An astronomer is an individual trained in the scientific techniques for researching and studying the construction, chronology and theories of the universe.
Broadly speaking, work in astronomy breaks down into two areas: observational and theoretical. As the names suggest, these are distinct sub-fields, but there is a certain amount of overlap between the two and there is the capacity to do both kinds of research. It is interesting to note that astronomy is the only science where you cannot perform experiments directly, as the subject matter is sometimes millions of miles away!
Observational astronomers can probably be termed as the ‘at the coalface’ astronomers, as it is they who spend the majority of their time gazing skyward. This may sound like a simplification but that is essentially what they do! Utilising specialist technology and the most advanced telescopes, they look into the heavens to observe astronomic phenomena, search for anything new and to collect and analyse research data to help with the formulation of new theories.
Theoretical astronomers on the other hand move a little away from this hands-on approach, though they do still of course use telescopes and other equipment. The task of the theoretical astronomer is, in short, to postulate theories on the development and structure of the universe. This involves creating complex computer models, or building on existing theories, in order to better understand the universe we live in.
As well as observatory-based work, however, an astronomer might also regularly attend conferences and meetings based on his or her area of expertise to keep abreast of new developments. Professional astronomers also tend to carve out a specialism for themselves, such as stars or the formation of galaxies, and intensively research that area.
Furthermore, a lot of astronomers also work in academia, teaching the next generation of astronomers the theories and techniques they need to learn and conducting research in their faculties too.
The work environment varies, depending on what aspect of astronomical work you are carrying out. Some field exercises will involve being out of doors, and observatories are often placed in remote locations to avoid light pollution and other interference. The work is predominantly office-based, however, with those in education having to grade assessments and oversee research students as well as analysing their own data on computers.
Although arguably the most famous proponents of astronomy (the doyen Sir Patrick Moore and to some extent the now ubiquitous Brian Cox) do tend to be men, there are both males and females working within astronomy. Hours can fluctuate wildly, with office hours loosely kept. Astronomers have to be flexible, as sometimes weekend and evening work will have to be carried out, as they provide the best conditions for an observation.
There is no great physical hardship in the work, apart from possibly enduring long hours of concentration, something which is present in all manner of jobs. There are a number of specialist systems and equipment an astronomer must become adept at using and learn to maintain, including not only the telescopes themselves but also bespoke data analysis and modelling software.
As with any position, salaries can vary depending on geography and seniority. A fair guide though would see junior researchers and assistants earning around £20-23,000 per annum, while more experienced astronomers, with a track record and who take on lecturing or academic work, can earn anything up to £60,000 and beyond.
- Maintaining and checking all equipment daily
- Using radio or optical telescopes or equipment on satellites and possibly spacecraft to make observations of the universe
- Rigorously log any activity and collate data into an analysable form.
- Analyse data to confirm existing theories or to posit alternative theories for testing, or ‘hypothesising’
- If working in a university, planetarium or museum, come up with concise and interesting ways to teach astronomy. This might include preparing lectures or presentations
- Undertake travel to speak at and/or attend meetings and conferences
- Visit other observatories to see how other astronomers carry out their work and observe their facilities
To work as a professional astronomer you need to have a good academic background. A degree in something like maths, physics, astrophysics or geophysics, (in fact anything physics-based) is ideal. Some universities do offer specific astronomy degrees, and more and more institutions now look to candidates who have gained an advanced masters degree, either an MSci or MPhys.
In a lot of positions this will be a prerequisite, as many astronomers are working on doctoral study, and a good, academic research background is very important here.
To help with this, the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) maintains a list of degree courses on their site; this address is linked below.
These are some of the skills you will need to display or develop in order to become an astronomer:
- A deep interest in science and space
- A methodological approach
- An excellent attention span and high levels of concentration
- An aptitude for maths and/or science
- An eye for detail
- Strong IT skills
- An analytical mind, for sifting data
- Imagination and creativity, in coming up with new theories
- Clear communication skills, for the writing of reports and/or presentation of theories
- The ability to forge productive professional relationships with people around the globe
As mentioned above, the working conditions really depend on what institution you are working at as an astronomer. Someone based at an observatory can expect to spend a certain amount of time in the office, as well as time out of doors setting up equipment and going on field trips and the like.
Those who work at museums and at universities might find themselves a little more office-based, as this is mainly a teaching role, though of course some research might be involved here too.
While there is no specific experience, an interest in astronomy is of course a prerequisite. Amateur astronomy, brought about by the availability of relatively inexpensive home telescopes, means you can be observing the skies way before you begin to do it professionally or academically.
You can move to astronomy from other diverse fields though, with anything maths or science related being the best fits.
Some places run work experience schemes for students interested in astronomy, and a list of these is kept on the RAS website.
As you might expect, major employers of astronomers are universities, who have observatory facilities for them to use. Astronomy skills are eminently transferable, so working abroad is a possibility especially if you have the necessary language skills.
There is also the opportunity to work directly for an independent observatory although, as you might expect, these positions are extremely competitive.
The government is also a good avenue of employment for astronomers, working in a department such as the Ministry of Defence or similar.
Astronomers are not yoked to a career in astronomy as opportunities such as scientific journalism, satellite research and systems analysis could also suit those with suitable qualifications and experience.
Astronomy is a highly complex and ever-changing field, and there is never a moment where an astronomer is not learning. Astronomers will be expected to have, or at least be working towards, a PhD. A PhD requires serious intellectual rigour and an astronomer is expected to come up with a thesis that he or she can defend under oral questioning.
From the position of research fellow you may stay within the same university and work up to a professorship, or attempt to find roles at any of the institutions mentioned in the ‘Employers’ section above and work yourself into a senior position there. Experience and expertise count for a lot, and with time comes both.
Also known as…
- Not known as anything else
- Scientific Researcher
What’s it really like?
Dr Matt Jarvis, 36, is a Reader in Astrophysics at the University of Hertfordshire and Adjunct Professor of Astronomy at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa.
How long have you been in this particular job?
I’ve been a faculty member at the University of Hertfordshire since January 2007, and since May 2011 this is now a joint position with the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.
What did you do before this job?
I did my PhD at the University of Oxford and then moved to Leiden in the Netherlands for two years to conduct postdoctoral research. In December 2002 I moved back to Oxford as a postdoctoral researcher before moving to Hertfordshire in January 2007.
Did you always want to be an astronomer?
Not at all. After my A-levels I did a physics with astrophysics degree at the University of Birmingham, mainly because I thought it sounded more interesting than doing a straight physics course, and as physics was my best subject and one that interested me (mathematics was another option at the time).
Did you ever consider doing anything else?
Yes, on many occasions and sometimes I still do. After my degree I was offered a position at the Defence Research Agency, as it was known back then. I was very tempted to do this rather than a PhD. If I remember correctly it was in radar imaging and I could have done a PhD in image processing with them. But I punted for a PhD in astrophysics as I thought it might be more interesting. I didn’t really think about a long-term career in astrophysics even at this point. I enjoyed the PhD so the natural progression was to a postdoctoral position, but still then I was thinking about doing other things, the main draw being the money! Mathematical and analytical skills are quite handy when trying to earn more money.
Was there one event or moment that inspired you to go on and be an astronomer?
Not really, but I guess the thing that kept me in it (after the first postdoc position) was proving to myself that I could cut it as an independent researcher. This was the biggest moment I think.
Do you have any heroes within astronomy?
Not really heroes, can’t think of any anyway. I guess I have respect for a fair number of people and try to learn from them – different people are good at different things though, so it still comes back to trying to glean what I think is important from them.
What was the research and degree process like? How did you find it?
Undergraduate study was hard; I was the first year to do the 4-year MPhys course and they really cranked up the work. I think they reduced it the following year! PhD was also hard, but I don’t think anyone thinks that it is easy! It is, however, rewarding, doing research on the cutting edge and finding out things that nobody has done or seen before.
Do you have any favourite discoveries you would like to share?
I would say that obtaining redshifts for objects is always the exciting part of observational astronomy for me, and this leads to lots of good science. But I think my favourite would have to be the first result from my PhD student’s project where we undertook a large survey to try and find rare, but important stages of galaxy formation. Obtaining the spectrum of an object from this survey was both exciting and a relief (for both my PhD student and myself!)
What do you do in a typical day as an astronomer?
Mainly work in front of a computer as I’m at the stage now that most of my “research” involves managing large international consortia on a number of surveys that I lead. I also spend a lot of time supervising PhD students. In term time teaching takes up the bulk of my time. Occasionally I get to do some research myself. This is usually in the summer months!
What do you like about the job?
The freedom to do what you want. I guess the best way to describe it would be it’s like being your own boss without the major financial risk. Obviously as you get to a faculty member at a university then teaching does play a larger role. I also enjoy the teaching but there is a lot of admin which comes with it.
Is there anything you dislike about the job?
As mentioned above, the amount of admin can be quite onerous at times. I think my other dislikes are to do with the system. It is very hard to have a “normal” social life if you have to move job every 2-3 years as a postdoctoral researcher. This was the main reason that I thought about leaving in the past. This is something that needs to be addressed if we are to keep good and sociable people in academia!
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
Go for it. It is very rewarding. But also don’t be afraid to look at other options. Not everybody is cut out for research; some very smart people when it comes to exams have difficulty adjusting to a research environment, and vice versa. You don’t know until you try.
What job(s) do you think you might do after this role, if any?
Well the natural progression for me now, would be to become a Professor in the UK and possibly sometime in the future a head of department role.
What other tips can you give to help people considering this career?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Most people are quite friendly and open and will try and give the best advice. I would also try and talk to people who did PhDs and Postdocs and then left; it gives a different perspective. Try and get some work experience in a department nearby; most Universities run work experience in the summer and it gives people an idea of what it’s like to work in a research environment – and it looks good on a CV! Just enjoy what you’re doing.
And lastly, of course – do you believe extra-terrestrial life exists out in space?
Of course! The Universe is too big for there not to be!