Majoring in Astronomy: Like English, but more expensive

Posted By Pamela on May 4, 2008 | 17 comments

Today while gardening my iPod got stuck on “repeat” while my hands were very very dirty for several hours. This resulted in me listening to Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick, … Boom three times before I could get my hands clean enough that I dared touch my happy little white iPod. While I was (on repeat) listening to this musical about turning 30 and trying to hold onto the non-lucrative career that you dreamed of, I had this realization that while astronomy majors do make fun of English/theater/art majors, we’re really not all that different. Sure, in grad school I got paid enough to have an apartment by myself (if I lived on processed foods), which most English/theater/art grad students can’t say, but … Well … Just like them my job prospects were always close to zero, my future earning potential was always close to lower middle class, and the likelihood that I’d just go do something else with my life was always high.

I know how to program computers. I know how to do web design. I know a lot of useful skills, and should I choose to seek employment using said useful skills, I could almost double my full time base pay rate. But, I’d also die on the inside. Like an English major who finds happiness in solitary writing, I find joy in studying and communicating astronomy.

Those of us who do astronomy choose this field for a lot of reasons. Money is not one of them (After getting a PhD, the typical PostDoc earns something over $30k per year. Tenure-Track Faculty start around $45k).

People go into astronomy for many reasons. There are those who do it because it is the most difficult degree program they can think of, and they demand an intellectual challenge. There are those who did it because they once found it interesting, but now do it because it’s a stimulating job. And there are some of us that fell in love with astronomy as kids and just never knew when we should stop. I’m definitely in this third category. I’ve been reading astronomy magazines and stories as long as I can remember, and using tech a little bit longer I suspect. This is the only thing I know how to be. Even when I was an editor at Astronomy magazine, I self identified myself as the PhD astronomer on staff, not as the news editor. I don’t know how to be something else. An astronomer is just who I am.

But, sometimes when I look at my student loans, and look at my old sofa (bought used a long time ago), and look at artwork for sale in the coffee shop (and still stupidly expensive), and just look at stupid things like pointless new sheets and pointless new shoes, I wonder if it would be all that bad to work at a Big Bad Computer Company. And sometimes, when my husband sees what I earn compared to his software developer salary, it is hard to not decide that maybe working in industry would be good for my soul.

And then my soul screams.

I have a job that I love (most days), where I work with students who are fun to work with (most of them at least), and I have the freedom to seek grant money to do what I want to do and to intellectually explore the things I want to explore, and to even volunteer to help others to explore. Just as the English major or musician or other creative types who only add to the intellectual beauty of the world, astronomers do what we do for the thrill and pleasure and beauty of what we create.

Yes, we are paid more then English Majors and Artists, and this even shows up in the federal budget, where the National Endowment for the arts received $144.4 million and the National Science Foundation Astronomy budget is $250 million, but … The only real reason is our research costs more to do (you try buying telescope time on what you make waiting tables). So, my humanities colleagues and I have both chosen careers with almost no job prospects, and that cause people to ask “So, um, what do you do? Really? What good is astronomy/English for the US economy?”

What do I do? Something that makes me happy. What good is it for the economy? Well, I employ an undergrad, and maybe that is enough.

(Actually, your tax deductible donations to Astronomy Cast pay that undergrad and a friendly woman who writes transcripts, but hey… That money could otherwise be going to processed cheese spread or worse.)


  1. I managed to save a little money in grad school, but even though I have a Masters degree in Computer Science, I’m woefully underemployed. I enjoy teaching part-time and doing a bunch of other stuff on the side. I love writing software, but I certainly do not want to go work for some big company (or any company) writing software or doing anything else.

    You wrote: “it is hard to not decide that maybe working in industry would be good for my soul.”

    No way! That would not be good for your soul. Your pocketbook maybe. But not your soul.

    You are making a huge contribution to the community by what you do with Astronomy Cast. There are people out there inspired by what you do and who are considering science as a career or avocation.

    There’s a lot more to life than having money. Doing what you love and inspiring others to join you is so much more enriching. That’s good for the soul.

  2. Thankyou for the lovely article Pamela which really does sum things up nicely. Firstly, never apologise for what you do, especially something as amazing as teaching young minds to think for themselves (I assume brain-washing isn’t part of the curriculum?), and, secondly, enhancing our knowledge of the universe around us. Lets face it, we live in it and really should know about it.

    In the part of the world where I come from, there tends to be a lot of ignorance from the general public with regards to science and engineering, despite so many discoveries and inventions coming from there. I also remember vividly having to justify my choice of engineering degree to people, who had no actual idea of the applications and benefits that such a field can provide to society. In fact, I often met eye-rolling from individuals on occasion, to which I would reply, “So what do you study then?”, and would get responses like “English literature and psychology”. Not that theres anything wrong with this. I just feel that there can be a lot of misunderstanding.

  3. Yep, Dr. Pamela, you have nothing to apologize for, you have the greatest job in the world. The whole universe is your playground and you get to introduce your students to all of it. There’s nothing better than that for the soul.

    The pocketbook on the other hand, well…. Perhaps a little scriptwriting & voiceover work for “Nova”? Give WGBH a call and see what happens. You have the sheepskin and street cred they’d want to see. Then we could see you in high-def!
    Rich in Charlottesville

  4. “Yes, we are paid more then English Majors and Artists, and this even shows up in the federal budget…”

    You see, this is why astronomers need English majors. The sentence should read, “we are paid more than…” not “then.” 🙂

    I’m a writer and actress who enjoys writing about astronomy (I’m that pesky Pluto advocate who won’t leave the astronomy community alone) and a member of an amateur astronomy club. I’ve just completed writing a play that deals with astronomy (yes, Pluto!), so I’ve found a way to incorporate all three.

    And yes, you are right, there are many things more important than having money. I too would die in the corporate world if they didn’t throw me out first after about five minutes. Thanks for spreading the word that creativity is something to be valued.

  5. There are a lot of people in the world that are working jobs because it pays well (I am one of them). A little of me dies every day when I go to work. I would give up my pay for a more rewarding job any day.

    In the past I have given up money to go to what I thought would be more rewarding jobs. They never panned out. Now I figure all jobs suck so I might as well get the most money.

    A lot of people listen to your podcast because you are talking about something you love. Listening to you on my commute to my crappy job gives me hope that it is possible to have an enjoyable job.

    As for the shoes and the paintings, I think your podcasts and star parties and interaction with students will have a much more lasting effect on the world.

  6. Thanks for an interesting blog post Dr. Pamela.
    I’d just like to say that your podcast and your amazing personality had inspired me to go into Astrophysics. After first year of university I’ve decided to take a different route into mathematical physics but I definetly plan to take 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year courses in astrophysics. Thank-you for showing me the passion and heart that goes into astronomy and I definetly wish to experience that later in my life. For now, math will overtake my brain but one day I plan to take it back and use my knowledge to learn more about astronomy. Keep up the great work Dr. Pamela Gay, your passion has changed my life.

  7. Hi Pamela,

    This post really hit home for me. I graduated in Physics a while back and ended up in the tech field working IT. The money is great and all, but you’re 100% right: you would miss astronomy way too much.

    I ended up doing a part-time Master’s degree in Astro to keep fresh, and have finally landed a PhD spot. I’m now staring down the biggest pay cut in my life, and I’ve never been happier.

    Keep it up! Love Astronomy Cast.

  8. I’m one of those people who actually left astrophysics and now work in the “industry”. And it was right for me. As much as I love astrophysics, I grew to dislike the astrophysics career. Having to move to more and more remote places every two years just wasn’t my thing, and what I really thought was fun was the problem solving and computer programming.

    I now run my own startup company, I do contract work and when I feel like it, I give lectures to students about astrophysics. I live in the same town I grew up in in my own country. I develop innovative software. I am my own boss. Working in the “industry” does not mean you have to do the corporate thing.

  9. For those wondering if there are any carryover benefits from an astronomy education, let me share my experience. I’ve been a lifetime amateur astronomer and graduated with a degree in Astronomy from the University of Texas but decided to go into the technology/software field. One of my most useful classes was Planetary Astronomy, taught by the Department Head Harlin Smith. I wrote a paper on the environmental impact of space colonization and that taught me an invaluable lesson how how to do estimations – something that business people do frequently and less reliably than those with better math backgrounds.

    The biggest carry-over is an understanding of the scientific method, which is woefully lacking in society today. The business world has been abuzz for several years over Six Sigma process improvement methodology which is nothing more than the scientific method in the work world.

    So even if you just do a little bit of academic astronomy, it’s not as abstract and disconnected from business as some might think.

  10. Well, I feel like I need to speak up for the road not not taken.

    I work in an office doing sales and marketing. I generally enjoy the work. There are good days and bad days but I could say that about most of my endeavors (and I do).

    I have had a love of astronomy and science since I built models of the lunar lander during the Apollo missions. But life is a complicated thing. While I admire anyone who can find the focus, passion and courage to live their dream, I have found that I haven’t always had all three at the same time. More importantly, my life is bound up with others (my family) and my love of astronomy and science is only a part of my life.

    I believe a challenge equal to that of living your dream, is the challenge of a blended balanced life where all of your dreams get their time in the sun (or the middle of the night for the astronomy dream).

    I work hard and earn a fairly good income. I own a couple of telescopes and enjoy observing whenever I can. I have a nice home which is far enough away from the city where I’m able to get some decent skies and good seeing. I read science blogs over lunch. I’ve a total of five children who are reasonably well cared for (they’re never actually satisfied but that’s another story) and they are all in, or on their way to college. We vacation once a year and everyone is generally well-taken care of. I get a tremendous amount of joy and satisfaction from all these things. Were I to work as an astronomer, I dare say I would not be able to afford some of these.

    So I try to indulge all my passions: my wife, my family, my job, my love of science, my enthusiasm for all things technical, my fondness for teaching, my belief in education, my commitment to my community, my enjoyment of magic tricks and juggling, classic rock and roll, Revolutionary War history, fine art, F-Troop reruns and more. It’s a challenge. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be a professional astronomer. I’m sure I would love it. But we all get just one life and we all do the best we can to fill it as well as we can, with the people, activities and things we love.

    So I do admire every person who has found the thing (or things) they love and are doing them. But for a lot of us it’s an ongoing challenge of a balance of many things. It is not giving up everything for one thing. And that challenge is equally valid and its accomplishment equally successful. Although I work in an office, I am happy to report, my soul is not dead. It’s not even sick. I suspect those of us who are not professional astronomers or poets or botanists or marine biologists, who enjoy science, and science blogs, and are in fact doing ok, particularly when we stop and consider all the things we do have and the wonderful, chaos that life is.

    Here’s one for the road taken.

  11. Wonderful post. I left an eighteen year career in the printing industry because I finally decided to follow my dream and become a swimming coach. To make time to be an entry level swim coach, I took a job as an technology aide at an elementary school, a pay cut from $72K to $13K. I’ll never make more than about $40K as a coach (and I’m still only half way there), but 4 times the satisfaction at half the pay is an excellent trade-off. Oh, and I was an English Major.

  12. Hi Pamela,

    First of all I want to tell I love your podcasts. You’re doing a great job!
    This post really touched my pain strings. I love astronomy, I love science. I want to share my love with others. That’s why I started my on-line sky map project few years back. Unfortunately I have to work “in industry” for living. Evenings and most of weekends are taken by my children (and I can’t say I don’t enjoy that time ether) So for my astronomy enjoyment only deep nights are left. And, of course, those happy nights turns against me hard in mornings 🙂
    Fortunately (at least in this context) there’s no one to drill me down that I’m spending time and money on useless stuff 🙂
    I can’t say I don’t like my day job, but it definitely would make me happier if I’d be able to combine those two things together (or even all three). Who knows, may be some day it will happen. At least I’m looking forward optimistically 🙂

  13. Pamela,
    Nice post, which I found from BadAstronomy. But I have to agree with SteveG on “the other road”. I am in almost exactly the same situation. Work in an office, enjoy what I do, and, along with my wife, provide for my family, our interests, our hobbies, and other things that consume the money we make from our jobs. I have so many other loves outside the office, such as reading from the more professional or dedicated astronomers. I am thankful for the road I have taken, but I am equally thankful for those who take their own roads, and make/write/produce/post stuff that I can find an interst in, study, contemplate or otherwise simply enjoy.

  14. Astronomy is sexy. Women astronomers are made out of sexy.

    Astronomy is what I would be doing if I had the brains for it. I major in English because I enjoy playing with all the dinky little words that swim through my head :).

    Don’t be too much in a hurry to make ‘real money’ in a corporation. You definitely have the qualifications for it and you’ll bring home a decent to great paycheck. That’s all you’ll be taking home. And you’ll be crying inside the whole time. Because you will want to look up into the sky and explore the greatest playground ever made. In a corporation you’ll have 2 minutes every month to talk about the intellectual love of your life. Whomever is politely listening will nod their head and tell you “Yeah, sounds cool” before handing over the stack of paper “Here are the number on the Schwimmer account you were asking for”. You may find the whole experience less than totally enjoyable.

    Unlike most people who have to go through the daily grind just so they’d have enough money to pay the bills, you are doing something you actually love. You wouldn’t be you if you were prepared to give that up.

    You’re living the dream right now. Don’t question your luck.

  15. Follow your passion. My Ex has, my 26 year old daughter is working towards her career dream. My 24 year old son is a screen printer who loves his job and my 20 year old son has joined the army (not the US army) and he loves it. It keeps them sane. I didn’t and got depression. Don’t risk it it takes years to get out of. Love your passion it will love you back.

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  17. I am an artist and an a keen Amateur Astronomer. I was really torn between studying fine art and astrophysics at university. A wise teacher pointed out that both would be pretty useless if I wanted to get rich. In the end I choose art. I think that astronomy, physics and math do come very close to the arts in their conception and the inspriation for both comes from the same place. I was lucky to fall in love with and marry an astrophysicist. He has a real passion for teaching and most of our income is from educational software he developed while working with adult learners. Together we created a series of work shops using art and practial experiments to teach younger childred about science which we take round schools. We are not rich at all but we are very happy, and fulfilled people and that in my opinon is more than I could have hoped for!


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