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Ask a Prof: What can you do with an astronomy degree?

Lori asks: was wondering if I could make a blog request of you: could you please write a post summarizing some different possibilities that are available to people who get their B.S. in astro or planetary related subjects?

...I get the sense that many people (including fellow Caltech undergrads) think that the only thing they can do with such a specific science bachelors degree is continue on the fixed track of gradschool-postdoc-professor-die, all with varying degrees of uncertainty and tedium. But I personally feel like we have so many opportunities and options, and I would love to hear your opinions!

This is an excellent question, and one that is becoming increasingly important for undergrads to ask as the number of open professorships continue to shrink due to federal cutbacks after the 2008 financial meltdown. If you are unsure about whether you can commit to 5-7 years of grad school, 2-6 years of postdoc, 5-10 years as an assistant professor to reach a permanent job with a six-figure salary (the latter segment is the "professor-die" part), you should start thinking about what your bachelor's degree in science can take you after graduation. 

I should state up front that my knowledge about this is limited since astronomy does not have a well-defined "industry" route, unlike chemistry and biology. Also, since you are asking a prof, you're asking someone who committed pretty early in his career to the academic path, and as a result I'm biased by my personal experience and limited in my viewpoint. I hope that people fill in the blanks in the comments!

First off, here is a list of jobs that my friends and acquaintances have moved into after receiving their B.S., M.S. or Ph.D. in a "hard" science field (physics, astro, chemistry, bio):
  • Wall Street data analyst
  • Programmer for a startup in Austin, TX (now Boulder, CO)
  • Programmer for Raytheon ("building better missiles" as he put it)
  • Bike shop mechanic
  • Lab manager for a university chemistry lab
  • Part-owner of a boat and surf board rental stand in Waikiki, Hawaii
  • Web designer
  • Technician on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico
  • Professional musician
  • Technical writer for Atlas Obscura 
  • I.T. staff member for a physics department
  • Outreach director for a planetarium
  • Engineer for an amateur telescope manufacturer
  • Technician at a national oil and gas works
  • Keck telescope observing assistant (and Gemini, and Subaru, and lots of other telescopes)
  • High school teacher
  • Analyst for the the Department of Homeland Security
  • Founder of an environmentally-friendly heating and air conditioning company
  • Project manager at an aerospace company
  • Film director
I think the take-away point from this eclectic mix of professions is that your degree in a science field can take you many places. You just have to be willing to look around, keep your eyes and ears open, attend job fairs, make connections at your university while in school, do an internship during the summer, and generally get yourself out there. But a B.S. in science makes you a very employable individual, as long as you keep your mind open to a wide range of opportunities.

Based on what I've heard talking to people working "out there," the best things you can do to position yourself for a post-B.S. job while in college include:
  • Go beyond the required programming 101 course. Learn and become proficient in several languages (C, C++, Python, Matlab, Java and PERL immediately come to mind as languages to choose from). Practical programming skills, combined with a physicist's ability to learn new things quickly, make for a very employable individual. But don't confuse high-level scripting with programming. Using IDL or IRAF is a good start, but make sure you understand object-oriented programming philosophies and techniques.
  • Find research assistantships that provide opportunities to work on analyzing "big data." Looking for correlations and patterns in millions of SDSS galaxies is very much analogous to searching for patterns that reveal customer preferences in large collections of user data. 
  • Put some serious, high-quality time and effort into your writing courses, and if your schedule permits, sign up for a technical writing course or two.
  • Network while in school! If/when you hear about that upperclasswoman (or man) who goes out and works for a startup, ask them questions about how they found the job; what classes they took and hobbies they had; and stay in touch with them.
  • Get a Linkedin account and keep it current
  • Build a personal webpage. Keep it simple and up-to-date
  • Job fairs are not just for engineering and business students! Attend them early in your college career, talk to many people, and come prepared with questions
The same advice holds for grad students pursuing master's or PhDs in science. There exists a wide range of career routes for highly-skilled scientists with diverse skill sets, open minds and a taste for adventure. The academic grind is not for everyone, and the earlier you discover that you'd rather opt out, the better it will be for your job prospects and long-term earning potential (retirement accounts started when you're 25 grow to be much larger than if you wait until you're 36). And I should mention that I've never met anyone who left academia and was unhappy as a result or ended up unemployed. 

If you have any other questions for a Prof, please send me an email or leave a comment!


TongaXtine said…
You can also become a Harvard administrator!

Seriously though, there are a lot of folks who value the skills of those who are highly analytical. Its amazing how you can apply a background in Astronomy.

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