If I want to be an astronomer, what kind of degree will I need? How long will I have to go to school?
First you'll go to college for four (or maybe five) years to get a bachelor's degree. A bachelor of science (BS) in astronomy is best, but you can still get into grad school with a bachelor of arts (BA), or a degree in physics or even other fields.
It's important to get good grades in college and to score well on your Graduate Record Exam (a big ugly standardized physics test you take your senior year), but what really makes candidates for grad school stand out is their research experience. As soon as you can, talk to your professors about working on a research project. You might work on data analysis, instrument building, computer programming, or lots of other fun stuff. Also be alert to opportunities like the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, where you work at another university for a summer, or the summer student programs at the national astronomy observatories.
After college comes graduate school. You'll take more classes at first, and then shift into doing more research, and culminating in writing a doctoral thesis. You'll probably get some experience in front of a classroom by being a teaching assistant. It's really hard work, but to avoid scaring the pants off you, I'll smile stiffly and repeat what I've been told so many times: These are the best years of your life. You will be enjoying the best years of your life for five or six years (or more, or less, in some exceptional cases.)
There are a very small number of jobs available for people who only have a Master's degree in astronomy, primarily in public outreach and teaching. Unless you have a very specific idea of what you want to do, and you're sure you can do it with just an M.S., you should plan to get a PhD.
This page was last updated on June 19, 2015.