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Jobs in astronomy

Astronomy has existed for thousands of years, ever since human beings looked up at the sky with the help of the first astronomical instruments they had: their eyes. In this respect, historically, astronomy is an observational science.

Astrophysics is more recent, it is the intersection of astronomy and physics and it uses the universe like one giant physics laboratory; researchers make observations and lead experiments which are analyzed with all the knowledge that physics, chemistry and other interdisciplinary subjects have brought them.

Astronomers’ objectives are to study the different components of cosmic space, everything from nearby planets to the largest structures of the universe, as well as stars and galaxies. In order to do this, they use physics which is why they are now called “astrophysicists.” Most problems are studied complementarily with observation and theory.

Theory and observation

Observations consist in recording and analyzing all kinds of radiation originating from the cosmos. Observations can be made from the ground with the help of telescopes, radio telescopes etc., or in high atmosphere with balloons, or in space with artificial satellites. Observational programs are prepared long in advance, and then are usually carried out during short term missions (i.e. a few days) in observatories, or sometimes during long term missions (i.e. a few years) in stations made for satellite reception. Once the mission is over, the astronomer or astrophysicist must analyze the collected data.

Astrophysicists specialized in the design and creation of new instruments and detectors work closely with teams of engineers and technicians, in order to always improve the methods of observation.

The theoretical interpretations of astronomical data require mathematics and physics but also other scientific subjects such as chemistry (and sometimes now even biology). Theorists try to understand the origin, the structure and the evolution of all celestial components, on every scale. The formation of planets, stars and galaxies, how these properties change on very long periods of time, physics of the universe as a whole (cosmology) are some of the most important fields of theoretical astrophysics. Extremely complex calculus requires powerful computers. Astrophysical models are made in an effort to simulate the behavior of studied objects with as much precision as possible. This is what we call modelling or numerical simulations. The results of these calculations are compared to observations in order to get an even more realistic representation of the astrophysical under investigation.

The complexity of physics tends to make researchers more and more specialized in a particular field among the following: observation, theoretical physics, experimental physics, modelling, data processing. Experts often make up interdisciplinary and complementary teams in order to collaborate in carrying out observations, then analyzing and interpreting them.

A researcher must display creativity, imagination, tenacity, braveness, independence, method, precision and rigour! Once a subject of research is chosen, he or she must carry out the planned observations or analyses ; once results have been obtained, he or she must write a scientific article which is submitted, as far as IAP researchers are concerned, to professional astronomy, astrophysics, or physics journals. After judging the article, experts in the field can either refuse or accept it according to how interesting and novel the results are. In most cases, after either minor or major improvements, the article is published in a scientific periodical; it is the final product of scientific work.

However, a researcher’s activity does not stop there; he or she must also participate in the training of young researchers, either by overseeing them during research internships or during their thesis, or by giving classes in university. Researchers often take part in conferences in schools and sometimes speak in front of even larger audiences, in order to share as much knowledge of astronomy and astrophysics as possible.

The school and university courses that lead to work as a researcher are described in the table sheet "Subjects" (click here). The number of available positions for the competitive entrance exams varies according to the year. CNRS, the leading organisation for fundamental research in France, opens permanent positions for researchers who are hired to dedicate their whole time to research. Their main endeavor is to produce knowledge, and to take particular care in highlighting the value of their research results on every level.

School and university courses

The university offers lecturer and researcher positions, where they share their time between university, for teaching, and in laboratories to focus on their research projects.

Researchers in France usually get a permanent position after a long training period, around their thirties. Once students graduate, they normally spend two or three years in foreign laboratories as postdoctoral researchers, in order to complete their training. To improve their chances of getting into these labs, doctoral students can apply to be teachers’ assistants. This consists of teaching a few hours of classes in university. This way, students get a first-hand, professional teaching experience, which is an asset in the competition to get a lecturer or researcher position.

As for aerospace engineering, it consists in designing launchers like the Ariane space rocket (Agence Spatiale Européenne - ESA - European Space Agency, Centre Nationale d'Etudes Spatiales - CNES - "National Center for Space Studies") or American shuttles (National Aeronautics and Space Administration - NASA), and sending them into space. They will then place satellites into orbit which will explore the Earth or the cosmos. Work as an astronaut consists in piloting this equipment into space and carrying out a variety of missions successfully, which often include conducting scientific experiments. Moreover, space-related jobs are booming. Designing, building and following up on spacecrafts has opened the door to many new technical and scientific professions.

Apart from astronomy-related researcher positions, the CNRS offers a diversity of jobs (in French). More specifically, the CNRS has a triple responsibility: organizing and managing research institutes, managing their staff and projects through their regional delegations, and overall scientific leadership at its headquarters. In this context, CNRS hires secretaries, managers, accountants, communications staff, documentation staff, computer support staff etc.; all of whom ensure the smooth working of the research institutes. Moreover, large numbers of engineers and technicians assist the researchers in their work. The scientific projects conducted in the institutes involve a large variety of technical fields, from precision mechanics to computing. Lastly, a research institute cannot function without structured and efficient logistics, in particular for the maintenance of buildings and equipment.

Consequently, the CNRS recruits individuals at all levels of study, whether it is with a secondary education certificate or with a doctoral degree, it only depends on the position and duties in question.


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