As an astronomer, you'll conduct research that explains the fundamental processes that govern the universe

Astronomers are scientists who study the universe, its objects and how it works. They aim to push the boundaries of human knowledge about how the universe works by observation and theoretical modelling. You can work in observational astronomy, using telescopes and cameras to look at the stars, galaxies and other astronomical objects, or in theoretical astronomy, where you'll use maths and computer models to explain observations and predictions.

Astronomers can specialise in studying:

  • planets
  • stars
  • galaxies
  • cosmology (the origin of the universe).

Most modern research in astronomy involves significant computer programming and modelling, whether you work with real data from observatories or do theoretical work.

Careers in astronomy are diverse, including roles such as planetary geologists, astrobiologists, cosmologists and telescope design engineers. Some institutions hire public engagement specialists, where your role as an astronomer includes sharing knowledge and developing programmes for school children and the wider public.

Responsibilities

Generally speaking, astronomers are employed by universities or dedicated research institutes (sometimes - but not always - affiliated with universities). Your duties typically involve:

  • collecting and analysing data from cameras, satellites and other observations
  • planning and executing research projects to answer fundamental questions (such as, how do galaxies form?)
  • applying for time to observe at international observatories
  • reading existing academic literature
  • putting your work in the context of other researchers' work
  • writing scientific articles
  • applying for grants to fund your research
  • collaborating with other astronomers, often internationally
  • presenting your work at conferences
  • training and mentoring students and postdoctoral researchers
  • teaching courses in astronomy or related areas.

Salary

  • PhD studentships, which allow you to study for a PhD while also carrying out research work, usually come with a stipend. The national minimum doctoral stipend set by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is £15,009, but some may be higher than this.
  • Astronomers with a PhD generally first go on to do a postdoctoral position, which pays £28,000 to £42,000.
  • University professors and permanent research staff earn at least £40,000 and can go higher with promotion and recognition.

The majority of academic institutions in the UK follow a single pay spine for all grades of staff. Pay will vary depending on the grants funding your research and whether or not you're a lecturer.

Working hours

Astronomers generally work longer than the typical 37-hour week, and the hours can sometimes be irregular.

Although some astronomers do physically carry out observations overnight, this type of research is increasingly becoming rare. Often data is collected by remote and space-based telescopes and sent online, allowing the data to be analysed during normal working hours.

Most professional astronomers will have to put in extra hours to meet funding grant and publication deadlines.

What to expect

  • Astronomy research requires a solid understanding of physics, mathematics and statistics, and in some sub-disciplines, knowledge of chemistry or geology may be advantageous.
  • Modern astronomy research is heavily computer-based, and therefore involves significant data analysis and programming skills.
  • Permanent astronomy research jobs are rare and highly competitive. Even those completing PhDs and postdoctoral positions in astronomy research generally do not go on to become professional astronomers for their full careers.
  • Astronomy is a small community, so you can expect to travel internationally quite often to present your results and collaborate with others in your specific subfield.
  • Astronomers rarely work in isolation, and in addition to being aware of what colleagues at your institution do, astronomers are expected to keep up with the published literature from around the world and to be able to put their research work into the context of other research.
  • Astronomers need to be well-versed at justifying the motivation for their research to both receive funding through grant applications and to be published in peer-reviewed journals.
  • You'll probably interact with the public and students interested in astronomy, so being able to communicate what you do in publicly accessible ways is important.

Qualifications

Almost all astronomy jobs require a PhD. To apply for a PhD, you generally need a 2:1 or above in any of, but not limited to, the following subjects:

  • astronomy/astrophysics
  • geology/earth sciences
  • physics
  • mathematics
  • computer science.

If you're interested in astronomical instrumentation, either for research telescopes or space missions, then engineering degrees are often a prerequisite.

It's possible to work in astronomy research with only an undergraduate degree, but to progress you'll need a PhD. Professors in astronomy usually have a PhD but sometimes also several years of postdoctoral positions as well before they land a permanent post.

PhD studentships in astronomy are often funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Individual universities will have more information on how they fund PhD students in their own programs. Be sure to apply early for PhD programs so that departments have time to apply for funding on your behalf.

Once you have a PhD, your research supervisor can help you identify possible postdoctoral posts, or you can apply for a fellowship that allows you to carry on independent research.

Generally speaking, a qualified candidate for a permanent academic post will have five to ten years of research experience already, including time working on the PhD and postdoctoral positions.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • strong physics, mathematics and statistics skills
  • computer programming skills
  • research and analysis skills
  • problem solving/trouble shooting skills
  • excellent communication, both oral and written
  • the ability to make progress without strict deadlines
  • the ability to collaborate and work in a team
  • project management skills
  • the ability to train and mentor students
  • motivation and drive to study your area of research.

Work experience

The best way to find out if you're well-suited for a career in research astronomy is to spend time doing research. Many university departments offer summer placements for undergraduate students, and undergraduate students can sometimes be involved with research alongside their studies.

Gaining some work experience at an observatory or astronomical museum would also give you an understanding of how to use equipment and how data is collected. Customer-facing roles would also allow you to gain skills in dealing with and communicating with the public.

There are a large number of observatories in the UK, which include The Royal Observatory in Greenwich and Edinburgh, Joddrell Bank in Cheshire, and the Tolcarn Research and Educational Observatory in Cornwall. There are also many other smaller amateur clubs and stargazing organisations in locations across the UK.

Employers

The majority of astronomers are employed by universities, but there are a few government and private institutions (such as observatories) that hire astronomers. Permanent positions in both astronomy research and outreach can be competitive, so you may have to consider moving internationally to pursue this career.

Look for astronomy roles at:

Professional development

A PhD is required for astronomy research positions, and most Masters and PhD students will engage in research during their studies. As a PhD student, you'll be mentored by your supervisor, who will oversee your research. After a PhD, most astronomers go on to hold at least one postdoctoral position. Individual fellowships are also granted by national (UKRI) and international funding agencies, allowing you to gain independence in your research career.

If you're employed by a university, there will be many opportunities to improve on research, training, communication and management skills. Professional societies, such as The Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society also offer training, course and host conferences that can further your development.

Academic research astronomers are often recognised by named professorships and invitations to become fellows of various professional societies.

Career prospects

In academic research, a PhD is usually followed by at least one, but sometime more, short-term postdoctoral research contracts of up to three years in length. There may only be a few experts in your particular subfield in the UK, and postdoctoral positions can offer the opportunity to gain expertise from experts around the world.

Permanent astronomy research posts are primarily at universities and are highly competitive. Evidence of having an impact in your field of study is measured by the quantity and quality of peer-reviewed original publications. Fellowships are available for recent PhD graduates and postdocs which can help you establish your independence as a researcher, as well as help you gain experience in securing funding.

Academically, the promotion from lecturer to reader and ultimately professor depends on continuing your research excellence while also securing research funding, teaching and mentoring students, and contributing to the management and administration of the department or institute.

Very few posts exist for astronomers without PhDs and even these generally attract candidates with a PhD and research background. Astronomy is a relatively small field internationally, so having flexibility in your location and type of institution you're willing to work at can help you secure a permanent post.