Are 100% of astronomy majors employed?

On Submitterator, ecodeathmarch linked a news report about a new study that found that people with undergraduate degrees in astronomy and astrophysics had a 0% unemployment rate. Is that for real?

First: The details. This fact came not from a recently published study, but from a Wall Street Journal interactive tool that allows you to look up data about pay and employability by undergraduate college major. The data in the tool is drawn from previous research done by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, an independent research center at Georgetown University. So they're not just pulling this out of thin air.

If you want to see where the information comes from in more detail, there are a couple of relevant reports: One comparing the economic value of different college majors, and another looking at the demand for people with science, math, engineering, and technology skills.

Here's what I found scanning through those reports:
• In the college majors report, the sample size of astronomy and astrophysics majors was very small—small enough that the researchers couldn't put assign those majors a statistically significant median salary. So when you see 0% unemployment, that could represent a small number of people surveyed. It could also represent the fact that this is a small field, to begin with.
• The same report stated that 94% of astronomy and astrophysics majors were employed. That's pretty good for a single major. But it's not 100% employment, either. I couldn't find a mention of 0% unemployment for astronomy and astrophysics majors in either Georgetown report. It could be that the Wall Street Journal was using background data from these reports, but making the calculations of unemployment percentages in a different way.
• Just because they're employed, doesn't mean they're employed as astronomers and astrophysicists. In the sciences, you're usually paid to go to graduate school, so that often counts as being employed, depending on who is doing the calculations. The Georgetown report also shows 8% of astronomy and astrophysics majors are employed in food service jobs, and another 8% in office jobs.

As near as I can make out, it boils down to this: Astronomy and astrophysics grads are pretty employable (as Neil deGrasse Tyson says, "There are no street physicists") but they're probably not perfectly employable, and definitely not perfectly employable within the fields of astronomy and astrophysics.

Thanks to Amos Zeeberg and Christopher Mims for sharing their thoughts and links on this with me.


  1. (as Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “There are no street physicists”)

    That explains why you don’t see more people with cardboard signs reading WILL POSTULATE MATHEMATICAL MODELS OF QUANTUM MECHANICS FOR FOOD.

  2. The astronomy major I know best has gotten a second degree in library science and is working as a research librarian…. but that change happened well before the downturn.

  3. “Just because they’re employed, doesn’t mean they’re employed as astronomers and astrophysicists.”

    This. I had to get a day job.

  4. As an Astronomy major I was told my junior year of college that if you had a PhD you had a 25% chance of getting a job in Astronomy.  So while I am an Astronomy major that is employed, I was also smart enough to not play the 25% odds and went into IT

  5. I work with a bunch of astronomers and astrophysicists. We’re writing advertising software for the internet.

  6. Someone in DC told me that some universities are able to get alumni to come work back for a week or so (say, orientation or homecoming) and that with careful timing this can improve the appearance of the statistics.

  7. No street physicists? Maybe not, but I’ve seen a street astronomer in San Francisco.  He sets up a telescope on clear nights various places around town, and shows people the moon or planets and requests a tip.

  8. *(cough)* And a lot are employed at various national labs, modeling *other* high-energy phenomena…

  9. A friend of mine who is really into astronomy instead chose to major in physics, and got a job essentially right out of university.

    I think a more interesting survey would be determining how many people are in situations like that – they love astronomy, but realized (or were convinced by someone) that there was very little chance of a future in it if they majored in it, and decided to pursue something else (with perhaps the idea that maybe they’d go to grad school for astronomy later).

    And as others have noted, there must be a higher percentage of astronomy majors working outside the field than is being reported here. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s wrong to include those in grad school as being employed – because realistically, that’s the only option for a lot of people who study esoteric things (including me, apparently, for studying aspects of geology that have nothing to do with the geology-based industries).

  10. Where can you get an undergraduate degree in astronomy and astrophysics? It’s too specialized. You really need a physics degree before you can do much astrophysics.

  11. I have a bachelor’s degree in Astronomy & Physics. I have been unemployed exactly one month of my life, but necer employed in astronomy or physics. I have been a professional futurist, specializing in technology’s impact, for more than 10 years now.

  12. I asked a buddy with an undergrad in astronomy from MIT about this.  He asked me to, “define employed”.

  13. Cause and Causality. It could very well be that the universe is causing them to be employed, or is could just be that folks that have an interest in astronomy are brighter on average, likely have more than a bit of science type background, and are more sought after, or more employable. I know I took as many astronomy electives as I could manage in university, and would have taken more, if I could. I don’t own a telescope or anything, so I wouldn’t call it a hobby, as I was always more interested in the theroy than what you might call the “practical” side. I took Compuer Science and Geography to eventually go to collage for GIS. I currently work with GI and IM systems. I was hired the Monday after my final year, and have never been unemployed. Oh and I am not saying that I am brighter or more employable myself :) though it kind of sounds that way! If I have learned anything it is that there are plenty of people out there that know more than I, or are smarter than myself, and that you are not at smart as you sometimes think you might be. In any case 0% is no doubt a statistical FAIL, but I am not surprised that it would be much lower than the “norm”.

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