Day in the life of
Astronomer – Laurence Jones
I have a Ph.D. in astrophysics and did research & teaching in astronomy for 16 years at various UK Universities and for NASA, at Goddard Space Flight Center, Washington DC.
I traveled to telescopes in exotic locations like Hawaii, the Canary Islands, Chile, and Australia, as well as use the Hubble Space Telescope & other satellite telescopes.
Day to day life was not as glamorous as that sounds though. About 95% of my time I would be office based. I would usually be sat in front of a computer, in my own office. Typical tasks were analyzing data, emailing & talking to colleagues, attending meetings, writing research proposals & papers, reviewing other research, and teaching. A typical day would be to get to my office around 8.30 am, check and reply to emails, and then work on one of my current projects. That might involve analyzing data from a recent visit to a telescope, which might take weeks to complete, or preparing a grant or research proposal. Then, with colleagues from down the corridor, and also abroad, I’d write up the research and its implications. That can take a long time!
Getting time on the large telescopes is very competitive; you write a proposal, with detailed evidence, and then you may (or may not) get allocated 3-4 nights of observing time the following year. For satellite telescopes like the Hubble or satellite X-ray telescopes (like XMM & Chandra), it’s even more competitive. They are hugely oversubscribed.
Lunch would sometimes be with colleagues, but more often at my desk. After lunch, I would go through the details of the astrophysics I was due to teach that afternoon. That would be a lecture to 50 students for an hour or perhaps in-depth teaching in a small group. I might also have other people’s research papers or proposals to review, or a Department meeting. I’d finish at perhaps 5pm.
Around 2-3 times a year I would go observing to a telescope, talk at an international conference, or go to a progress meeting of a large international research project. Occasionally we would have a very interesting research result, and get excited!
Most astronomers work in universities or at government organizations like NASA. These employers are flexible on holidays and work hours. Plus you get to travel. You can choose what research to work on, to a large degree. There is the intellectual stimulation of discovering new things.
You need a good degree in Physics, then a Ph.D. That’s a long time being a student. Your first research job after that will not be permanent (typically for 3 years), and you can be very concerned about where the next grant to pay your salary is coming from. Or you might have to move a big distance to a new University or lab to get the next job. Competition for the few permanent jobs is intense.
Why did I change my career? I was always on 3 or 5-year job contracts, and looking over my shoulder at the next grant or job. In the end, I decided to put down some roots, we started a family, and I turned my photography hobby into a business, KidsNaturally Photography.
observe, research, and interpret astronomical phenomena to increase basic knowledge or apply such information to practical problems.