Sunday, December 4, 2011

Alternative Careers in Astrophysics

As an Astrophysics major, I feel like I subconsciously accepted the fact that I would stay in "school" for the rest of my life. In my mind, the stereotypical career path was undergrad, grad, postdoc, professorship, etc. I vividly recall talking to my relatives in the Ukraine last summer about my career path. When they asked me how many more years of school I had left, I'd answer nine (three unergrad + 6 or so for grad school) to which they'd always reply: "You mean nine months?". No. Nine years. That's a lot, considering that I've only finished 12 years up to this point. That made me start thinking about alternate career paths, which is why I wanted to cover this question of the blogging assignment. 

Though I still plan on going to graduate school, I'll briefly cover the career prospects of a bachelor's degree in astrophysics. A bachelor's degree in astronomy, astrophysics (or physics) is generally not sufficient to have a research position. Alternative possibilities include being a schoolteacher, writer, museum educator, science technician, or journalist. Science technicians work alongside researchers and deal more with practical matters. It's good to note that some states require school teachers to hold a master's degree in the subject that they teach.  Earning a master's degree give more career options than a bachelor's but it's still considered to have limited opportunities. 

Earning a PhD in astronomy (or astrophysics) is an essential step to a solid career in astronomy. One of the many places to find jobs as an astronomer is at NASA. These range from research to management to software to engineering to data analysis. Another big-name place to work in is Lockheed Martin. Jobs there include intelligence analysis, scientist, engineer, management, and software. 
Another option is to work for the military or U.S. Government. (Actually, a lot of astronomy research is government funded, so technically that's also working for the government). This doesn't necessarily mean being in the front lines. There are a lot of behind-the-scenes jobs. Personally, I really like having that option open. I don't know if I'll ever actually end up working for the military, but I've always thought that it would be really awesome. I can only imagine how confused my parents must have been when their 11-year old daughter begged them to send her to military school (lucky for me, they didn't...). 

There are also career opportunities that are (seemingly) far from the astronomy field. For example, since computer programming is a skill that many astronomers share, a career as a software programmer is also a possibility. That does however, depend on the amount of programming experience included in one's research/education.  Another option is to go into finance. Astronomers/astrophysicists/physicists are well known for having great analytical skills and are sought after for jobs in the finance fields.  

In the last few months, I've been thinking more and more about my career. At times, I've been more than tempted to switch to physics. A lot of my peers recommend it because physics is such a broad degree name that it becomes a lot easier to find jobs in a wider selection of fields. There are also many schools (luckily Caltech isn't one of them!) where astrophysics is considered a much less rigorous major than physics. However, upon doing some reflecting I realized that regular physics doesn't interest me terribly. Or rather, I should say that the only application of physics that really excites and motivates me is that of astrophysics.  I see physics as an essential tool that I need to understand stellar objects. The way physics works out is beautiful, to say the least, but all I really want to do is spend my time applying it to space-stuff. 
It's great to know, however, that if somewhere down the line I can't (or choose not to) work in astronomy anymore I can take the skills I learn from it to a variety of different fields. 

websites that I visited in collecting my information:,,,,, 


  1. Interesting research! Truth be told, I haven't spent much time thinking about alternate career paths, but I feel like it's something I ought to do. That said, it's hard to imagine myself as not an astronomer. It's become a strong part of my identity quite quickly.

    It sounds like grad school is useful for a lot of jobs. If you're interested, though, there are ways to take time off before grad school. You can do research (Professor Johnson had a student do that with him for a year), or do Teach for America if you're interested in teaching science/math, or you can do something completely outside of astronomy (which is a good reality check to see if you really want to do astronomy). I took a year off to do volunteer work completely unrelated to astronomy/physics/science, and it was a really meaningful year for me, during which I also learned that I really missed science and that I'm happiest when I'm doing science.

  2. I know it's been a few years since you posted this, but as I was reading it, I came to the conclusion that this is me! I just graduated with a BS in Astrophysics and I can't find a job anywhere! (I'm actually looking right now and came across this site when I typed in "jobs for bachelor's in astrophysics" into Google. I live in AZ, so that may be one reason, but it has been continually frustrating. I have great math skills but no programming skills. I was a physics major for a while, but like you, I didn't find it all interesting unless it was applied to the stars. So I switched to astrophysics and it became so much for fun! I was thinking of grad school, but I would most likely have to continue my degree at ASU and it would be another 3-4 years. I'm so tired of school! I just want to work, save money, travel, have a family, etc. I will definitely be checking out those sites you've listed. Who knows if you will even check this comment, but thanks anyway! :)

    1. You posted this in August of 13'. How have things progressed since then? Have you found satisfactory employment?

  3. I'm planning on going back to school (ucla) for astrophysics this year and having read your post, I guess I shouldn't be as excited as before. I was wondering if physics would generally be better in getting a job after?

    Heather, what do you find yourself lacking in getting a job? Is it mostly programming skills or is there anything you wish you had spent more time learning that would help you out now? Any advice or tips would be appreciated!

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