Astronomy Professor – Overview
Not long ago, members of the field of astronomy made the landmark discovery of the strong possibility of liquid water having existed on Mars at some point. Because water is necessary for life as we know it, this discovery is tremendously important.
Astronomers and astrophysicists study the universe to learn more about it, its origin, its possible future, and its laws. It is, by nature, a field that greatly captures the imagination, treating its practitioners to awesome wonders.
An astronomy professor is also an astronomer, but one who teaches college students in addition to regularly performing exciting research.
The work of an astronomy professor
1) Classroom Instruction
First and foremost is passing on knowledge and information. This means, primarily, teaching undergraduate students, but may mean teaching graduate-level classes as well. The latter type of teaching might come later in one’s career.
Like other university professors, astronomy professors may teach to three to four courses per semester, or nine to sixteen credit hours. This may have the professor in the classroom for a couple of hours four days per week.
To give an idea of the courses taught by an astronomy professor, Stanford University lists courses in its current catalog including Introduction to Observational Astrophysics, Planetary Systems: Dynamics and Origins, and General Relativity.
2) Curriculum Design and Grading
An astronomy professor designs curriculum for classes, including lectures, assignments, quizzes, and exams. In some cases, the professor grades papers, research journals, and exams, while Graduate Student Instructors often carry at least some of this load
Not only do professors hold office hours at which they meet one-on-one with students, but they often closely mentor select pupils. This may include having an independent study with an upper-level undergraduate or guiding research of students. It can mean writing recommendation letters for students.
4) Tenure Requirements
Tenure is a system that gives permanence to the employment of a member of academia. A few years into one’s time as a professor, she or he completes an application for tenure. This includes evidence of teaching excellence and of contributing to research.
Tenure is a competitive process, one that isn’t easy. It can at times seem very political, and most members of academia feel pressure while seeking it. Once one achieves tenure, he or she can be assured of not losing his or her job due to controversial teaching or research.
Skills and Traits
It goes without saying that a professor in any field is knowledgeable, talented, and passionate about the field. However, the skills of a professor shouldn’t end there. As in any field, the astronomy professor must have a knack for explaining concepts. Many astronomy courses involve lectures, and the technical nature of the material means it will be unfamiliar to most students.
A fondness for interacting with others, patience, and a generally congenial nature can be beneficial. This is due to the fact that the concepts in astronomy, as in much of academia, can be difficult for students.
Astronomy professors complete fascinating and challenging research projects that demand a combination of patience, attention to detail and creativity.
Because astronomy involves many physics concepts, its professors must be very proficient in physics (which will be covered in education, below). Some astronomers are specifically astrophysicists, and at some institutions, astronomy instruction is housed in the physics department.
Further, math is essential to the work of astronomers. While fascinating and inspiring facts about planets and stars and pulsars and quasars are key to the work, a practicing scientist in the field must perform calculations in one’s work—and teach these to students.
Education and the path to a professorship
Professors at four-year universities have PhD’s. In some cases, astronomers can staff full-time, non-tenure-track positions with just a Master’s. Instructors at community colleges may hold a Master’s; but instruction of astronomy at associate’s degree-granting institutions is limited.
The PhD usually takes five to six years of study. The student generally chooses some specialty, such as planetary astronomy, stellar astronomy, cosmology (the study of the origin of the universe), or astrophysics. After two years of coursework, the PhD student then undertakes a dissertation project, consisting of a large body of research that is presented in a lengthy paper.
The PhD candidate must then develop a solid Curriculum Vitae (CV—an academic form of a resume) to apply for professorships. This lists coursework, details of the dissertation, references, and the preparation you’ve done, such as research work beyond your dissertation, clubs and organizations, etc. The process of applying for a professorship is very challenging and very competitive.
A PhD student often majored in astronomy, or physics, with a specialty in astronomy, though this may not be necessary. Computer science, information technology, or natural sciences such as chemistry or geology help provide a useful background for advanced study in Astronomy.
A student should approach graduate study in astronomy with a good grounding in the closest natural sciences, such as physics; success in college-level math courses; and great intellectual curiosity.
High school students considering careers in astronomy should strongly consider taking a physics course, and must have some success in college-prep math courses. Progressing to the level of Calculus in high school is good grounding for a would-be astronomer. All of these skills will be useful in any related fields.
The current range of salaries for tenured professors in astronomy is $80,000-$100,000 per year. For beginning, tenure-track professors it is roughly $50,000, on average. In most cases, this is for the academic year, about nine months out of the year.
While the universe and its components are in constant, often violent change, the astronomy profession is not. It is much smaller than many components of academia, and the turnover rate for professorships is not high. The American Astronomical Society reports, “In recent years, there have been bout 150 job openings for astronomers in North America, while the number of Ph.D.s conferred annually in recent years has averaged about 125.” Note, this refers to all astronomy professionals, not just those pursuing professorships.
The same report from the AAS asserts, “It is common for astronomers to spend from three to six years in postdoctoral positions before finding a steady position in a university department, national facility, or government lab.” Postdoctoral positions are usually research positions funded by universities offering a modest salary.
The American Astronomical Society tells us that 55% of professionals in the field of astronomy are in academia. Those who have a passion for astronomy and want to be immersed in it may find a professorship to be a rewarding way to do so. This would allow them to keep in touch with current crops of students while performing research. It is a lifestyle much less structured than full-time work in a laboratory.
As with all academic pursuits, most people enter astronomy out of intense passion for the field, unable to imagine themselves doing anything else. Specifically, astronomers seek mysteries from millions and billions of light years away. The work they do can contribute to an understanding of the universe we inhabit. It reminds us how spectacular it is that human beings have the ability to understand, to increasing degrees, where we came from, and how the universe functions.