It’s a small pool of highly trained and passionate people. There are only about 6,000 professional astronomers in the United States. This also makes it a highly competitive field, so obtaining a doctorate or master's in physics, astrophysics or other space-related subject can propel your future career researching the heavens.

As technology has improved in the last decade, colleges around the world have realized they need to ramp up astrophysics and space science programs, course offerings and labs to attract top astronomy students.

This has opened the field of available colleges for future astronomers, with more and more higher education institutions vying for brilliant stargazing students.

School Work to Become an Astronomer

An astronomer or astrophysicist requires many years of school. Students who enjoy solving math and physics problems and excel in undergraduate classes in these subjects are ideal candidates for graduate studies in astronomy or astrophysics. An undergraduate degree in physics or a math concentration will help to propel a student into a good master's or doctorate program.

Graduate students need to work with huge data sets that are measured in terabytes, so they should be comfortable with computers and possibly programming. They work with complex multi-variable modeling that requires quite a bit of computer processing. A student should be able to work well with others as teams try to solve problems.

What to Look for in a College

To attract the best talent and educate the world’s premier physicists, astronomers and scientists, many higher education institutions have pumped up their astronomy programs. Colleges across the country have spent a significant amount of funding, effort and time into building stunning observatories and creating labs with state-of-the-art technology.

The best astronomy schools will have a stellar program with a wealth of faculty and a low student-to-faculty ratio. After the first two years of coursework, the astronomy graduate program typically will require the student to complete research projects that are overseen by experienced staff members.

Where to Work

The main portion of astronomers with a Ph.D. or master’s degree tends to work in colleges and universities. This pairs teaching with further research on the graduate students preferred research project.

A majority of astronomers work for the government or government contracted institutions or companies.

Only about 10 percent of graduates work for private corporations on space-related projects. The top percent work directly in planetariums, observatories or science centers.

Which Is the Highest Paying Job?

It takes a lot of work to become an astronomer, and the pay varies widely. It mainly depends on the type of work the students intend to do after graduation as well as the kind of institution or corporation they hope to work with.

After all that schooling, the median annual wage for an astronomer who works for the government or a private institution on space-related work can expect to make in the mid-six figures. The low end of astronomy-related jobs pays in the mid-five figures.

Haleakala Observatory – University of Hawaii

For more than 40 years, devoted astrophysicists have conducted experiments and completed research at this impressive facility. It is unique in that it is the only place on the planet to conduct specific research on space and collect and compare data.

The weather in Hawaii is ideal for observing celestial events. The solar telescope that is within the Haleakala Crater is the most powerful in the world. A primary mirror of 4 m supports clarity of .03 arc seconds. This allows for observation and experimentation of the sun that is continually offering new information about the star.

Apace Point – New Mexico State University

Nestled high atop the Sacramento Mountains, this premiere facility was the first to create a digital map of the stars, including the stunning flow of the Milky Way.

The four telescopes at Apache Point range in sizes from .5 m to 3.5 m. They are capable of a wide field, optical and infrared imaging as well as spectroscopy and photometry.

The three larger telescopes contain a Ritchey-Chretien reflector that is set on an alt-azimuth mount. This makes them perfect for deep-sky imaging.

McDonald University – University of Texas at Austin

This is one of the best colleges for astronomy in Texas and the region. Nearly 500 miles from the bright lights of Austin is the McDonald University. Perched in the Davis Mountains high above the rolling hills of West Texas, this observatory uses four research telescopes to explore the early universe and expose the rate of its expansion among other heavenly feats.

The 9.2 m Hobby-Eberly was built specifically to collect massive amounts of light. It is the fourth largest optical telescope in the world. It has a mirror that is 11.1 meters by 9.8 meters. The 2.7 m Harlan J. Smith telescope is a Robotic Optical Transient Search Experiment telescope.

Mount Graham International Observatory – University of Arizona

Professionals from around the world come to this facility that is connected to the University of Arizona through the Steward Observatory. It is part of the Coronado National Forest within the Pinaleno Mountains of Arizona. It is easily one of the best schools for astrophysics due to its size and scope.

The observatory has three telescopes, including the Large Binocular Telescope that can gaze into distant galaxies. Students have access to some of the top astronomers and astrophysicists from around the world while studying at UA’s Steward Observatory.

Big Bear Solar Observatory – New Jersey Institute of Technology (California)

Originally built 50 years ago by the California Institute of Technology, this is now owned by the stellar New Jersey Institute of Technology. The Big Bear Solar Observatory recently expanded its central observation and instruction area for students to cover a greater level of research.

It has a newly installed clear aperture open frame, off axis design telescope. This singular telescope has greater amount of power to perform a much wider array of educational activities and research.

W. M. Keck Observatory – California Institute of Technology and University of California

Jointly operated by the University of California and Cal Tech, the Keck Observatory is actually located in Hawaii. Placed perfectly atop Mauna Kea on the main island, it has two dueling telescopes that are towering eight-stories tall.

The twin telescopes sit side by side atop the mountain and work together to allow observers a clear picture of the deep heavens. One telescope is an infrared model while the other is optical. This allows better clarity for students and research scientists.

Prescott Observatory Complex – Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

When it comes to educating highly skilled astrophysicists and astronomers, this observatory is one of the most prestigious. It offers views of the night skies through optical and radio telescopes that measure between 12 and 14 inches in diameter.

The separate Radio Observatory has an ear to the skies at all times. This allows students to better locate the presence of objects in relation to other objects that a telescope alone may not be able to visually perceive.

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About the Author

Kimberley McGee is an award-winning journalist with 20+ years of experience writing about education, jobs, business trends and more for The New York Times, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Today’s Parent and other publications. She graduated with a B.A. in Journalism from UNLV. Her full bio and clips can be seen at www.vegaswriter.com.