My friend Danny sent me a link highlighting “Jobs that surprise” in that they can pay over $100,000 a year, and are jobs that you wouldn’t expect to be so lucrative. I had to laugh out loud at one in particular. Astronomy… lucrative? C’mon! The criteria used is that 10% of people with these jobs need to make 6 figures to make their list. So, that’s not all of us. However, they claim, “Astronomers fall just $270 a year short of averaging six figures, and the top earners in their modestly sized group of 1,280 rake in $156,720 or more.” What I’d really like to see is the distribution of salaries. You can get an idea of this by looking at a sampling of departments at public universities, since they are required to share their figures. The Cav Daily jumps on that at UVa every year.
Truth be told, even a less-than-six figure salary is a lot to be paid to study the universe. It sounds perfect! What most people don’t see, however, are the long, grueling hours of work it takes to get to that coveted tenure spot. You have all of grad school to be making piddly, and don’t expect tenure until well into your 30s or later. And that is if you decide to take that competitive path at all. I’m curious what subset of astronomers they were sampling, since a typical winter AAS meeting far exceeds 1,280. Are the rest of the attendees really pittance-earning students like me? The data comes from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is quite fascinating to browse.
So, astronomy may not pay as much as some jobs that also take long, grueling hours of work, but you won’t be giving away your hard work for nothing. Besides, universities probably need to stay somewhat competitive with the private industry which would be happy and willing to take in brainy talent.