Astronomer

The Job and What's Involved

Astronomers work to advance our knowledge of the universe. They study the physical matter and processes at work in our own solar system and in distant galaxies.

Astronomy is the science of the universe, in the same way that chemistry is the science of chemicals and biology is the science of living things. It is mainly about the physics of the universe - the way stars and galaxies work. It is quite an unusual science because it deals with lots of extremes - very big things like galaxies and very small things like atoms and sub-atomic particles; very hot things like the middles of stars and very cold things like the spaces between galaxies. So astronomers need to understand lots of different areas of science.

Astronomers' findings help to answer some of the biggest scientific questions facing mankind, including how the universe was formed, whether and when it might die and whether there may be life on other planets.

The work involves some observation, using optical or radio telescopes. However, astronomy is largely about using physics and mathematics to analyse the images gathered by observatories, satellites or spacecraft.

Material gained by a satellite in a few hours can generate months of analysis and astronomers are likely to spend most of their time working at computers, interpreting data.

The work may include:

  • Defining questions to be answered, for example, about the history of a particular star or nebula and the way it is likely to change in the future.
  • Gathering relevant data.
  • Putting forward theories and then using mathematical calculations to test them.
  • Developing new software to help interpret information.
  • Writing papers for publication and making presentations to share findings with colleagues.
  • Designing new observational instruments and maintaining existing equipment.
  • Teaching astronomy in universities.

Observational astronomers will often travel abroad to use optical telescopes at locations chosen to minimise interference from the weather or light pollution. For instance, there are major observatories in La Palma, Hawaii and Australia.

As well as telescopes on the ground, astronomers also use many special satellite telescopes, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, and telescopes that look at radiation other than visible light, such as the X-ray telescope XMM-Newton. These telescopes provide fantastic pictures which allow scientists to measure the physical properties of the objects they observe - including their size, composition, temperature, speed and magnetic field strength.

Although much of their research and analysis may be carried out alone, astronomers need to maintain contact with colleagues and stay up to date with new findings. Those working on space projects may work jointly with astronomers in other countries, coordinated by agencies such as the European Space Agency or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Astronomers generally work normal office hours. However, they may have to work long and unsocial hours for some projects.

The job is mostly desk-based in an office or laboratory, and involves a lot of work with computers. Astronomers involved in observational work may travel abroad frequently.

A new entrant, with a PhD and research fellowship, may earn around £21,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Worldwide there are about 15,000 astronomers and the UK has around 1,250 professional astronomers working in research or academic posts, plus a further 750 postgraduate research students. Many universities employ astronomers in research and teaching posts. Other employers include institutions such as Jodrell Bank Observatory (part of the University of Manchester) in Cheshire, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire and the Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh. Each carries out research as well as designing and producing new technology.

Although astronomy is a growing field, there are still more applicants than jobs. Only a minority of students will achieve a career in astronomy in the medium term, while the majority go on to a career in related areas such as systems analysis, software development, aerospace, or satellite research and development. There are also some jobs in government departments, such as the Ministry of Defence.

Vacancies may be advertised on university websites, on the website of the Royal Astronomical Society at www.ras.org.uk and on the American Astronomical Society (AAS) job register at www.jobregister.aas.org/, which lists job posting worldwide.

Education and Training

Most astronomers have a degree in maths or physics, or in a specialist course in astronomy, astrophysics or geophysics. Some universities offer joint degrees combining astrophysics with another science or maths subject. The Royal Astronomical Society website lists courses.

Another possible route into this field is to train in electronics or computing, with a view to working as a technician, providing support to astronomers. The relatively small number of such posts means that opportunities are rare.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Students seeking to make a career in astronomical research must aim to achieve a first or upper second class degree. They can then do a relevant PhD.

Entry requirements for a relevant first degree are usually three A levels/four H grades, including physics and mathematics, plus five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), including English. Chemistry, technical subjects and a foreign language may also be useful.

Useful TipCandidates should check entry requirements with individual institutions.

Professional astronomers are highly qualified. To be able to carry out research they need to study for a postgraduate qualification, after gaining a good first degree in a relevant subject. Some astronomers only gain detailed knowledge of the subject after taking their first degree.

Postgraduate-level study towards a PhD is normally carried out at a university and takes at least three years. Trainees support senior colleagues on a research project.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (or the Department of Education in Northern Ireland) awards study grants to PhD students selected by universities.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

An astronomer should have:

  • A strong background in maths, physics and general science.
  • Good observational skills.
  • The ability to analyse information.
  • A thorough and methodical approach.
  • Extensive computer skills.
  • The patience to work on projects for long periods of time.
  • Perseverance, even when progress seems slow.
  • Good writing and presentational skills.

Your Long Term Prospects

Many vacancies for post-doctorate astronomers are for fixed-term project work. However, around half of those working on fixed-term contracts later move on to long-term jobs in the field.

Many astronomers move on to work in related fields such as electronics and software engineering, the aerospace industry, finance, management consultancy or ICT.

There may be opportunities to teach or to work abroad.

Get Further Information

The British Astronomical Association (BAA),
Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0DU
Tel: 020 7734 4145
Website: www.britastro.org

Institute of Physics (IOP), 76 Portland Place, London W1B 1NT
Tel: 020 7470 4800
Website: www.iop.org

Royal Astronomical Society,
Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BQ
Tel: 020 7734 4582
Website: www.ras.org.uk

Women into Science, Engineering and Construction (WISE),
2nd Floor, Weston House, 246 High Holborn, London WC1B 7EX
Tel: 020 3206 0408
Website: www.wisecampaign.org.uk

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