Whether it's telescopes in observational astronomy or computer models in theoretical astronomy, a career as an astronomer will involve in-depth research into the fundamental processes that govern the universe

Astronomers are scientists who study the origin of the universe and its objects and how it works. As an astronomer, 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.

You could choose to 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

Typically, you'll be employed by either a university or a dedicated research institute (which may be affiliated with a university). In most cases you'll need to:

  • collect and analyse data from cameras, satellites and other observations (if working in observational astronomy)
  • plan and execute research projects to answer fundamental questions (such as how do galaxies form?)
  • apply for time to observe at international observatories, if necessary to your work
  • read existing academic literature
  • put your work in the context of other researchers' work
  • write scientific articles
  • apply for grants to fund your research
  • collaborate with other astronomers, often internationally
  • present your work at conferences.

In some postdoctoral roles, you may be expected to take on some teaching responsibilities, which can include:

  • training and mentoring students and postdoctoral researchers
  • teaching courses in astronomy or related areas.

Salary

  • If you're doing a PhD and have been awarded a studentship, it will usually come with a tax-free stipend to help cover living costs. This is currently at least £15,285, although some may be higher.
  • Astronomers with a PhD generally first go on to do a postdoctoral position, which pays £28,000 to £42,000.
  • Salaries at top senior levels and for university professors or researchers with high levels of responsibility can range from £40,000 to in excess of £75,000.

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. Outside of academia, salaries can vary widely. For current details on PhD studentship stipends, see UKRI - Studentships and Doctoral Training.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Astronomers work various hours depending on the setting but each post tends to come with some flexibility. Hours can be irregular, particularly for observational astronomers and when travel is needed for conferences.

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.

What to expect

  • 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.
  • Initiatives are in place within related associations to encourage equality, inclusion and diversity in astronomy. This includes the Royal Astronomical Society which has various policies and outreach programmes in place.
  • Astronomers rarely work in isolation, and in addition to being aware of what colleagues at your institution do, you’re also expected to keep up with published literature from around the world and to be able to put your research work into the context of other research.
  • You'll need to be well-versed at justifying the motivation for your 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 you to have or be working towards 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
  • earth sciences
  • geology/geoscience
  • physics
  • space/planetary science
  • 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). Funding goes direct to the institution and individual universities will have more information on how funding can be accessed. 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, statistics and 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 you can sometimes be involved with research alongside your 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. Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.

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

If you're studying for a PhD while employed in a research post, you'll be mentored by your supervisor, who will oversee your research. You may be offered additional training either by the institution or by external organisations such as Vitae, which supports the professional development of researchers.

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 throughout your career.

You'll need to keep up to date with developments in your field through attending conferences and events, and by networking with peers. Opportunities are offered by professional societies, such as The Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society.

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.

You could also choose to move into a different but related career, such as something in aerospace or satellite research, or the geophysics industry. It’s also possible to take on management or consultant positions using the skills you’ve gained from your research.

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