting to see them thrive both inside and outside the classroom.
Her PhD degree has been very helpful as a teacher. Working as a lab TA in graduate school gave her experience managing a classroom, and giving regular science talks, to both professionals and the public, developed her public speaking and question-answering skills. It can feel daunting to leave academia after spending so much time pursuing a degree, but Hannah encourages others to be open-minded about possible careers.
“Our degrees prepare us for so many different career paths, but are often blinded to anything but the standard postdoc to professor or research scientist route until it’s sometimes too late.”
Anita Krishnamurthi (Astronomy PhD)
Vice President, STEM Policy at the Afterschool Alliance
After graduating with her PhD, Anita started off on the traditional path as a postdoc. But after awhile, she stopped feeling the joy in it, and started thinking about taking a different approach. She pivoted into science education, eventually landing at NASA as the lead for Education and Outreach at Goddard Space Flight Center.
She later made another career change, and moved into policy. These days, she works on a blend of federal and state policy and advocacy, research, and capacity building initiatives for the afterschool field. Although she doesn’t do astronomy day to day anymore, she still credits her degree with giving her the skills she needs to succeed in any job.
“The degree itself has been very useful in opening doors and providing credibility when I talk about science or science education issues.”
In addition to the science credibility, her astronomy degree has also taught her how to be fearless about asking questions, identify the most important problems, and how to talk to people about her work. Anita strongly believes that all her life experiences are important.
“You bring your past experiences and expertise into any jobs you take, so nothing you do is ever wasted effort...the point of getting an education and advanced degrees is precisely to give yourself options and not feel trapped.”
Carie Cardamone (Astronomy PhD)
Associate Director at Brown University Center for Teaching & Learning
Carie started getting interested in education during her PhD, when she worked as a teaching fellow, and volunteered at the Peabody Museum and the Yale Observatory. After graduating, she took a postdoc position at MIT in physics education research, and had an opportunity to help design and teach an introductory physics course. She now works at the Brown University Center for Teaching and Learning.
Carie really enjoys her job, particularly the fact that everyday is different. She gets to work with faculty, staff and students all across the university, and consults with instructors across the curriculum. While her environment is not so different from when she was an astronomer (she still spends a lot of her time in front of a computer), she enjoys having the opportunity to see the campus more broadly than if she was associated with one specific department.
Her astronomy degree has still been useful in her work as an education administrator, especially the ability to sift through large amounts of information, and communicate clearly.
“One of the most useful things I gained from astronomy was the ability to research and shift through a large amount of information and then distill from it the essential parts.”
Eric Rubenstein (Astronomy PhD)
President and Chief Technology Officer at Image Insight Inc.
After graduating with his PhD from Yale, Eric did a couple of postdocs, before spending a year as a visiting associate professor at Smith College. It was during that year at Smith that he also decided to join the Navy Reserves.
Eric felt a “desire to work in a more applied area that felt more impactful for the country and society,” and decided to leave academia for industry, starting as a Senior Scientist at Advanced Fuel Research, Inc. While he worked in research and development for agencies like NASA, and DHS, Eric also led the development of an astronomy based procedure to detect ionizing radiation threats. This led to a new company, Image Insight Inc. Throughout all of this, Eric also continued working as an officer in the Navy.
Eric has been very happy with his career path so far, although it was initially scary leaving the traditional academic path. Now, he wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“I have the opportunity to build a company with close associates from the ground up...based on an innovation that occurred to me by combining my astronomy, programming and defense interests. It is very cool and exciting.”
Rick Fienberg (Astronomy PhD)
AAS Press Officer and Director of Communications
After completing a one year postdoc at the same institution he earned his PhD from, Rick started his career as an assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, where he would spend the next 22 years of his career. During his time at the magazine, he was promoted up the ranks, holding positions including the president of Sky Publishing, the parent company, and editor in chief.
“I discovered while I was in grad school that I enjoyed teaching...and writing more than I enjoyed doing research. I also thought I was better at teaching and writing than I was at doing research.”
After 22 years at Sky & Telescope, Rick left the magazine and applied for the new joint position of press officer and education and outreach coordinator for AAS. Now, he is in charge of the press conferences at AAS meetings that he used to cover for S&T.
His advice for students is to gain as many skills as you can during your education.
“Don’t get locked in to a single idea of what your career might look like. Careers are rarely linear anymore, and the best opportunities often come out of nowhere, so keep your eyes open.”