Hopefully, you’ve answered yes to those questions! Whether or not you’ve thought of joining the astronomy career, it’s an excellent option for anyone who wants to study the universe and how it works. It might not be full of intergalactic wars and scenes from Hollywood blockbusters, but it’s just as exciting! Read our comprehensive career guide below to see if it’s right up your street.
What is an astronomer?
Careers in astronomy revolve around researching the universe, everything in it and how it works. Although it’s tempting to call someone in this role an astronomist, the term is instead astronomy. A British astronomer, essentially, is a scientist who aims to explain the fundamental processes that rule the universe. Astronomy jobs will aspire to push the boundaries of our knowledge of how it works through theoretical study and observation.
The career has two areas, observational astronomy or theoretical astronomy. If we look at the latter, like other math-related jobs, they will use computer models and software to explain predictions and observations. The strand of observational astronomy may also be suited to anyone searching for physics careers, as they’ll use cameras and telescopes to observe the stars, galaxies and other astronomical objects and present their findings.
Astronomy features specialist areas including planets, galaxies, stars and cosmology - which revolves around the origin of the universe. Modern studies use computer programming and software in both strands, so being a tech whizz will help with this career. Jobs are generally diverse, from astrobiologists and planetary geologists to telescope design engineers and cosmologists.
What do astronomers do?
Now, what does an astronomer do? Why do people refer to them as perfect jobs for maths graduates? Well, that’s because there is a lot of maths and science involved - they are vital parts of the position. Careers in astronomy will work for dedicated research institutes or universities where they’ll research, collect and analyse data from observations, cameras and satellites involving all or concentrated areas in the universe.
They’ll plan projects that aim to answer fundamental questions - like, how do planets form and why do they are moving further apart? Reading academic literature, writing scientific articles and collaborating with other astronomers are all vital aspects of the role. Astronomy careers will see individuals putting their work within the broader context of other researchers, past, present and future and internationally.
Not only that, but they’ll also need to present their work at conferences, teach courses and mentor students and postdoctoral researchers in astronomy. Also, applying for funding grants for their research and representing their institution at events and seminars can be considered a responsibility.
Once in an academic post, you tend to complete one to several postdoctoral research contracts which can be up to three years each in length.
How to become an astronomer?
Next, we can look into ‘how to become an astrophysicist’ and what do astronomers study? It’s common for individuals to have a physics degree or other relevant subjects like astronomy, mathematics, geology, astrophysics, computer science or earth sciences.
Also, it’s a popular career for graduates searching for jobs in physics once they finish studying if they have a keen interest in the universe. The same is for careers with a maths degree. Although, if you have learned or aim to attend a course in any of the related subjects mentioned above, astronomer jobs are still within reach.
It’s worth knowing that most people in the career have a PhD, and to apply for one you will usually need to have an undergraduate degree in a relevant subject at a 2:1 or higher level. Master’s are not a standard prerequisite if you have a doctorate. However, individual universities may ask PhD students to have one. Therefore, you could need two or three higher education qualifications to enter this career. If you are considering working in astronomical instrumentation, which focuses on the technical side of the role and what instruments astronomers use, from space missions to telescopes, then having an engineering degree is more useful.
It’s not unheard of to work within research with only an undergraduate degree under your belt, but if you want to make the most out of the career, you’ll need to study a PhD. Furthermore, suppose you’re going to teach others and land a job as a professor. In that case, you’ll need a doctorate and usually several years of various roles and experience before being offered a permanent position at a university.
To obtain a PhD studentship, you can either contact individual universities for information on their funding opportunities or secure a grant through the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). If this is a route, you want to take, be sure to apply with plenty of time before their funding window closes, which can be different per university. You can contact institutions directly to find out about their programmes and when the window for applications closes.
Following your PhD studies, you can apply for postdoctoral posts, or apply for a fellowship if you want to carry on researching. Typically, an academic position (like a professor) will seek a qualified individual who has five to ten years of research experience, including the time spent on their PhD and anything after that.
What skills should astronomers have?
Like other maths jobs in the UK or jobs with a physics degree, excellent maths, analytical, physics and statistical skills are essential. Also, research, computer programming and project management skills are incredibly crucial for jobs for physicists as they’ll be conducting analysis and working on theoretical perspectives.
Astronomers should excel in problem-solving and troubleshooting scenarios. Furthermore, jobs with a maths degree look for individuals who can work and collaborate with others in a team as well as organisation skills which allow them to stick their head down and work independently. Excellent written and verbal communication skills are expected for candidates looking for maths-based jobs, alongside the ability to continue progressing even when there are no strict deadlines.
You may work in jobs that look to prove, observe or disprove a theory, meaning you won’t have a strict deadline for an answer. However, you’ll still need to show that you’re working efficiently and making decent progress. Next, mentoring, training and leading students is a crucial skill, whether you’re in a designated university post or not, as you may conduct talks, visits and work with students on placements. You should be able to motivate yourself and others in your area of research.
Where to find work experience in astronomy?
These types of mathematics degree type of jobs can be more beneficial if you carry out work experience beforehand, to get a feel of the career and see what it entails. The best way to find out if it’s one of the perfect jobs for physicists, or your interests, is to research the field.
Careers in astronomy revolve around researching the universe, everything in it and how it works.
Universities may offer summer placements for undergraduates, or students may be involved alongside their studies. You can also apply for work experience at an astronomical museum or observatory to gain an insight into the equipment used and how data is collated. There are many observatories based throughout the UK, from Cornwall to Greenwich. If you’re not near an observatory you can try joining a smaller amateur club and stargazing society near you, most towns and urban areas have one!
How much do astronomers make?
One of the most important and popular questions for curious minds, ‘how much do astronomers get paid?’ Astronomists (astronomers) in PhD studentships usually receive a stipend while researching. The national minimum doctoral salary is around £15,000, as set by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). You may find others that offer a higher wage than this. Still, most PhD students, whether in astronomy or other areas, work at the university in junior lecturer positions or complete part-time work to pay for their studies and living costs.
The astronomer salary for an individual with a PhD in their first postdoctoral position can earn between £28,000 and £42,000. Earnings are dependent on specialism and where you work. A university professor or someone on the permanent research staff team can expect to earn £40,000 plus, following promotions and industry recognition. Most universities follow a pay structure for staff earnings, and wages can differ depending on funding grants you secure and whether or not you’re working as a lecturer. For someone working at an observatory or private organisation, the salary may vary accordingly.
Are astronomers the perfect fit for physics jobs?
Astronomy can interest graduates seeking jobs in maths or physics. The role requires a solid understanding of maths, statistics, physics and possibly geology and chemistry in particular specialisms. That’s why it’s considered part of the list for jobs with a maths degree or anything equivalent.
However, if the night sky and beyond doesn’t pique your interest, then don’t pursue this career! There are lots of other professions that you can choose. But if it does sound like the ultimate dream, then prepare for hard work and dedication from the very start. Whether it’s through your studies, research, PhD application and work after securing a job, it’s a competitive field and requires someone who has strong determination to succeed.
Once you are working in the area, you can expect to travel across the globe for conferences and the chance to present your results. It’s a small community so collaborating with other experts is essential for the role; their research can allow your work to have context.
What are the prospects for astronomers?
Well, we’ve covered it above, but astronomy itself is a decent prospect for jobs for physics graduates or anyone wondering ‘what to do with a maths degree?’. But the majority of astronomers work for universities, observatories, private institutions and government positions. There is also the option to be within astronomy research - a highly competitive field - which may require you to move abroad.
You can also apply for work experience at an astronomical museum or observatory to gain an insight into the equipment used and how data is collated.
Now, if you find yourself still asking, ‘what can you do with a physics degree?’ and wondering if astronomy is still a viable option for you, you can consider two critical questions. Do you enjoy researching and does the universe and everything in it interest you? If you answered yes, then astronomy is an excellent choice as a career to allow you to complete those passions.
Once in an academic post, you tend to complete one to several postdoctoral research contracts which can be up to three years each in length. There are only a few experts across the globe in specialised subfields, and working in your postdoctoral posts offer you the chance to gain crucial insight and expertise from these individuals.
Like other physics degree jobs, permanent research positions at academic institutions are competitive, so having evidence of how your research impacted your field of study is crucial. Another option is to apply for a fellowship after graduating with a PhD, which allows you to establish yourself independently as a researcher.
If academia is the desired path, the usual progression route includes working as a lecturer then reader, and ultimately a professor following research funding grants and experience teaching students. But, being flexible and able to work abroad and at most institutions will more likely increase your chances of securing a permanent post. For private organisations like an observatory, they’ll have a structured career progression path where you can move into more managerial positions, like leading a team of researchers.