Astronomist Career Information
What an Astronomist does
Astronomy is in fact all about the study of heavenly bodies. You will try to discover new planets, stars in our own solar system as well as those in galaxies millions of light years away. As an astronomist, you will try to find out peculiarities of these bodies and come up with theories to explain them. You will also study the behavior of comets and asteroids and hopefully warn earth of any impending disaster!
As an astronomist, you will not only use optical telescopes (both land and space based like the Hubble space telescope) but also use giant radio telescopes (these look more like the common cable dish antenna!)
As an astronomer, your expertise will also be sought while planning space missions like the Apollo Mission to the Moon and the Viking Mission to Mars. Who knows as an astronomer, you could even be space walking outside the International Space Station once it’s completed!
Besides these, you can also focus your attention towards S.E.T.I. That stands for Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence - to put it plainly aliens from outer space. No, this is not about being Fox Mulder chasing little green men. Looking out for life beyond earth includes the search of fossilised microorganisms on Mars and algae in the oceans of Europa - one of Jupiter’s 12 moons. A pretty dignified occupation indeed!
If you thought a career in Astronomy meant floating around in a spacesuit then you couldn’t be more wrong. Many space jobs involve been rooted to earth- building spacecrafts for example. Other possible career options include space scientists, technician, technologist, engineer, space biologist, space physician, aerospace medicine and astronaut.
You will be working mainly for government agencies like ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation), The Department of Science and Technology and institutions like the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA), Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), etc. Depending on your qualifications, experience and expertise you could be working on various projects that these establishments are involved in.
Getting an entry into the field of asronomy is not much of a problem. The numbers of seats for various courses in this field are limited and most often then not you will end up assisting your professors in their projects. Teaching thus goes hand in hand with research in this field.
NASA (National Aeronautical and Space Administration) USA looks very favorably towards India when it comes to scientists and experts. If you do your master's or doctoral studies in prestigious US colleges, you sure can walk straight into NASA. But more often than not your experience in astronomy in a particular area of specialisation will help you.
Even after retirement, you could work in a planetarium or a science centre trying to make this complicated science easier for kids. You could even author books be it fact or fiction. Who knows you can even pen 'Star Trek - The Indian Generation'!
You should take up Astronomy only if it is your passion. Most organisations are government funded and so you will have a tough time obtaining grants to research your projects. Space exploration remains a costly affair and many in the corridors of power still remain skeptical of its value.
The Internet has been a big boon for astronomers. You can for instance hire a radio telescope in New Mexico, point it to the area of the sky that you wish to survey and gather its readings all via the Internet. Then of course there is the plus point of having a star or a comet named after you and your name being immortalized till the heavens fall apart.
Abilities & Traits Required
You got to be genuinely interested in stars and planets. And by that it means not just the usual 'Oh the moon looks so beautiful tonight' kind of interest. This is one subject the textbook of which is open right over your head every night. You need good powers of observation and concentration. As an astronomist, you also need good analytical and mathematical skills to decipher all the data before you can proclaim that the world is about to end. Imagine the consequences if you got that calculation wrong!
As an astronomist, you will be required to travel and stay in remote locations to record activities like eclipses and meteor showers. The stay might not be very comfortable and so you must have the ability to rough it out.
Education wise you need a BSc in Physics/Mathematics/Computer Science or a BE/BTech in related disciplines to be eligible for the master's course in Astronomy. You can also complete your master's programme in the above subjects and then apply for a PhD programme in Observational Astronomy, Astrophysics or Space Sciences.
Apart from IIT’s, a good starting point would be the Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in Asia and Pacific (CSSTEAP) that is affiliated to the United Nations. The Introductory Summer School at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune gives you an excellent opportunity to find out if you are cut out for this job. You can enroll for this 5 weeks programme in the first year of your master's course/ 3rd year of engineering. In this course a series of lectures, workshops and field trips are organised through which you will be acquainted with the basics of astronomy and astrophysics.
Young students with an interest in astronomy can appear for the nation wide Indian Astronomy Olympiad tests organized by the IAOP and about 50 selected students are then invited to the Indian Astronomy Training Camp. The best student in the camp then represents India at the International Astronomy Olympiad (InAO). The Indian Astronomy Olympiad Program (IAOP) is designed to encourage students with good foundations in physics and mathematics and an interest in astronomy.
There is enough money for a decent living but you cannot dream to be a Bill Gates or a Richard Ellison. The average starting salary in this field with a BE degree is around Rs 20000-25000, which can grow with experience. Accommodation and traveling allowances are among the additional benefits that you can avail of.