Astronomy may appear to be an esoteric subject demanding special prior training, but this is not the case. There are a number of different scientific skills which can provide the relevant background for astronomical research. As in the past, most people entering astronomical research have a mathematics, physics, or astronomy background; while this remains true today there are opportunities for those with other backgrounds relevant to particular astronomical problems. People with first degrees in astronomy, chemistry, computer science, engineering (particularly electronic), instrumentation, geology, mathematics, physics or statistics can find a place in astronomical research. The situation with geophysics is very similar. Although most students will start research with a background of physics, mathematics or geology, there are also opportunities for graduates in other physical-science subjects, and in computer science and mathematics.
A major problem which any prospective student must face in seeking a start in research is that of obtaining financial support. Studentships provided by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) for astronomy and Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) for geophysics, are the normal means whereby British students are supported during their studies for higher degrees in astronomy and geophysics. However, you will a need a first class or upper second class first degree to be considered for studentships offered for PhD studies. If your primary degree is of a lower second class standard or better, you may be eligible for studentships offered for MSc studies. With the development of the four-year degree most universities offering postgraduate courses have come to identify an MSci/MPhys/MMaths degree, rather than a BSc, as the entry qualification to a research degree. Residents of Northern Ireland, Isle of Man, or the Channel Islands are not eligible for Research Council studentships, but studentships similar to those offered by the Research Councils may be available under the same conditions from the respective education departments of these regions.
Note that other studentships exist: these may be offered by a university, university department, a college, a foundation, or by industry. However, these studentships may not be available annually and special conditions may attach to their award. When applying for a place as a research student you should be able to clarify what studentships are available, and any conditions attached to them, by enquiring at your own university, or the university where you hope to undertake a higher degree course. It is clear that applications for research studentships are competitive and attainment of a minimum standard in a first degree does not automatically ensure a grant. However, other openings in astronomical and geophysical work do occur from time to time.
When applying for a place as a research student, you should also ask about the university's policies on postgraduate training, e.g.,
It is important that you understand what is provided and determine if this suits your needs and interests.
In astronomy and geophysics all research posts in universities and government establishments (ATC, RAL, BGS, BAS) now require a doctorate. However, there are posts in supporting roles for which a first degree is sufficient.
Given that a higher degree is successfully completed, there can be no assurance that a career in astronomy or geophysics will automatically follow. However, employment prospects for astronomers with a PhD or DPhil are at least as good as for similarly qualified persons in the other physical sciences, and indeed experience with data handling, computing and experimental projects can be seen as an asset when applying for positions in modern industry. Employment prospects for geophysics PhD graduates have so far been quite good relative to most science subjects, although one would be foolish to try to predict the situation three or more years ahead. However, many must seek employment in a different area on completion of their higher degree. To this must be added the hazard of fluctuating numbers in a small subject; in some years only a few will complete PhD degrees, in other years larger than average numbers may complete. It might happen that a peak in the completion of PhD work corresponds to lower than average job prospects in the science.
Students who have astronomical observing projects in mind should be aware of the wide range of national and international facilities now available. Optical, infrared and millimetre-wave telescopes are operated on La Palma, in Australia (the Anglo-Australian Telescope and Schmidt Telescope) and in Hawaii; there are radio telescopes in the UK and overseas; UK astronomers participate in observations from space with, for example, the Hubble Space Telescope ESA's Newton-XMM X-ray satellite, the Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn and solar satellites such as SOHO. There are similarly ground-based radar facilities for studying the ionosphere and solar-terrestrial interactions and there is access to data from satellites studying the magnetosphere such as ESA's Cluster mission. Students may also become involved with developing new instrumentation for these facilities. National facilities are available for students studying geophysics. These include a number of ocean-going research vessels as well as specialised laboratories and an equipment pool providing fieldwork equipment for seismology, geomagnetism and global positioning systems; as with astronomy, satellite data (and suitable image processing facilities) can be an important tool.
For students working in theoretical astronomy there is now access to a wide range of high-performance computers, including a national facility at Edinburgh, the UK Astrophysical Fluids Facility at Leicester and the UK Cosmology Computing Centre at Cambridge. Many universities also have their own supercomputing facilities, ranging from Beowulf clusters to massively parallel machines.
A maintained list of postgraduate courses (with data supplied from UCAS) is available at http://www.postgraduatesearch.com