Should I be an astronomer?

Profession astronomer

Often during the master’s thesis, but at the latest with the doctoral period, the job description of an astronomer is characterized by research, sometimes supplemented by holding or participating in courses.

The research work takes place in normal offices on the computer. There, for example, observations are planned and evaluated, simulations and models are programmed, or theoretical predictions are checked using complex calculations. In terms of content, it is about questions such as

  • the observation of the cosmic microwave background,
  • the physics of compact objects such as white dwarfs, neutron stars or black holes,
  • the explanation of the acceleration mechanisms of the particles of cosmic rays,
  • the search for the first stars that formed the cosmos,
  • the description of the formation and evolution of galaxies,
  • the chemical composition of stars,
  • the mechanism of planet formation,
  • the changeability of our sun,
  • or the composition of the outer solar system.

Some astronomers also work on the development of new measuring instruments and build mechanical, electronic or optical components together with engineers in the institute's workshops or plan these on CAD systems.

The actual time astronomers spend at telescopes is relatively short today. For relevant research results, observations are made at a few unique locations in the world or with the help of space observatories. Access to this is via a complex application process in which the observation time is distributed according to scientific excellence. With a telescope time of a few nights - sometimes even just a few hours - sufficient data is obtained to be occupied with the evaluation and interpretation for a few months or longer.

Only a few astronomers actually travel to the observation sites in Chile, Hawaii or southern Spain. Especially with short observation times in standard operation, the data is recorded by the experienced staff of the large telescopes - or even completely automated and monitored by technicians on site. The data is then transferred to Germany via the Internet, where the analysis is finally carried out.

At the end of the data analysis or the theoretical work or simulations, there is the publication: the publication of the results. This means that the scientists prepare their results in multi-page articles for specialist journals, create images and draw links to previous work in this area. These publications are always in English. They are often aimed at a very small group of professionals around the world who work in this or a related field themselves. At the same time, the publications serve as a long-term memory for the results. Even today, measurements, models, interpretations and theories from a hundred years ago and longer are used for current research.

In addition to teaching in lectures, exercises or seminars, public relations work is also part of the job description of astronomers. Many institutions offer lectures or guided tours for the interested public. School universities or other explanatory formats are also very popular with the population, especially in astronomy, and can make up a few percent of the working time. After all, astronomy is a cultural achievement, the sole purpose of which is to expand mankind's worldview - therefore the results must also be brought closer to the population. It should not be ignored that numerous inventions were made for astronomy that have also found their way into everyday life.

Numbers and opportunities

In Germany there are currently around 600 full-time astronomers or astrophysicists who work at a university or other research institution. Most of them are physicists with a doctorate with a focus on astronomy starting with their master's or diploma thesis.

In addition, there are around 200 doctoral students who are already working part-time at their institutions during their doctoral thesis.

The so-called "postdoc phase" follows after the doctorate. Postdocs are employed as scientists with contracts that are usually limited to three years - this applies to astrophysics as well as to most other areas of physics. Usually, more postdoc positions of this kind usually follow before you get a permanent position or leave publicly funded research.

Permanent positions within research are rare. Besides the professorships, only a few academic positions are designed to be permanent. Most positions are paid for from project funds that are only available for a few years.

So it must not be concealed that each year far more astronomers are trained than there are vacancies at the research institutes. As a result, many astronomers (and here, too, the same applies to other physics departments) leave the academic career path and look for jobs outside of their actual research work. For example, you will find employment in software development, as “data scientists”, in insurance companies and management consultancies, or in the management of companies or research institutions. There are some personal examples on the pages of World of Physics.

Despite the significant increase in the number of graduates in recent years, the employment forecast and income opportunities in the private sector for astronomers are still very good overall.