There's more to astronomy than stargazing. Discover what the discipline involves and find out what skills and qualifications you'll need to become an astronomer
What is astronomy?
Astronomy is basically the study of everything outside of the Earth and its atmosphere; this includes the stars, planets and galaxies that make up our universe.
'From our solar system to the birth of the cosmos itself, this discipline involves observing the universe, using a range of telescopes and developing theories of the universe to compare with these observations,' explains Dr Chris North, lecturer and undergraduate admissions tutor, School of Physics and Astronomy, Cardiff University. 'Astronomy involves people working together from a range of fields. Chemists explain the interactions that take place out in space, biologists understand the conditions involved in the formation and evolution of life, engineers design and build new telescopes and instruments and computational and data scientists help to collect, store and analyse data.'
There are two main areas of astronomy:
- Observational astronomers - collect data from satellites and spacecraft using radio and optical telescopes, develop software, interpret images captured by satellites, and analyse data.
- Theoretical astronomers - create complex computer models to develop theories on the physical processes occurring in space, analyse the results of past observations to develop new predictions.
'Most astronomers in the UK are attached to universities, where they teach the next generation of physicists and astronomers, but they also engage in research,' says Dr Eamonn Kerins, senior lecturer, School of Physics and Astronomy, The University of Manchester. 'Astronomers also work within international teams of scientists on some of the biggest problems in science, and they get to travel to different parts of the world to observe the stars and give talks at international conferences.
'As an astronomer you develop a wide skill set, which makes the job exciting and rewarding.'
Do I need an astronomy degree?
You'll certainly need a degree. Those working in the field are usually educated to PhD level and the first step on this journey is to gain a Bachelors qualification. However, you don't necessarily need an undergraduate degree in astronomy.
There are a number of undergraduate subjects relevant to astronomy. 'The most relevant degree is a physics based one,' says Dr Kerins, 'but it’s best to choose a degree which aligns with your interests.' You could opt for an astrophysics degree, a course in mathematics or if you're interested in planets and the moon, a geology degree.
If you're certain of your interest in astronomy and you'd like to study a more specific programme, there are an increasing number of astronomy degrees on offer at a variety of institutions.
For example, on the three-year Physics with Astronomy BSc programme at Cardiff University, you'll work alongside scientists at the forefront of astronomical research. You'll study core physics and astrophysics modules including 'Mechanics and matter', 'Planet Earth', 'Introductory quantum mechanics', 'Observing the universe' and 'Atomic and nuclear physics.' You'll need AAB/ABB at A-level including maths and physics, to gain entry to the course.
At Birkbeck University of London you can study for a BSc in Planetary Science with Astronomy. This three-year course allows you to study for four evenings a week and is also available part time over four years. The programme is unique in that it combines the three disciplines of planetary science, astronomy and geology. You'll study compulsory units such as 'Foundations of astronomy', 'Geology of the solar system', 'Geophysics' and 'Advanced topics in planetary science.'
Alternatively you can study for an undergraduate astronomy degree at the following institutions:
- University of Central Lancashire (UCLan)
- University of Liverpool
- University of Kent
- University of Nottingham
- University of Surrey.
It's also possible to study for an integrated degree, combining both undergraduate and postgraduate (Masters) study into one programme.
Will I need a postgraduate qualification?
This is a highly intellectual field and as previously mentioned the majority of those working in astronomy have a Doctorate. Once you've gained your undergraduate qualification you can then progress on to study for a Masters degree.
There aren't many Masters degrees in the UK that focus specifically on astronomy, but one such programme is the MSc by research in Astronomy and Astrophysics at The University of Manchester. 'The course provides an excellent entry point to postgraduate study in astronomy for those who may not have taken a physics-based undergraduate degree,' explains Dr Kerins. 'An MSc can also provide a bridge to a PhD for those students who opted for a three-year BSc course.'
The University of Surrey also offer an MSc in Astronomy, allowing students to explore the subject at an advanced level focusing on observational, theoretical and computational astronomy.
Other institutions that provide Masters courses in astronomy include the University of Glasgow and the University of Birmingham.
'If you want the widest possible career choice within astronomy then you need a PhD,' advises Dr Kerins. On completion of a Masters you can then apply for a doctorate position. If you previously studied an integrated programme you can move straight onto PhD study. A Doctorate gives you the opportunity to study a particular area of astronomy in greater detail - for example, radio, solar or cosmos astronomy, allowing you to become an expert in your specific area of interest. PhD places are fiercely competitive and you'll really need to prove your worth during the application process. You'll need to submit a research proposal and look into all funding options, including scholarships, grants and bursaries.
'For a career outside of astronomy you don't need an MSc or PhD but both offer additional high-level skills, which are often sought after by many employers in the high-tech computing and finance sectors,' adds Dr Kerins.
What skills do employers look for?
Graduates of physics, astrophysics and astronomy courses possess a range of skills and attributes highly sought after by employers.
'Increasingly we are living in a 'Big Data' society and more and more employers are looking for graduates with skills in processing, analysing, manipulating and interpreting large datasets,' says Dr Kerins. 'Astronomy graduates possess high-level problem solving, numeracy, statistical and programming skills that are in demand with many employers within the tech and finance industries. Astronomy graduates also have a level of technical knowledge and logical thinking that can also translate to areas of the law profession, such as patent law.'
Do I need work experience?
According to Dr North, work experience is not essential to becoming an astronomer. However, such experience can be useful to gain a better insight into what it's like to work in the field. Dr North points out that opportunities are out there for students and graduates to gain experience, although these are often limited. 'Many universities offer summer research placements and there are also opportunities at other organisations such as research labs and space agencies for placements over the summer months.'
The Royal Astronomical Society also offers a limited number of work experience and summer placements in the UK, but you're likely to face stiff competition for a place.
To demonstrate your interest in the field when applying for courses and jobs, it might be a good idea to join an astronomy club or society. This will also allow you to make contacts in the field and will help you to keep up with news and industry events.
What astronomy jobs are on offer?
Upon completion of their PhD, most astronomy graduates find work as a post-doctoral researcher at a higher education institution. 'Postdoctoral research positions involve consecutive fixed-term contracts lasting two to three years each, you can expect to spend up to ten years in this position moving from contract to contract,' explains Dr Kerins.
'Positions can be difficult to obtain as they are highly competitive and require you to show evidence as an emerging leader in your field, which means having a good record of scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals. Life as a postdoctoral researcher is very exciting as you work full time on research, travel the world and find your feet as a newly-minted professional astronomer.'
However, this isn't the only option. 'Astronomers can apply themselves to many careers,' assures Dr North so don't worry if academia isn't for you. Being highly digitally competent astronomers can find work within IT-related fields such as data science or programming and developing astronomy-related software. Being able to process and interpret large sets of data lends itself to jobs in finance and law. You could also work in public outreach, visiting schools or working in museums, visitor centres and planetariums. If you're a confident speaker, you could work within science communications or if you have a flair for writing or presenting you may want to consider a career a science writer.
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