Astronomers research questions about the fundamental building blocks of life. They measure and observe celestial bodies, theorize about the world's forces and physical properties and help find ways to apply their knowledge. While some astronomers work mainly in basic research, others are interested space flight, satellite communications and navigation. Astronomers do interesting work, but the education required to get started is extensive and work opportunities in the field are relatively few. The type of job, combined with other factors like location and employer, make a difference in an astronomer's starting salary.
Basic Salary Information
Although astronomers have the potential to make high wages, those just entering the job market with a Ph.D. in hand can expect to make significantly less than the highest-paid researchers. According to 2009 numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), astronomers earning within the bottom 10 percent make $21.93 per hour, or $45,610 annually. In comparison, the highest earners make $73.66 per hour, or $153,210 per year on average. Median annual income is $104,720 annually, but keep in mind that entry-level professionals typically earn at the low end of the pay scale.
Graduate, Post-Doc and Assistant Professor Salaries
According to the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, assistant professors make about $45,000 to $50,000 for a nine-month teaching term. Those numbers are close to the low-end earnings reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although assistant professors are considered entry-level faculty, astronomers won't be qualified for a position until after they've completed a bachelor's, master's, Ph.D. and a couple of post-doctoral positions in the field. Post-doctoral jobs usually pay around $35,000 per year. Master's students can earn between $10,000 and $20,000 annually for their work as teaching assistants.
Government Pays the Most
Entry-level professionals focused on earnings should view a position with the Federal Government as the ultimate long-term career goal. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Federal Government employs over half of all physicists and astronomers in the United States. That's good news, since the government also pays the highest salaries. Astronomers employed in universities earn $36.86 per hour on average, or $76,670 per year. Those who work in research and development for companies and private research institutes make $51.52 per hour, or $107,170 annually. Government employees make the most by far, taking home $62.77 per hour or $130,570 per year.
If you're interested in maximizing your earning potential as a new Ph.D., you should consider looking for work in one of the three highest-paying states for astronomers. The mean wage for Maryland astronomers is the highest, sitting at $61.79 per hour or $128,520 per year. Massachusetts and California also pay top dollar. Massachusetts positions pay $60.85 per hour or $126,560 per year on average, while California astronomers take home $56.84 hourly, equivalent to $118,230 per year.
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