1. You can be an optical research astronomer at observatories throughout the world. These include :
(a) National observatories such as Kitt Peak in the USA (though it's operated through a consortium of universities called AURA --- the Association for Research in Astronomy), and the Space Telescope Science Institute associated with the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Some "national facilities" are not necessarily located in their own country, such as England's facilities in the Canary Islands. Several countries also operate consortia in Chile, and there's the Anglo-Australian telescope in Siding Springs, Australia. And there are very large national optical consortia, such as ESO (the European Southern Observatory), which is headquartered in Garching near Munich, Germany, but has its observing facilities in South America.
(b) There are other observatories with a history of private endowment such as Mt. Wilson in California, built and operated through the Carnegie Foundation.
(c) There are of course many university observatories. Leading ones include the University of California's Lick Observatory, the joint UCO Lick/Caltech Keck Observatory in Hawaii, The University of Arizona's Steward Observatory, the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory, The Australian National University's Mt. Stromlo Observatory, etc.
The first two sub-categories above involve pure research positions; those at universities are a mix of some 100?ure research and a mix of teaching and research.
2. Many support positions are also needed, of course, such as optical and mechanical engineers, draughtsmen, instrument designers and builders, programmers and computer system specialists.
3. There are many other fields of astronomy, too, with analogous roles in them of both the main reseachers themselves and the support staff. One could work in radio astronomy. In the U.S., theer's the NRAO --- the national Radio Astronomy Observatory. That is headquartered in Charlottesville, VA, but its facilities are in Greenbank, W. VA and New Mexico. Cornell Observatory operates the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico. Other well-known radio observatories are Jodrell Bank near manchester and the Mullard Radio Observatory of Cambridge University, England.
4. In addition, Infrared astronomy, X-ray astronomy, and all the varities of sub-fields satellites now involved in studying the Universe in a variety of wavelength regions from outside the atmosphere, all have their own special problems and personnel needs. Private companies with space interests like Lockheed employ research astronomers. And talking of space, one should not forget the variety of opportunities available at NASA.
4, One should also not forget astrophysicists, the theorists of the field. They too work in the national and international research facilities, in private industry and in universities. Several theoretical institutes are quite famous. Examples are the Cambridge Institute of Astronomy in England, the Max-Planck Institut fuer Astrophysik, also in Garching, a mere 50 -80 metres from ESO, making that a particularly high-powered astronomical area.
For many of the jobs listed above a Ph.D. and perhaps several (/many?) years as a post-doc. might be necessary before securing a regular position with some degree of job security or tenure. A number of other jobs would be open to well-qualified people with Master's or even undergraduate degrees.
You might want to consult web-sites such as those of the nationbal astronomy organizations like the AAS (American Astronomical Society) or RAS (the Royal Astronomical Society). (Just Yahoo! them!) They maintain job registers, which can give you some idea of the current opportunities. Otherwise, sites like those of STSci, NRAO, NOAO, or any of the other places or organizations given above would help you in more narrowly focussed areas.
I hope this necessarily non-inclusive account of the occupations available has been of some use to you. Good hunting!
Live long and prosper.
Answered By: Dr Spock - 2/19/2007