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perspectives on professional vs. amateur astronomy

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perspectives on professional vs. amateur astronomy

Hello Everyone,

            As the title of my post suggests, I am interested in hearing others’ perspectives on the differences between professional and amateur astronomy, as I am trying to decide whether I should pursue a career in astronomy or remain an amateur. I hope that you will bear with me as I provide a brief outline of my predicament.

            I am currently a law student in the US, but ever since I was 12, my real passion has undoubtedly been astronomy. I got started with visual observing and then astrophotography as a teenager, but over the past four years, I've immersed myself in photometry, spectroscopy, and other more research-oriented aspects of astronomy. I regularly submit photometry to the AAVSO, I’ve worked closely with several of my school’s astronomers, and I’ve started to publish papers. At the same time, I detest law school, and I no longer see how it fits into my long-term plans. Indeed, a law degree would only take me away from what I truly enjoy: astronomy.

            From my experience with doing research and with teaching, I know that I would love to be a professor of astronomy. However, my undergraduate degree is in political science. (It’s a long story.) I tried to switch into astronomy this past summer, and two schools accepted me so that I could take some of the physics courses that I’d need for a graduate program in astronomy. I attempted to enroll in one of them, but due to several clerical errors and my own mishandling of the resulting chaos, that plan fell apart at the last minute, leaving me mired in law school. Considering that I am almost 24 with no coursework in physics, several people have told me that this might have been my very last chance to switch into astronomy. This news is truly heartbreaking to me, but ultimately, it’s my own fault.

            At this point, I’m trying to figure out whether I would be content to remain an amateur astronomer for the rest of my life. This is where I’d welcome input from the AAVSO community—in particular, from observers who once thought about becoming professionals. Why didn’t you pursue a career in astronomy? Are you satisfied with your current involvement in astronomy, or do you regret not becoming a professional astronomer? Of course, if anyone—amateur or professional—has any insight on this general topic, I’d be grateful for it. Thanks in advance!

           Best Regards,

           Colin (LCO)


KTC's picture
You can take the high road, or the low road

Some considerations to ponder:

1.  Can you eat 'math' with a fork and spoon?  Are you well above average in that field?  Technical degrees at the graduate, and post-graduate level can be grueling in math.  (In one of the last 300/400 level physics courses I'd walk into lab equipment.  Just whiteboards on all four walls.  The bell rang and the instructor walked in...and started lecturing and writing equations on the boards...working around the room...filling all boards.  If I fell behind in my notes I would create a question, any question...just to stop the instructor for a bit so I could catch up.)

Have you dealt with this sort of math-trauma before?  Can you do it for several years?

2.  As an amateur call the shots with your gear.  Want to conduct an observing project on some 'low-payoff' object...for years?  That's ok.  You have nothing to lose but time. 

3.  If you don't get a degree in astronomy, you can get a 9-to-5 job that pays (at least) reasonably frugal, save/invest regularly....and retire at an age where you can still take up a second career of advanced amateur astronomer:  move to a good astro-climate, set up lots of scopes, or set up one large scope...and do lots of data collection, collaboration, analysis, writing, etc.

4.  If you're not a math wizard, are you a good program manager?....'people person'?  A lone wolf?  Good wrench-turner?  Software engineer?  Other?  Play to your strengths/abilities.  (Schooling/training helps, but we all have natural tendencies that we should recognize.)  This can impact your career path/choices.

I hope this helps.

HQA's picture
becoming a professional astronomer

The AAS used to have a pamphlet on becoming a professional astronomer; I've heard that they are thinking of creating another one.  As Tom says, there is a world of difference between loving astronomy and obtaining a PhD in astronomy, especially when you are starting fresh.  You are NOT too old; I've known several astronomers who got their PhD in their 30's and 40's.  A good starting point is to take a course or two at a local college, especially concentrating on physics and math.  That not only gets your feet wet in the heavy-duty courses, but can be used to show any entrance committee that you have the basic technical ability. There are also several closely related fields that might be easier to pursue, such as Science Education (with a concentration in astronomy).  Go talk to the graduate advisor in a nearby astronomy department and get her/his take on your situation.

Your goal of becoming an astronomy professor is a little harder.  Getting the PhD is the first step, but there are few academic jobs available, with many applicants.  This tends to be cyclic, so in 6 years the situation might be better, but it usually comes down to working with the right, well-known, advisor, getting several papers published while in graduate school, and making the right contacts (work the floor at every AAS meeting and get to know everyone).  There are lots of astronomy-related jobs other than pure academia, such as the various space missions, NSF/NASA/JPL/etc., manufacturing, museums and planetariums, even statistics (the CIA heavily recruited me in graduate school, for example).  Academic pay is "ok", but you can find lots of other, better-paying jobs, that are fun and interesting and still allow you to pursue astronomy as a side career.

By no means consider this reply as negative - if you really like astronomy to the level of wanting it to be your career, then pursue it aggressively.  Just research the requirements and job possibilities carefully at the beginning so that you know what you are likely to encounter.


WGEinWVA's picture

24 is way too young to be considering that you have had a last chance for most anything, except being 23!  And you can always lie about that.  Age excuse is the worst of all.  Just forget it.

Why are you listening to what several people told you?  Were they experts?  Would it matter if they were?  After all, consider - if you were 50 and really wanted to do this, you could, right?... but even if you were 18, it would be a long, long haul to become a professional astronomer.

Consider whether being a professional is really what you would want.  Physics and math classes can really take the glow off astronomy if you are not inclined to these subjects.  That spiritual glow many amateurs seem to get from astronomy may not exist when you are taking Physics and Calculus from someone who barely speaks English.  These classes can be amazingly dry, even if you love the subjects at hand.

From what I have seen of professionals, I have honestly thought that a lot of what they do looks very boring to me.  Only a handful seem to make it to the level where they are really being astronomers in the sense of what we probably think of when we envision what it's like.

Maybe you would do better to finish law school and make millions, then retire at 35 as a full-time amateur.

But, the only thing I could see standing in your way if you really want to do this is whether you can afford it.  If you have no dependents and can afford the years of low or no pay, then why not?  Even if the math proves tough, you know, most people can beat it if they want to.


HJZ's picture
Perspectives on Professional vs Amateur Astronomy


You also might consider getting a M.S. in Physics Education.  The math and physics requirements are a bit lighter and you can get through the program in a couple of years, maybe less.  This would allow you to teach Intro to Physics or  Astronomy courses in community colleges, some of which have very active astronomy programs.


Aaron Price
Aaron Price's picture
Glen is spot on

If I could, I'd repost Glenn's response in all bold, 100pt font, blinking. :) You still have plenty of time and opportunity to switch if you want. Amateurs can now do almost any research they want. The only thing restricted to them is time on the super large scopes, and qualified and experienced amateurs can almost always fine a pro to partner with them to request time on those scopes. Nobody does anything alone anymore. And the pro field will shrink in size as federal funding (at least in the USA) plummets with no sign of a reversal on the horizon.

But if you do stick with law, there may be ways to make it palatable. I know little about law, but doesn't it require some sort of specialization? If so, can you do something combining science and the law? There is a big demand for lawyers that understand technology, software and the like. I suspect such a demand also exists for scientifically competent lawyers. That way you are at least practicing in a field that interests you. You could even do some pro bono work for astronomy organizations like observatories (or, dare I say, the AAVSO?).

I would almost suggest finishing law (assuming you can find a tract that interests you) and then getting a bachelors (or MS) in astronomy. That will give you the fundamentals to do your own research and also help you build connections with pros.Early career lawyers often get caught up in the world of billable hours, so you'll need to be disciplined. But I think you are overall in a pretty good position in life.

HNL's picture
professional vs amateur


               Colin:  As with all things in life. I know people who have gone for it. PH'd.  But, the big question is: How much does it mean to you?  Will it feed you and your dependents. Law is somthing you can carry with you into retirement.  Amateur astronomy is a hobby. So maybe this is the way to keep it.  I have gone to conventions and workshops.  All the advice is:  Don't give up your day job. So, it pretty much comes down to the question of "What is best for you " ?



BGW's picture
what do you love

If you can manage it at all, find a way to get paid to do what you love!   As others have said, 24 ain't old, so you still have time to choose.  (I'm 54).   But try to get at the root of what you love.  Is it astronomy or is it knowing how stars work, how orbits work etc.  In which case maybe you're a physicist.  Tom Krajci is right that some physics courses are endless mathematical derivation, but IMHO physics is knowing how things work.  I spent a great afternoon a year or two ago with a rather mathematical professional astrophysicist:  he talked about doing the math, and then "putting the physics back in" at the end of the derivations.  I.e. figuring out what the math was telling you, being able to explain it in words.  In fact, that's where I lost it in one of my 4th year physics courses:  it was General Relativity, and the tensor notation was so compact and powerful that I couldn't see how to put the physics back in at the end.  Passed the course on charity, not merit.

If you aced high-school math, there's a good chance you'll be able to handle the math you'll need to learn for physics.  If high-school math was a struggle, then proceed with caution.  One of the first things you'll be taking is calculus.  First-year calculus is the weeding-out course.  If you have trouble with that, it doesn't bode well.

Anyway, for all of that, I'm not a professional astronomer.  I'm a geophysicist.  Very similar, because I have to figure out what's going on from measurements at a distance -- i.e. figure out what's going on underground from measurements I can make (mostly) at the surface of the earth.  Very much like astrophysics, based on math, but on a day-to-day basis it is high-school trig that I use (had to be able to pass those uber-mathematical physics courses though!).     If physics is what you love, there are more fields than astronomy that you might find mentally rewarding, and that could provide a good career.

So, I'm sure you see my point about getting at the root of what you love:  I love using physics and logic to find things out...  it gets me a good job applying earth science in the oil and gas industry, and I do astronomy as an amateur.

Oh, and I did consider a career in astronomy, but figured the jobs would be too scarce.  Maybe that was too pessimistic, but the choices I made turned out well for me.

More grist for you mill,  good luck,

Gary Billings

lmk's picture
What to do with your life.

Hi Colin,

This is an interesting thread, and some very good replies have already been posted. Maybe I can just add some perspectives from my point of view, which may or may not be of some help.

First of all, as has been emphatically stated before, you are definitely not "washed up" at 24!!! By no means at all. In fact you are at a great age to be pondering your future course. Really, almost all avenues are still open for you to pursue.

I switched careers quite substantially when I was in my 40's, from IT to biomedical sciences! Even got a PhD in the field, with little prior coursework or experience. So don't worry about your age. Getting into a PhD program in astronomy is not difficult. However, getting into a top ten grad school in this field is tough, but there are plenty of second tier schools which have relatively few applicants, and need to fill positions, and will be quite flexible to accomodate applicants who may lack prerequisites but are otherwise highly motivated. (Try to do really well on the GRE). You should still be able to get a good education, and may be somewhat competitive in the subsequent job market, especially if you choose your adviser and thesis topic carefully. But of course, Astronomy is not med school, you know!

And, as has been mentioned, Astronomy, just like its sister fields of Astrophysics and General Physics, is highly mathematical. Practically every course at the graduate level is going to be mostly equations and computer numerical simulations. You need to be comfortable with advanced math on a daily basis. Since the subsequent academic job market is extremely tight, you will be under constant pressure against your classmates to get most of the A's. If you get more B's and even C's your prospects after graduation will become quite dim.

That being said, you really need to take a serious practical look at what lies ahead after getting that PhD. Unfortunately, I think we all know that Astronomy is a field with precious little money available for research. As has been mentioned, available academic positions in Astronomy are extremely scarce, always have been, and likely will remain so, if not even get worse if our economy doesn't improve substantially. So, the competition for professorships in Astronomy is going to be really fierce. You'll be up against many hungry, brilliant Harvard, MIT, Caltech grads for these positions! So, the majority of Astronomy PhD's must end up going into other directions - adjunct part-time faculty, technical support positions, working in industries marginally related (Aerospace, NASA, military weapons systems, etc.)

While its always best to go into the field you really love, it is equally prudent to have a seriously realistic appraisal of your prospects of success against the competition! Probably, the best way to find out fairly quickly if this is what you are cut out to be, is to take a few upper level core courses in Physics or Astronomy, see if you enjoy them and can Ace them ;) You don't need to be accepted into a program, just enroll as unclassified grad, and get the instructor's permission in most cases.

Good Luck!

Mike LMK

Aaron Price
Aaron Price's picture
run for the hills - an update

Hi, Colin. I have a friend who is a recent law graduate and in a relatively successful practice as a plaintiff litigator. I had dinner with him recently and mentioned your conundrum. His advice was swift and clear: run while you can. He says the supply of lawyers far outweighs current demand and those who do not like law tend to 1. remain uemployed or 2. become poor lawyers who are sloppy and tend to join option #1. According to him, you really have to love it to make it work. And it sounds like you don't. So get out while you can was his advice. As others have said here, it's still not too late to get an astronomy degree. Whether you can turn that into a career is another issue - but with the degree you will at least have the background needed to pursue astronomical research on your own if you wanted. And while getting astronomy jobs is quite difficult, getting other jobs with astronomy degrees is not. Many astro students go into physics, engineering, computer science and other technical careers.

Aldebaran's picture
Pro vs. Amateur

Hello Colin!

I'm actually struggling with almost exactly the same questions than you! I'm currently 26, and I'm almost graduated geologist. I've already done a B.Sc with geology as the major subject and now I only need to do a master's thesis to finish my studies. It seems that this road of geology is taking my towards mining industry and I would be working either in ore prospecting or as a mine geologist, but I'm not sure, if that is the thing I would want to pursue for the rest of my life. The work of a geologist is interesting and it pays well, but still I think my passion lies in some other discipline(s), like astronomy, meteorology, volcanology or even paleontology.

Currently I have been pursuing amateur astronomy as a hobby. I'm definetly going to graduate as a M.Sc. and then perhaps work for some years as a geologist, but some day I'm sure I'm going to study physics in university and then focus either on astronomy or meteorology. Perhaps on meteorology, because there are more jobs in that sector and I'm also very interested in weather and atmospherical phenomena, so also meteorology would be a really good career opportunity for me! So most propably I would be pursuing amateur astronomy as a hobby also in the future.

But anyway, you still have a world filled with opportinities, and I'm sure you will find the path that feels the right one for you!

best regards,

Juha Ojanperä (OJMA)

phil_evans's picture
Professional vs Amateur

Hi Colin.

After a very long and generally successful career, I have finally retired and can do what makes me happy (with the wife's approval and within financial means).

Be yourself! You will never be satisfied or completely happy with a career that you do not love. The key is being honest with yourself and identifying what you love and what your strengths and weaknesses are.

One of my first loves has always been Astronomy. But i knew that i would never make it as an Astronomer or Physicist because of my weakness in math. However, I found that my math weakness didn't seem to apply to computer logic. I jumped on the bandwagon in the 60's and started to specialize in binary logic and low level programming. By playing my cards right, I got into the military and soon had a position at the Naval Electronics Laboratory Center work on, among others projects, military satellite systems. Soon after being released from active duty, I got a position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory working as a computer system specialist on many of the robotic space programs of the 1970's. I was even an original team member of the Voyager Project in Telemetry and Command Operations. From there I went on to become an early staff member of the Multiple Mirror Telescope Observatory on Mt. Hopkins. And the list goes on...

And all of this with only a BS in Computer Science, in later years a BA in Web Design, and for myself an MA in Theology. My point is, if you can identify what you are best at doing, you can quite possibly have a successful career in the field you love, but from a slightly different angle than you might have thought.

Over the years I have become friends with quite a number of professional Astronomers. I would highly suggest that you take a quick look at the career of Dr. David S. Dearborn on the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory site. Dave and I spent many long, cold nights working with Dr. John McGraw and Dr. Sumner Starrfield. Dave looked hard at his career and new there was little chance of him getting full tenure at the Univ. of AZ, so he decide to look at his options. He eventually ended up at Lawrence Labs as a Research Physicist, but he was able to pursue his astronomical interests as well as his hobby as an amateur anthropologist. As I said, read about the remarkable career he was able to achieve by just making a few changes in direction.

Finally, I'll close with a comment about the question of professional vs amateur. On one of those very cold and completely clouded over nights up on Mt Hopkins in AZ, a good size group of researchers were gathered at the dormitory at the SAO "Whipple Observatory" waiting to see if it might clear. The discussion of amateur vs professional broke out and many different viewpoints were given. Then, Dr. John T. McGraw made a statement that will always stay with me. He said; "Amateurs do what they do because of their love of Astronomy. Professionals are paid to do what they do. Most Professionals are still Amateurs, however, a few are not." Good luck and have fun!

HMF's picture

If you are good at math and enjoy physics astronomy is a definite possibility. However, there are far more positions available physics at this time. As a physicist I have the option of areas to study that include astrophysics. Currently I teach math and physics at a community college. It gives me plenty of time to indulge my interests in astronomy.

KMP's picture
go do research

I was a lot older than you, but I flirted with a career in professional astronomy. At 40+ years old I did feel it was not the right move for me to go get a PhD and fight for a job with the young kids.

But I'd suggest that anyone who thinks they want to be an astronomer should volunteer at your local university in the astronomy department. If you are good with computers and with people, you can find professionals willing to let you work for free. I worked on data from HST, Keck, Gemini. I learned IRAF, wrote C code, analyzed spectra, wrote papers, went to conferences – it was awesome! But in the end I decided to put astronomy back in the hobby category and pursue my dollars elsewhere. Anyone wanna buy some beer? 


Michael Koppelman


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