Thursday, April 10, 2008

Surprising Salaries of Astronomers

Yesterday, this article appeared on about five jobs that have surprising salaries. The article stated the following surprising facts:

Surprising salary: $95,740. Though maybe it shouldn't be all that surprising considering a doctorate is the standard level of education and there are only 1,700 astronomers in the U.S.

This article quickly made the rounds among many of us in the astronomy community, because most of us have salaries nowhere near this level. So, where did this figure come from?

I think part of the problem may be in the definition of "astronomer." Most of us would use the term "astronomer" to refer to anyone who is getting paid to do astronomy research. This would therefore include graduate students working on their PhD, postdoctoral researchers (people like me who have a PhD and are doing astronomy research but don't yet have a permanent job), university professors, researchers at NASA or other government-operated laboratories, and many other categories. If you look at a typical salary (say the "median", or the salary level at which half the astronomers make more, and half less), the value is most likely under $50,000, or half of what the article claims. The value that the article quotes is probably close to the average for senior researchers -- tenured professors or senior staff who have been working in the field for decades. Prestigious professors or those at private universities may make more, but there aren't too many of these.

The statement that there are only 1700 astronomers in the US is also too low by a factor of two or three. The American Astronomical Society, our professional organization, has almost 6500 active professional members. This number does include many foreign astronomers, but many U.S. astronomers tend to let their memberships lapse from time to time. So, there are probably at least 7000 astronomers in the U.S. Not a huge amount, but more than the article claims.

I'm not sure where the author got his figures, but his research was either lacking, or he didn't make an effort to understand the field, or he purposefully distorted the numbers for the purpose of interesting copy. Either way, it isn't good journalism. However, I will agree with the article's title, as that salary figure was surprising indeed.

In short, most astronomers agree that you don't go into the science for the money. If you succeed as an astronomer you won't be poor, but you probably won't be in the upper class, either. And, since most of us are paid with tax dollars or tuition dollars, know that we aren't trying to line our wallets at your expense.


  1. My students commented on that article earlier today. Wow. I wish that I got anywhere near that salary.

    It also depends upon how you define salary. My college says that my "salary" is about 35% higher than what I am actually paid. They include in my salary their contribution to retirement, double counting "paid vacation" in the summer and over the winter break (even though we don't get paid extra for that time), and various fringe benefits. So, if you take my paid salary, and add 35%, then I am only about 10% under the "average" pay for an astronomer.

    Still, these numbers are not real. And, it really does no one good to be tossing around make-believe numbers like this.