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So You Want to be a Professional Astronomer!

Mercury Spring 2008 Table of Contents

Forbes opening page

Image courtesy of Gemini Observatory.

by Duncan Forbes

Wanted: Astronomer. Must be willing to work occasional nights on the top of a mountain in an exotic location. A sense of adventure and nomadic lifestyle is a plus. Flexible hours and casual dress code compensate for uncertain long-term career prospects and average pay. The opportunity for real scientific discovery awaits the right candidate. Apply now.

In many ways, professional astronomers are very fortunate. They have an opportunity to continue their passion (one that many people share) and they're paid to do it. Some of the reasons given by PhD students for becoming an astronomer include: it's fun and exciting, there are great opportunities for travel, it's a cool job, and it's possible to make significant discoveries.

Universities, observatories, government organizations, and industry employ astronomers who, contrary to popular belief, don't spend all their waking hours at a telescope. Instead, most of their time is spent teaching, managing projects, providing support services, and performing administrative duties. A typical astronomer might spend just a week or two a year on an observing run, following by months of data analysis and article writing.

So how do you join the elite ranks of professional astronomy? Here are some suggestions for how to get a job in astronomy.

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