Comments and Links Regarding Careers/Jobs/etc. for Undergrads, Grad students, and Postdocs in Astrophysics
Eric Mamajek (last updated 4/19/2016)

This was written before I left UR to take a new position working at Jet Propulsion Laboratory - so it is somewhat dated, but hopefully still useful.

The academic career path is not for everyone. I spent five years as an undergrad at Penn State, one year doing a masters degree and fellowship in Australia, five years as a grad student at University of Arizona, then four years as a postdoc at CfA in Boston (hence fifteen years total between graduating high school and getting a junior faculty position). I've changed cities seven times since high school, and at last count I was on my 22nd apartment/house. Needless to say, I was pleased to have landed a tenure track position at UR after only one postdoc. It has been a long journey, and I have met many people in various stages in their careers along the way. It is hard to believe, but I am now "mid-career" (yikes).

I would like to share with you some thoughts on "what I wish I had known" along the way. The key is find out what is important to you, to decide a direction and course of action, and to execute it. You are the only one who can reasonably decide your career direction. I hope that my comments here regarding becoming an astronomer cause you to think about what trajectory you are on, why, and whether you should consider a change in course. Remember that everyone makes mistakes along the way, but it always helps to learn from other people's mistakes first!

At all stages in your career you should be asking yourself what kind of job would I enjoy doing? And not only the "field", but what type of "activity" would you prefer? And its OK if that answer changes over time -- I suspect that it does for most people. While my early interests were in meteorology, geology, and other areas of physics, I was fairly sure by the time I was a freshman undergraduate that I wanted to be an astronomer. I was sure that I wanted to do research, and pretty sure that I would enjoy teaching.

As a professor, my time is almost evenly split between research, teaching, and service. The first two are probably obvious to students, however the last may not be. All faculty have different service components, and indeed we do service both for "internally" the university and "externally" for our profession. Examples of my "internal" service is chairing the astrophysics seminar committee and serving on PhD defense and qualifying exam committees. Examples of my "external" service is serving on the time allocation committee for the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, and being lead editor on the conference proceedings for an IAU symposium. At UR, we are expected to teach a course per semester (and teach effectively!), and we are expected to be productive researchers. This means building a research group, involving students in our research activities, doing our experiments/observations/etc., publishing our results, and applying for funding to continue our research or start new projects (usually from e.g. NASA, NSF, etc.). For all aspects, one needs to be an effective communicator, both in terms of speaking and writing. One can not work in a vacuum!

Nearly all jobs related to astronomy/astrophysics involve some combination of research, teaching, and service. And there are jobs along any extrema of those three axes (i.e. all research, all teaching, all service). Also, there are three other axes to think about regarding the type of astrophysics you're interested in: theory, observation, and instrumentation. There are a few rare phenoms who excel at all three, but most people specialize along one (or at most two) of these directions. So it is important to ask yourself early on what type of position would be the most satisfying to you. That way you can tailor your CV and experiences to that type of position before you apply to that type of position.

Here is some watered-down advice at various places in the climb to being an astronomer:

In high school, make sure you ace your physics and math classes (but take your other classes seriously too; unbeknownst to me at the time, two of my most valuable classes were typing and Spanish!). Knowledge of the constellations and night sky is unimportant (a surprise to some students!) -- but strong math and science backgrounds are critical. English is also important as you will spend more time writing than you can imagine. In terms of other languages -- Spanish may be the most useful to the future astronomer. At international astronomy meetings, English is (ironically) the lingua franca. However, there are many current observatories in - and future astronomical telescopes that will be built in - Latin America (mainly Chile and Mexico; e.g. CTIO, Gemini, SOAR, ESO, VLT, ELT, ALMA, GMT, LMT). Indeed, there is also a growing number of physics experiments in Latin America as well: e.g. Pierre Auger Observatory, HAWC, etc. There are many reasons for this: availability of great sites (high, dry, low light pollution), growing economies and growing numbers of scientists and engineers (and hence abundance of local expertise), and the difficulty and/or undesirability of building new large projects in e.g. USA, Canada, Europe, etc. (lack of good sites, environmental and cultural concerns, etc.). As it appears that a major portion of new astronomical projects will be sited in Latin America, and given the growing number of astronomers in those countries - I would suggest Spanish as the best language to take in high school (I am also biased as my wife is Chilean!). Other languages may be helpful in particularly settings (French, German, Dutch, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese), but the international astronomy meetings and major astrophysics journals all conduct their business in English. Weigh your options for colleges. College is getting way too expensive -- more expensive is not always best. Remember that you'll have to pay off all that debt when you're out of grad school -- right around the time that you might think about putting a down payment on a house! Make sure your prospective college has a decent physics and/or astrophysics department with at least some of the faculty doing research that you find interesting.

As an undergrad, do well in all of your classes, but especially physics and math. Find a research project with a professor to work on, either during the summer (preferable) or during the semester. Sophomore year is probably the ideal time to start research. If you can, apply to an REU program to do summer research at another institution. Note that lots of research experience is no substitution for good grades! I'm seeing more and more students applying for grad school that have done nice research projects as undergrads, but their physics/math/astronomy grades are not good enough to convince a grad school admissions committee that they could pass the hurdles of a physics-heavy graduate curriculum. The most useful computer languages are probably compilable codes like C, C++, and Fortran (simply because so much has already been written in these languages) and script languages like Python (which is growing more popular) and Perl. Lots of astronomical data analysis is done in IDL and iraf. Java - while historically a popular language for many applications - is not used by many scientists that I know. Whether you are a Windows or Mac user, you'll have to learn the Unix/Linux environment at some point. Grades are obviously important, so make sure you are getting mostly As and A-s (Bs are not the end of the world). Don't worry if your school has little or no astronomy curriculum -- math and physics are key. Make sure that some professors have gotten to know you, either through research (preferably) or classwork -- you'll need letters from ~3 people when you apply for graduate programs. Physics GRE scores are important, but I'm not convinced that they are the best predictor of future success. Physics GRE scores are usually looked at as defining a "threshold" level of physics knowledge, i.e. below a certain level (which would vary dept. to dept.) it may be very difficult to get into a graduate program. If you don't yet have a CV - make one and update it from time to time. Remember to have fun!

Between undergrad and graduate schools: This is something to think about. A) do you really, really want to go to grad school? B) if you do -- do you really, really want to go right away? While the answer for most graduate students is "yes", this may not be the best automatic choice for you. In my senior year at PSU, I won a Fulbright fellowship which enabled me to do research for a year at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, Australia. This was one of the best years of my life, and I would have missed it had I simply gone straight from undergrad to grad school. Other people I know took time off to try their hand at a "real" job (e.g. usually computer-related) or to do something completely unrelated (a volunteer position). For most people in their early 20s, they are not "tied down", so after graduation can be a great time to do "something else". This also gives one time to think about how badly you really want to spend the next 4-8 years in grad school! Some people miss academia and can't wait to return. Others find meaningful employment in the "real world" and never look back. Either way, a "short term" interlude doing something else can be win-win if it helps you figure out what want to do in the "long term".

Selecting a grad school and visits: this is a tough one since every sees different positives and negatives in astronomy/physics departments and universities. I have a few general pieces of advice, in no particular order of importance (they're all important). Beware of a grad school where the graduate students, in general, do not seem happy. You should be able to sense whether there is a cloud of discontent over the majority of the grad population. Every program will have a few malcontents, but if the majority of the grad students seem unhappy, that is probably a good sign that you should run screaming and look elsewhere. Be on the look out for up-and-coming programs which may not have had the best reputation in the past, but whose futures are looking brighter. Every student seems to know which programs are "best" based on reputation. But reputations can be dated, and those programs with a great reputation may not be "best" for them in particular. Similarly, be on the look out for up-and-coming faculty, who you may not of heard of before, but whose futures are looking bright. One of the reasons that I went to University of Arizona in the late 1990s was because there was more than a handful of really great professors there doing really research on topics that I found very interesting. But, I ended up being the first PhD student of a guy who was a 32-year-old postdoc when I first started working with him (Michael Meyer) and Arizona was smart enough to hire him my first year of grad school. Some (not all) of the more senior people with great reputations could also be slowly ramping down their careers and working with fewer or no grad students - so they may not be a viable advisor with a ~5 year time-horizon. I would also claim that it is far too risky to go to a grad school based on the work and reputation of one star faculty member. This is like investing your retirement in a single stock -- it is far wiser to hedge your nest egg with a balanced portfolio of high and low risk investments. Translation: it is a good idea to go to a program where you are reasonably confident that there are at least 3-5 people that you think you could see yourself doing PhD thesis research with based on your interest in their work. Some of the missing pieces of the equation are: can a given professor take on another grad student when you are looking for PhD work? And is that professor's personality one that you could deal with for ~5 years? And are the students already working for that professor/those professors happy, working on interesting research, and generally optimistic about their future prospects? Also, your ears should be tuned in to the reputation of your potential advisors. Reputations -- both good and bad -- are usually "earned" based on years of interactions between individuals and their students, postdocs, and coworkers. A few bad stories may start to paint a picture that a certain faculty member is not one that you should work with. That being said, every student has a different personality, as does every faculty member -- some people work well together (sometimes surprisingly so), and some people realize that they couldn't work together after only talking for a few minutes. Grad school is a huge investment of your time and life -- but you can stack the odds for a good experience and future dividends by being smart when finding research advisors. Lastly, make sure the city hosting your grad school feels right to you - this is obviously important if you prefer certain types of weather, terrain, activities, or prefer to be near friends or family. Don't dismiss the importance of this to your psychological well-being.

Ah, grad students! So you've decided to spend the best years of your life in front of a computer writing code, crunching data, and writing a thesis! Take your "prelim" or "qualifying" exam very seriously -- in whatever format it takes -- and study! That being said, it is not the end of the world if you fail such an exam, provided you pass the 2nd time. I know several astronomers who went on to have successful careers that failed their first prelim or qualifying exam. It looks great if you get a research or teaching fellowship which helps pay the bills. These are rather competitive, so getting a fellowship as a grad student looks great on your CV. It is also good training for doing something that scientists need to way too often: write proposals to fund their research! Picking the right research advisor is tricky -- ideally you work with someone who's personality you can tolerate (or enjoy), and who is working on research that you enjoy (or can tolerate). It is also good to get to know other professors -- you'll obviously need more letters and eventually members of your PhD committee -- but also, you may decide to switch research projects in your first or second year for various reasons. Remember to give talks! Now is the time to get comfortable getting up in front of a room and talking about your research, someone else's research (journal club), or anything. You'll need to give good talks in the future (job talks, conferences, etc.), so now is a good time to practice in the "sandbox" of grad school. If you don't yet have a CV - make a good one and update it from time to time. In your last year -- apply for postdoc fellowships (e.g. Hubble, Einstein, Sagan, NSF, etc.)! And start working on your job applications materials early (i.e. ~August)! Remember to have fun!

Postdocs! Congratulations "doctor", you have a PhD diploma! Now what? This can be the most frustrating part of the trip as sometimes astronomers go through several short-term positions before they land more permanent positions (meanwhile, other life changes may be making this a rather tricky endeavor). While you may be being paid to do a particular job for a professor/astronomer, you need to be thinking about improving your chances for getting the next job. You should be applying for tenure-track positions whenever you see a good position come up in the AAS job register. Publish your work in a timely manner. Go to conferences. Give talks. Make yourself known (hopefully for good reasons). Network with other astronomers. Maybe join some research groups working on different projects. Get on a review committee -- either a time allocation committee (TAC; e.g. Hubble) or a grant reviewing committee (e.g. NSF, NASA). Reading other people's proposals will help you refine your own style in writing your own. Keep thinking about what kind of position you really want: professor at a research university? teaching at a small liberal arts college? staff at national observatory? or something completely different? Another new skill to master: learn to say NO! Your time is valuable -- and some things are a waste of time, so think before you agree to volunteer to do something. Remember, again, to have fun!

If there is something to sum up success as a research scientist, it might be:

"Work on interesting topics, learn to work effectively in collaborations, do careful research and write quality research papers, advertise your results, keep learning new skills, work with talented colleagues whose specialties compliment your own skills, and preferably work with supportive senior scientists who are familiar with your work and can write effective letters of recommendation."

I find the most challenging part to be "learning new skills" as one needs periods of uninterupted time to invest in this activity - and uninterupted time becomes more and more scarce as you progress in your career. Ideally you are working on a topic which you can easily explain to a non-scientist in one or two sentences, and even they can appreciate the relevance. I have encountered several mid-career and late-career scientists over the years that felt there work was unappreciated, and they would express frustration that it was difficult to get funding and telescope time to pursue their topics. After some questioning, I realized that they were working on research topics that few astronomers were interested in - or topics that were more "hot" a couple decades ago, but that few people were working on now (i.e. "low-impact", or there work was somewhat "incremental" - but few scientists cared for the "increment"!). Most of the people that I have known that went to school for a degree in astronomy and/or physics, whether they are still in a career where they are doing research or teaching astronomy and physics, or not, seem to be glad with the path they've taken... even if they are now doing something very different.

You will also run into people that are bitter. That may have had negative experiences either as undergrads, or in grad school, or as postdocs. They may have had a bad advisor, or felt slighted, underappreciated, over-pressured, or even discriminated against. Some have left the field, and are quite proud of the fact, and enjoy reminding people over and over (ad nauseum). No experiences are the same. It is a good idea to listen to stories of the bad experiences, to learn from them where applicable, and to hope that we can all do better as a colleague, friend, or advisor. However, one person's bad experiences or opinions shouldn't dissuade you from pursuing your dreams.

Well, I'll update this page periodically in case I can think of more useful things to say. This website is not meant to be exhaustive, but I think I've covered the highlights. I've added the following links to help you see what is out there in terms of jobs, and for the little things that help along the way.

For All Students and Postdocs:

  • American Astronomical Society (AAS) Career Services - read the job profiles
  • AAS Job Listings: postdoc, faculty, staff positions. See what sorts of jobs are out there and what qualifications they are looking for.
  • ADS bibliographical query: find astrophysics papers on your favorite topics and by your favorite authors
  • "Scientist: Four golden lessons" by Steven Weinberg
  • AstroBetter - Tips and Tricks for Professional Astronomers


  • Summer internship advice and opportunities - AstroBetter
  • So you want to go to graduate school in astronomy? - excellent practical advice from my former classmate Jane Rigby
  • AAS list of astronomy degree granting institutions
  • NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) summer programs (while doing research at your home institution looks great, it also helps if you've done summer research somewhere else; deadlines vary by host)
  • NSF Graduate Student Fellowships (deadline is ~November).
  • Fulbright Program - an excellent way to spend a year abroad between undergrad and grad school.
  • Applying to the UR Physics/Astronomy Graduate Program: recently ranked second nationally in overall graduate student satisfaction!

    Grad Students:

  • NASA Graduate Student Researchers Program (deadline 1 Feb)
  • NASA Earth & Space Science Fellowship Program (deadline 1 Feb)
  • NSF Graduate Student Fellowships (in case you missed it as a senior ugrad; deadline is ~November).
  • Postdoctoral prize fellowships: Hubble, Einstein, Sagan, Clay, etc.. These and others start appearing in the AAS Job Listings in the summer, and usually have Oct-Nov deadlines.
  • Astrophysics Job Rumor Wiki: Faculty & Staff and Postdoc & Term

    Suggested Reading

  • Planning for Graduate Studies in Physics and Related Fields (PDF) - Dennis Henry, American Association of Physics Teachers - a must read for undergraduate physics or astronomy majors
  • A Ph.D. is Not Enough! A Guide to Survival in Science by Peter J. Feibelman. Easily the best text on the subject both for advanced undergrads and graduate students. A breezy, but necessary 109-page read.
  • Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering by Richard M. Reis. A worthwhile read, especially for newly minted PhDs/postdocs. An insightful look at academia and faculty jobs.
  • NASA ROSES solicited research programs & deadlines