Case study

Senior postdoctoral research fellow — Dominic Bowman

Dominic carries out research in stellar astrophysics for the Research Foundation Flanders in Belgium. Here, he gives an insight into his role along with advice on how to enter a research career

What did you study?

I graduated from the University of Birmingham with a MSci (Hons) degree in Physics and Astrophysics in 2013. After this, I completed a PhD in Astronomy at the University of Central Lancashire between 2013 and 2016.

How did you get your job?

While finishing my PhD in 2016, I began looking for postdoc positions both in the UK and abroad. I made several applications but one in particular was highly interesting to me because it was aligned with my own research interests. After a successful interview and a few short months later, I arrived at the Institute of Astronomy, KU Leuven, Belgium in 2017. After a couple of years, I wrote my own research grant proposal to Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), which was accepted and my current fellowship position began in 2020.

What's a typical working day like?

My day-to-day job consists of performing research in astronomy, specifically stellar astrophysics, supervising PhD and MSc students and teaching.

I have the luxury of being able to schedule events in my own agenda, and so I prefer to have virtual or face-to-face meetings in the mornings. After lunch, I reserve a couple of hours for my own research, which includes reading research papers, writing code to analyse space-telescope observations or running numerical simulations of stellar evolution.

Depending on the day, I also have outreach activities, progress meetings with MSc and PhD students, or consortium conference calls to attend, at which I get to discuss ongoing and future research projects with my international collaborators.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy the challenge of solving problems in an intellectually stimulating environment. This ranges from learning new and improved ways of teaching and outreach, through to helping define the scientific objectives for new space telescopes. Astronomy also allows me to solve problems using my mathematical and computational skills, and learn about the physics of the universe.

What are the challenges?

Astronomy, but also academia in general, is quite a competitive environment. Staying focused and delivering impactful returns on research projects within the time scale of a couple of years can be difficult, especially since this is the length of a typical postdoc contract.

Securing a permanent job in academia requires excellence, creativity and perseverance. Navigating the diverse personalities and ambitions of different researchers can also be challenging at times.

In what way is your degree relevant?

In all ways. Astronomy is situated at the wonderful confluence of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, etc. Astronomers study a range of phenomena across a range of sizes and scales, from the largest galactic clusters in cosmology to the interaction of different atomic particles. Astronomers are searching for life and hospitable conditions on exoplanets and investigating nuclear reactions inside stars.

My first degree in physics is highly relevant, since it gave me a firm background in mathematics which can be applied to many different branches of physics. In my area of research of probing the physics of stellar interiors using asteroseismology, a good grounding in mathematics is extremely useful and relevant.

How has your role developed and what are your career ambitions?

Currently I am an FWO postdoctoral fellow, which is a position I was awarded because my project and grant application was selected and funded by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) in Belgium. The scientific freedom afforded from my current position has allowed me to demonstrate my independence and maturity, which are vital skills to develop if one wants to succeed in academic research.

My ambitions are to secure a tenured faculty position at a prestigious university, and build an excellent research team specialising in asteroseismology of massive stars. The waves generated inside stars teach us about the physical laws that govern their interiors, which is a subject area I have been specialising in throughout my career and will continue to do so.

What are your top tips for choosing a Masters?

I originally applied for a MSci degree in physics, but soon after starting the first year, I realised that the astrophysics courses inspired me the most. My top tip would be to choose to study what you are interested in, since motivation and interest in one’s subject area are important.

What advice can you give to others wanting to get into this job?

  • A genuine interest in the subject material and willingness to learn are very important. Make sure you spend time in learning what area of astronomy interests you the most.
  • Try not to worry too much about the applicability of your degree modules to your future career. Having an aptitude for mathematics and problem solving is common to all areas of astronomy.
  • There is no perfect career path in astronomy. Everyone succeeds by finding what works for them. To gain inspiration, talk to astronomers who are a few and several years ahead of you to see what worked for them and what did not in terms of developing their career.

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