You are fascinated by space. You are very good at maths, physics and coding. “Martian” is your favourite movie (or is it “Contact”?). And you want to become an astronomer. WHERE DO YOU START?
We get this question a lot from the young people and their parents who visit our portable planetarium shows. So today we will attempt to explain to you what a route to a career in Astronomy might look like and what it takes to become an astronomer.
There are lots of space-related professions out there: from astronaut and rocket engineer to software developer (see How to start your career in Astronomy for more ideas). In this post we will focus explicitly on academic Astronomy. This path is usually the longest one and in a best-case scenario leads to a position at university, observatory or a space agency. Take your time to explore all the options!
Getting started in High School
All astronomers we met (ourselves included) have one thing in common: they were interested in astronomy as kids. Some attended local astronomy clubs, some took part in National/ International Astronomy competitions and Olympiads, some observed the night sky with their backyard telescopes.
If you are still new to Astronomy, that’s OK. There are lots of ways to learn a thing or two about space, such as
- (of course) books
If you are planning to spend the rest of your life learning and researching, you may as well get started now. University editions titled “Introduction to..” might be especially useful as they give a good overview of the subject and outline the current research.
Many observatories and universities (as well as our inflatable planetarium) offer astronomy lectures and stargazing evenings for general public. You will have a chance to meet real life astronomers and ask them all about their research.
- online presentations
These days many lectures and conference talks by professional astronomers are available online. Although these presentations are often aimed at scientists and students (so might be a bit too advanced), they will give you a good idea of the problems astronomers are currently working on. Besides, unlike the audience, you will have the advantage of “pause” button and Wikipedia at hand. Use it!
UK pupils Year 12 and up can take part in a series of Physics and Astronomy challenges and maybe even compete against pupils from other countries.
We would strongly recommend you to make the most of these opportunities. Don’t get discouraged if there is a lot you do not understand!
Now you’ve learned new things about space, talked to astronomers, maybe conducted some observations or even competed in Olympiad. Excellent! To enter University you will need really good grades in maths and physics. Study hard and nail those GCSE’s.
A path to professional Astronomy involves up to 10 years of learning “stuff” at the University level and, quite frankly, the learning never ends after you graduate.
BS and MS
Bachelor’s degree (usually Bachelor of Science, or BS) followed by Masters Degree (Master of Science, or MS), or sometimes integrated Masters degree, will be your first qualification to earn. You can study for Astrophysics or Astronomy degree if the University of your choice offers one. Otherwise a degree in Physics (geology/ chemistry) will be a good start. Many career advisors recommend choosing a degree in Physics over Astronomy (if both programs are available) as it will give you more employment options if you ever decide Astronomy is not for you.
How long this stage of your education will last depends on the country, university and program. In England it usually takes 3 +1 years. That means you will be studying full-time for 3 years to earn BS and another year to get MS. In Scotland it will take 4+2 years. After Bologna Process, most European universities adopted 3+1 frame. In the US Bachelor’s program takes 4 years to complete.
Home or abroad?
Many UK universities offer excellent undergraduate programs with a year abroad. If you feel brave enough, you might choose to study all of your degree overseas. Many non-English speaking countries, such as the Netherlands, have English taught programs for international students. Others offer intensive language courses prior to the start of the University studies. In addition to the many benefits of studying abroad, it might actually be less expensive to get your degree in another country. But, of course, there is a lot to consider. Do your research!
Next step towards you career in Astronomy is to get your PhD. That’s an advanced degree offered in most research intensive Universities, and aimed at students who would like to get into scientific research.
Depending on the country this step might take between 3-4 (UK) and 5 (USA) years.
If you have earned your BS and MS in your home country, it is time to consider continuing your studies abroad. There is a number of reasons to “go international”. First, it is a fantastic opportunity to see how research is done in other countries. Second, it is a chance to work on a particular telescope (if you are an observational astronomer) or under the supervision of a particular scientist. Third, it is a great personal experience, a chance to travel and learn a new language.
Whether home or abroad, though, it does matter what university you go to. Typically more so for the graduate studies as this step is more career-oriented. A degree from a reputable university will boost your chances of finding a good position after graduation.
Postdoc and after
You are a Doctor of Philosophy now (that’s what PhD stands for in case you were wondering), congratulations! You are ready for your grown-up job as an astronomer. Well, almost. You now may enter a world of professional Astronomy via a number of temporary postdoctoral research (or postdoc) positions. This phase of your career might last between 4 and 10 years. Expect to move universities and most likely countries a lot! This might be especially challenging if you have a family.
The competition for permanent jobs in Astronomy is quite tough. You will need to work very hard: do your own independent research, teach students, possibly do some outreach and, as ever, study.
Would YOU like to become an astronomer? Let our star dome team know!