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The 10-meter South Pole Telescope and the BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) Telescope at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is seen against the night sky with the Milky Way in this National Science Foundation picture taken in August, 2008. Astronomers announced on Monday that they had discovered what many consider the holy grail of their field: ripples in the fabric of space-time that are echoes of the massive expansion of the universe that took place just after the Big Bang. The gravitational waves were detected by the BICEP telescope.

HANDOUT/REUTERS

Job: Astronomer

The role: Astronomers dedicate much of their careers to the study of celestial objects, such as stars, planets, moons, asteroids, comets, galaxies and nebula. While research is often considered their primary function, astronomers have a variety of other responsibilities as well, which can include writing, teaching and speaking about their work.

Canadian astronomers are typically employed by universities, though some work for the National Research Council. Others find employment abroad.

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"Astronomers who are at universities will be doing teaching, both of undergrad and graduate students, and supervising graduate students in their Master's and PhD theses," said Christine Wilson, a professor of physics and astronomy at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and president of the Canadian Astronomical Society. "Astronomers at the National Research Council have some component of their duties which are typically involved in helping to support and maintain the international telescopes that Canada is involved in."

Prof. Wilson adds that astronomers employed in academic settings often have "service components" to their responsibilities as well, which include "serving on committees, being the referee on a PhD thesis for a student – either at your institution or at a different institution – things like reviewing grant applications when people apply for funding, nominating people for scholarships and awards."

Furthermore, most astronomers engage in public outreach in some capacity, often delivering multiple presentations to the non-science public each year.

Education: Most astronomers in Canada have earned a PhD in astronomy and spent three to six years as a postdoctoral research student.

"There are relatively few opportunities within Canada to work in astronomy without a PhD," Prof. Wilson said. "Abroad, in some of the larger international observatories and labs in the States, there's a somewhat wider range of job opportunities."

Salary: According to Prof. Wilson, astronomers conducting postdoctoral research typically earn between $40,000 and $70,000 a year.

"The $40,000-a-year level would be the ones who are typically working on a project that a professor has gotten funding for," she said. "The $70,000 is the highest-level prize fellowship in Canada."

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The salaries of astronomy professors in Canada range by province and are closely tied to level of experience. While such numbers are rarely disclosed publicly, Prof. Wilson believes that annual pay starts at about $80,000.

"Typically in universities your salary climbs quite quickly through those initial phases, and then as you get more and more senior, it kind of levels out," she said, estimating that more senior professors earn between $120,000 and $150,000 a year.

According to the Government of Alberta's Learning Information Service, astronomers in that province earn an average salary of $109,525. According to the Ontario Treasury Board Secretariat's Public Sector Salary Disclosure for 2014, 29 astronomy professors earned more than $100,000 in the province last year.

Job prospects: The job prospects for astronomers in Canada range widely between provinces and individual institutions. They are also closely tied to annual budgets at the federal, provincial and institutional levels, which makes employment opportunities inconsistent year-to-year. Those who find positions as astronomers, either within a university or at the National Research Council, are typically able to keep those jobs for significant periods of time.

"It's extremely hard to predict," Prof. Wilson said. "When your province is in a deficit and they're trying to get out of a deficit by reducing spending on postsecondary education, the universities are stressed and they're not hiring."

Prof. Wilson adds that those who are willing to relocate can often find more career opportunities abroad, particularly in the United States.

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Challenges: According to Ms. Wilson, the biggest challenge that most astronomers face is balancing the responsibilities they have during the average day.

"When we're teaching, you have to prepare for classes, you're giving classes, you've got to respond to students, post the material for them, you have your own graduate students who are trying to get on with their research and work on their theses, you've got service work, these committees you're on," she said. "On top of this, you're supposed to be doing research, and it's very hard during times you're teaching to get very much done on research."

Why they do it: According to Prof. Wilson, it's during sabbaticals and summer breaks, when other responsibilities are put on hold, that astronomers get to focus on what is often their main motivation for entering the industry: research.

"For most of us, that's what attracted us to the subject in the first place and kept us there, the ability to find out new things and make discoveries and put things together and understand something that nobody else has understood before," she said. "For most of us, that's our primary motivation and reward in the field, and it's also exciting working with students. Guiding them through that process is also very rewarding."

Misconceptions: According to Prof. Wilson, many believe astronomers spend much of their time looking through a telescope, though she predicts that using such equipment occupies less than 2 per cent of the average astronomer's time.

"Most research astronomers, if we spent a week or two a year actually physically at the telescope collecting data, that would be a lot," she said. "You can get enough data in a week that it will take you more than a year to analyze and make sense of it."

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Want to read more stories from our Salaries Series? Find more here.

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