As an Astronomer, you will study the physics of the universe. You'll investigate stars, planets, galaxies and other bodies in space. You will use telescopes on the ground or in space, analyse data and use theoretical modelling to study objects. You could also design and build new equipment to collect data.
Also known as
- Planetary Scientist
- Space Physicist
- Planetary Spectroscopist
- Galactic Astronomer
The origin of the universe and the search for life on other planets are just two of the topics that fascinate and inspire Astronomers. Space is like a giant laboratory - it gives Astronomers the opportunity to study physical processes, laws and phenomena in conditions that don't naturally exist on Earth. For example, the universe contains very strong magnetic fields, black holes, and extremes of heat and cold. Would you like to be an Astronomer?
Precise observations are essential to astronomy. As an Astronomer, you will use telescopes, both on Earth and in space, to observe the universe and to take measurements. As new, larger and more sensitive telescopes and detectors are developed, you will be able to examine the cosmos in more detail.
You'll use different telescopes to study different phenomena. Optical telescopes collect light; the largest ones have mirrors more than 10 metres across and some under development will have mirrors of 40 metres in diameter. You will use telescopes like this to study galaxies more than ten billion light years away. Infrared telescopes will allow you to look at warm objects like young stars that are shrouded in dust.
You must apply to use a particular telescope, stating exactly what you want to observe and hope to learn. If your application is successful, you'll be given 'observing time'.
This can mean travelling to spend time at an observatory. The best sites for telescopes are far from centres of population and light pollution, on high mountains above the lower layers of the Earth's atmosphere. Increasingly, staff at observatories program the telescope and send the results to the Astronomer electronically.
Your typical day as an Astronomer will be office-based. Most Astronomers work in universities as academic staff, where you'll combine research with planning observations, analysing data, teaching, preparing lectures and marking students' papers.
Usually you will work as part of a team, which can include Astronomers from different countries. Team members are often specialists, for example, in observational astronomy or theoretical modelling.
Apart from travelling to make observations, you could also go to international conferences to share and discuss their ideas.
Being able to read, write and speak Welsh may be an advantage when you’re looking for work in Wales.
Personal Qualities and Skills
To become an Astronomer, you'll need:
- very strong knowledge of maths and physics
- ICT skills - you should expect to spend a lot of time working on computers
- the ability to explain results clearly and concisely, including in written reports
- patience, problem-solving skills, imagination and determination for research work
An understanding of electronics would open up opportunities in designing and building equipment.
Pay and Opportunities
The pay rates given below are approximate.
- Starting: £30,000 - £33,500
- With experience: £36,000 - £43,000
- Senior Astronomers earn £44,500
Hours of work
Astronomers usually work 39 hours a week. However, you might need to have early starts, late finishes and weekend work.
Where could I work?
Most posts are in university research departments and government-funded observatories throughout the UK.
Many qualified Astronomers find employment in other areas. These include government departments such as the Ministry of Defence, software development, teaching and research into aerospace and satellite systems.
There are opportunities for Astronomers to work in observatories and universities in other countries.
Where are vacancies advertised?
Vacancies are advertised through the websites of the Royal Astronomical Society, the American Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics (brightrecruits.com); in science magazines such as New Scientist (which also posts jobs on its website); on academic and scientific recruitment websites; and in national newspapers.
Social media websites, such as LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook, are a great way to network, find vacancies and get in contact with possible employers. Make sure that your profile presents you in a professional manner that will appeal to potential employers.
Take a look at our General Information Article
Entry Routes and Training
The usual route into a career as a professional Astronomer is through a relevant first (undergraduate) degree. There are specialist degrees with titles such as astronomy, astrophysics, and physics with astrophysics or space science.
Entry is also common with a first degree in pure physics or maths. Some entrants have first degrees in relevant subjects such as computer science, earth science and some branches of chemistry and engineering.
A small number of universities offer integrated science degrees (ISciences), aiming to give graduates interdisciplinary skills and knowledge through a problem-based approach.
It's almost impossible to become an Astronomer without following your first degree with a postgraduate qualification. This is usually a PhD.
Some students take a specialist MSc before applying for a PhD, usually if their first degree had little astronomy content.
A great way to get into this career is through an internship. Take a look at our information article '
After completing your PhD, your first paid employment is likely to be in a post-doctoral research fellowship at a university or research laboratory in the UK or another country. These posts usually last between one and three years.
Previous experience working chemical engineering would be useful for this career.
You may then look for a permanent job at a university or for other research fellowships.
Competition for fellowships is very strong. Those who don't manage to secure a fellowship, and therefore to continue along the astronomy career path, are still able to use the skills and knowledge gained through studying astronomy in a wide range of careers.
For example, astronomy graduates and postgraduates have careers in software engineering, telecommunications, electronics, teaching and scientific journalism.
For entry to a degree in astronomy, astrophysics or physics with astrophysics, the usual minimum requirement is:
- 2/3 A levels, including physics and maths
- GCSEs at grade C/4 and above in your A level subjects
- a further 2/3 GCSEs at grade C/4 and above, often including English language
Alternatives to A levels include:
- BTEC level 3 qualifications
- the International Baccalaureate Diploma
However, course requirements vary, so please check college/university websites carefully.
Some universities accept the Welsh Baccalaureate as equivalent to 1 A level.
It is illegal for any organisation to set age limits for entry to employment, education or training, unless they can show there is a real need to have these limits.
If you don't have the qualifications needed to enter a degree course, you might be able to start one after completing an Access course, for example, Access to Science. You don't usually need any qualifications to enter an Access course, although you should check this with the course provider.
Birkbeck, University of London, offers a degree in planetary science with astronomy, either by distance learning or part-time study.
The University of Central Lancashire offers a degree in Astronomy, by distance learning (elearning).
The Open University offers a degree in Natural Sciences, with an Astronomy and Planetary Science pathway option. It also offers an individual unit in Astrophysics, which you can be study on its own or as part of a larger degree.
A number of universities offer part-time postgraduate degrees in relevant subjects.
Financial support for postgraduate study and research is available from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).
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Open University (OU)
Tel: 0845 3006090
Institute of Physics (IOP)
Address: 76 Portland Place, London W1B 1NT
Tel: 020 7470 4800
Royal Astronomical Society (RAS)
Address: Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BQ
Tel: 020 7734 4582
Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)
Address: Polaris House, North Star Avenue, Swindon SN2 1SZ
Tel: 01793 442000