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The Question

(Submitted September 02, 1997)

Who (other than NASA) employs high-energy astrophysicists?

The Answer

High energy astrophysicists produce new knowledge that then becomes freely accessible to all once it is is published. The production of this new knowledge is considered a 'public good' (to use an economics term) and is therefore funded by the federal government (and the governments of many other countries). This is the case with all of astrophysics and most-all basic research. High energy astrophysics, in particular, is funded in the United States primarily through NASA because the telescopes must be located in space, for the reasons explained at the web site you were browsing (http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov).

As far as actual jobs go, there are many high energy astrophysicists scattered in the physics and astronomy departments of colleges and universities across the nation. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, MA, in addition, hires quite a number of High Energy Astrophysicists. But, the gist of your question is basically correct, regardless of where we reside most-all research in high energy astrophysics is supported by NASA and its counterparts in other countries.

As it turns out, the freedom to study fascinating phenomena is attractive enough that many more young astrophysicists are produced then there are permanent jobs for. The problem is not as extreme as in the arts and professional sports, but it still poses a problem for the newly minted Ph.D. However, unlike many other overly-sought professions, the skills one develops while studying astrophysics are highly transferable to the private sector -- especially the rapidly growing high-tech industry. In fact, these careers are often just as challenging, and much more lucrative, than those actually studying far-away objects.

In short, if you are thinking of a career in astrophysics (or you are advising somebody who is) and are worried about the job opportunities, you are right to be. On the other hand, a degree in astrophysics is excellent preparation for the modern working world --- and you get to study the wonders of the Universe along the way!

Jonathan Keohane
for Ask an Astrophysicist

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