If you look up at the sky and yearn to dissect and understand what you see, you may be suited for a career as an astrochemist. Scientists in this field study the chemicals and molecules that exist in outer space, including those that in stars, suns, and solar systems.
Astrochemists have a keen curiosity and a drive to discover new knowledge. They are driven to stay current on new technologies and the latest scientific findings that might help them further their own research. They are creative thinkers and innovative problem solvers. And, because many projects require international collaborations, they should be willing to travel—and maybe even live—abroad.
Typical Job Functions
Astrochemists examine chemical compositions and processes for stars, planets, comets, and interstellar media. Scientists in this field use Earth-based telescopes, satellites, and space vehicles to:
- Explore how atoms, molecules, ions, and free radicals interact outside of Earth's atmosphere
- Contribute to our understanding of geological processes on other planets
- Examine molecules on other planets and in outer space to understand the conditions under which life might form
Astrochemistry spans the disciplines of chemistry, planetary science, chemical biology, physics, astronomy, and computational science. An astrochemist must understand the underlying principles of data collection methods and simulations to ensure that their results are meaningful and properly interpreted. This requires patience, logical thinking, precision, and attention to detail.
Typical job functions include:
- Collecting and analyzing data
- Collaborating with physicists, astronomers, mathematicians, mission specialists, and others
- Working to understand the problems colleagues are trying to solve; advising them on experiments they perform
- Reviewing and evaluating your own research and the research of others
- Traveling to international observatories or specialized laboratory facilities
- Presenting research on complex concepts in terms a non-scientific audience can understand (e.g., funding agencies, the general public, government agencies)
Astrochemists may be employed by universities, research institutes, or government agencies (including NASA). They may also support and train facility users or students, or develop new capabilities for collecting and analyzing data.
After gaining several years of postgraduate experience, astrochemists generally gain increasing independence and larger budgets for their work. They may supervise research teams consisting of undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, or technical staff members.
Some experienced astrochemists move into program management or administration, where they spend much of their time preparing budgets and schedules and obtaining funding, in addition to overseeing researchers and research programs.
Astrochemistry is a research-oriented field; a Ph.D. with concentrations in both chemistry and astronomy is required. Additional experience in a field of specialization (e.g., geoscience, physics, mathematics, or chemical biology) is helpful to collaborate with colleagues in other areas of specialization. Students or recent graduates may do one or more internships or postdoctoral fellowships in preparation for obtaining a full-time career position.
Candidates for a career in astrochemistry must have:
- A solid background in chemistry (or a related scientific field) and an understanding of astronomical data collection and analysis methods
- Understanding of astronomical concepts, including the behavior of light over long distances and the interaction of electromagnetic radiation with matter
- Understanding of theoretical principles, including kinetics, thermodynamics, and quantum chemistry
- Familiarity with computer modeling and statistical analysis methods
Some positions are available to chemists with bachelor's or master's degrees as support staff for astrochemical researchers. They may maintain instruments and telescopes, laboratory equipment, or computational resources.