Astronomy: The Search for a Stellar Career

Researchers generally agree that astronomy is in the midst of a golden age of discovery. Robotic spacecraft voyage to distant planets while giant mountaintop observatories and space-based telescopes probe the edge of the Universe. Modern astronomy has moved light years ahead with the opening up to observation of new parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, from infrared (the Spitzer Space Telescope, launched in 2003) to gamma (the Integral Space Observatory, launched in 2002). Ground-based and orbiting telescopes employ exquisitely sensitive detectors to search for objects that are much farther away, and much fainter, than could have been detected just a few years ago. In another important advance, women have joined in the exploration, to the tune of some 40% of undergraduate and graduate students in astronomy.

Despite these advances, working at the final frontier does have its challenges. Astronomy is one of the great attractors of young people into science, but the astronomy community is small. The job market is highly competitive, leaving many aspiring astronomers changing fields while in graduate school, sticking it out in postdocs that seem to be measured in light years, or working in education or some other nonresearch field.

The sky is not the limit when it comes to research funding either. Speaking at the 207th annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) last week, NASA Chief Mike Griffin warned the agency’s astronomers that they will have to face a cash-squeeze to make way for the upcoming push for human exploration of the Moon and Mars. The agency’s astronomical projects and departments can expect their funding to be cut by $100 million over the course of the upcoming year alone. “We who run NASA today are doing our very best to preserve a robust science program in the face of, frankly, some daunting fiscal realities that affect all domestic discretionary spending. In space-based astronomy, and in other areas, we will have to make tough trade-offs between maintaining current missions, and developing new capabilities. These are very difficult times.” The situation at NSF, which has seen flat budgets for several years, is much the same.


In the U.K., where only 20% of U.K. Ph.D. recipients are still practicing astronomy in a university or observatory by age 40, the outlook is similarly bleak, but many U.K. astronomers are holding out hope for a fulfilling career. European Editor Anne Forde looks at The Job Market in UK Astronomy and talks to grassroots researchers about how they perceive the job market in their country.

When the funding belt tightens and astronomers have to work on shoestring budgets, resourcefulness and innovation are the order of the day. In Big Science in a Small Country , correspondent Andrew Fazekas examines how Canadian astronomers are conducting frontline research within strict budget constraints.

What’s it like to be one of the first humans to set eyes on a new alien world? Eric Hébrard counts himself lucky to have worked on the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe, which landed on Saturn’s Moon Titan in January 2005. In Un Enfant des Etoiles , Southern European editor Elisabeth Pain chats with a third-year Ph.D. student about his lifelong fascination with astronomy and the path that led him to study the atmosphere of the solar system's largest moon.

Like most fields, astronomy is adapting. As changes in technology have altered the tools and methods, social changes have brought more women to the discipline. In Changing Faces of Astronomy , we meet two scientists from astronomy's next generation: UCLA's Andrea Ghez, who studies star formation and galactic black holes, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory's William Raphael Hix, who uses his computational expertise to build collaborations in the study of theoretical nuclear astrophysics.

Finally, GrantsNet Program Associate José Fernandez offers up a listing of selected grants and fellowships available to astronomers.

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at

Top photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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