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Astronomers use a wide range of scientific techniques to study celestial bodies and their composition, motion, and origin. Advances in astronomy are made through research - defining a question, gathering relevant data, formulating a hypothesis, and then testing the predictions of that hypothesis.
Computers feature prominently in all aspects of an astronomer's work. Most astronomers specialise in addressing a particular question or area of astronomy such as planetary science, solar astronomy, the origin and evolution of stars, or the formation of galaxies. The work can be divided into two main areas.
This involves designing and using telescopes or instruments on satellites and spacecraft to collect and analyse data, allowing theories to be tested. The data received is often a colour spectrum image of the intensity and distribution of light emitted or reflected, and astronomers may develop software to interpret this information.
This involves creating complex computer models to develop theories on the physical processes occurring in space. Using the results of previous observations, new predictions and hypothesis are developed for testing by future observations. Questioning the results in relation to what is currently known may then advance and develop ideas about events in the universe.
The work of an astronomer may involve:
- working on all stages of a project
- attending frequent meetings
- writing reports
- making presentations to disclose results to colleagues
- (in observatories) developing new instrumentation and maintaining existing equipment.
Many astronomers are also involved with teaching in universities, and this can form the larger part of an astronomer's work.
Hours and Environment
Astronomers may work long and irregular hours, including weekends and shifts - some projects require continuous attention.
University teaching has no set hours but tends to take up anywhere from 18 to 30 hours a week, with additional time spent on preparing lectures.
Most of the work is desk-bound and involves extensive use of computers. There may be frequent travel, often overseas, to attend meetings and conferences, and visit observatories.
Skills and Interests
To be an astronomer, you should:
- have good powers of observation
- be methodical, logical, and able to make sound judgements
- have the patience and determination to see projects through to completion – often over several years
- be able to analyse problems relating to mathematics and physics
- be able to produce scientific reports for publication
- have the confidence to make presentations about research results
- have strong computer skills
- be able to forge links with colleagues around the world.
To work in astronomy you must first achieve a degree in a subject such as physics, mathematics, astrophysics, geophysics or a related science subject. Some universities offer courses in planetary physics, space-science or astronomy (as a single subject or combined with maths for example).
Entry to a degree course requires five GCSEs (A-C)/S grades (1-3) including mathematics, English and science, plus three A levels/four H grades including mathematics and physics. An Access to Higher Education qualification may also be accepted for entry to certain courses. Please check with colleges or universities for exact entry requirements.
Some degree courses include a year's study overseas and/or experience of work in an observatory. Those wishing to pursue a career as a professional research astronomer should aim for a first or upper second class MSci or MPhys degree, and follow this with further study for a doctorate. The Royal Astronomical Society can provide a list of university research departments, the fields of research in which their interests focus, and the range of degree courses offered.
The Society also offers information on courses for amateur enthusiasts, some of which can be studied by distance learning.
There is no upper age limit for entry to the career. It is possible for those with certain backgrounds, perhaps in mathematics, computer science or some branches of chemistry or engineering to transfer into this work.
It is necessary to study at postgraduate level if you wish to work as a professional astronomer.
Postgraduate training in astronomy and related fields is delivered by research departments in universities, and typically lasts for three years. As a trainee you work on a research project alongside senior research colleagues, and develop the skills and determination necessary for sustained individual research.
After producing a thesis based on your findings, you would be interviewed at length about the work, and a PhD or other qualification may then be awarded.
See the Science and Technology Facilities Council (in Further Information) for details about research opportunities and funding.
Most of the opportunities for newly qualified astronomers are in short term research fellowships lasting between one and three years. These appointments can be in the UK or abroad and there is significant competition.
There are also posts at research laboratories such as the Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratories. Many jobs are overseas.
Other opportunities exist in maintaining and administering observatories and in instrument development.
Students will develop a range of transferable skills during a PhD in Astronomy. This background will also be useful when seeking employment outside astronomy, for example, in aerospace industries, electronics and software engineering, teaching, scientific journalism, computing and accountancy.
Figures are intended as a guideline only.
Junior research posts are salaried in the range £20,000 to £30,000 a year.
Senior researchers/astronomers and those involved in lecturing may earn up to £57,000 a year.
Further informationPolaris House
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The information contained in our Career Profiles Database was correct at time of publishing, but since publication certain details may have changed so please use this section as a research tool and in some cases further research may be required.
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