YOU ARE HERE: Home > Education & Careers > For everyone > Careers in Astronomy, Geophysics and Planetary Science

I want information on:

Information for:

General information for everyone

Careers in Astronomy, Geophysics and Planetary Science

Today's professional researcher uses observations of the Universe to test scientific theories. From the core of the Earth to the most distant galaxies, matter can be studied in conditions unattainable in the laboratory; in extremes of heat and cold, from the near perfect vacuum of space to the almost infinite density of a black hole, at speeds approaching that of light, with particle energies millions of times greater than those on Earth - the list could go on and on.
Strange as it may seem, although the knowledge gained by being a member of a local astronomical or geological society or by reading popular books and magazines can be invaluable, aspiring researchers need have no detailed knowledge of the subject until after they have taken their first university degree! Most of today's professionals took their first degree in physics or mathematics. Some also studied astrophysics or geophysics as part of their degree course.
This document outlines the standard route through school and university for a young person wishing to become a research astronomer, geophysicist or planetary scientist. The timings are given as a guide and these days education may be undertaken on many different timescales. There are equal opportunities for men and women throughout.

Shortcuts to sections:

Age 11-16 years
You must study mathematics and science and do well in your GCSE examinations. If you have the choice, it might be wise to take Physics, Chemistry and Biology as three separate examinations.
GCSE Astronomy is not required, although taking this and any amateur observing activity would help to build a foundation of knowledge in, and show a commitment to the subject.

Age 16-18 years
It has been usual to study three subjects to A2-level, two of which must be Mathematics and Physics. It has been traditional to study another science for your third A2. However, in recent years, it has been accepted that students want more breadth in their studies. Any subject, studied diligently and passed with a good grade at AS or A2 will be acceptable. Whatever combination you choose, it is necessary to take Mathematics and Physics to full A2-level.
In Scotland, it is normal to study four SCE Highers, two of which must be Mathematics and Physics.
You must aim for good grades in all your examinations to secure entry to a degree course at university.


Back to top



 

The ages shown below are for a student making uninterrupted progress. Nowadays, many students take breaks between courses or study part-time. With determination, age is not a barrier to further study.

 

Age 18+ (For 3 or 4 years)
For an aspiring astronomer or geophysicist, the conventional course at university is physics, astrophysics or geophysics. However mathematics or computer science might well be appropriate, as might some branches of chemistry or engineering.
Now a word of caution. Only a small proportion of those graduating in astrophysics or geophysics, will spend their whole lives working in their subject. However, the training in scientific, mathematical and computing techniques will make a sound foundation for many different careers. If anything, a physics degree will lead to the widest range of options.
University entrance requirements vary widely. They depend on the popularity of the university and the choice of course. At the time of writing the universities listed below are offering undergraduate courses with astronomy, astrophysics or geophysics as the main subject or as a substantial option. The courses available change every year and you should check in the latest UCAS handbook or their excellent web site at www.ucas.ac.uk for details.
Almost all the universities in the table offer undergraduate degree courses in physics/applied physics and mathematics. Some offer joint degrees where astrophysics is paired with physics, chemistry, geology or mathematics. Most offer specific lecture courses in astrophysics and a few offer aerospace physics or space science. In the geophysics section of the table, there are some courses for earth science (ES).

UCAS Code
University
Course
  Astrophysics
 
|
Space Science
 
|
|
Geophysics
 
|
|
|
Physics with Astrophysics Option
 
|
|
|
|
Mathematics with Astrophysics Option
 
|
|
|
|
|
Chemistry with Astrophysics Option
 
|
|
|
|
|
|
Geology with Astrophysics Option
A20
Aberdeen    
         
A40
Aberystwyth  
          Planetary and Space Physics
B06
Bangor               Geophysical Oceanography
B16
Bath               Electronics with Space Systems
B20
Bath Spa               Remote Sensing and GIS
B32
Birmingham    
      Physics and Space Research
B78
Bristol      
       
C05
Cambridge      
    Natural Sciences
C15
Cardiff
   
     
C30
Central Lancashire
 
      Astronomy and Instrumentation
C90
Cranfield               Aeromechanical Systems
D39
Derby    
         
D65
Dundee               Satellite Electronic Systems
D86
Durham    
       
E14
East Anglia    
         
E56
Edinburgh
 
         
E84
Exeter    
       
G14
Glamorgan  
      Many modular options
G28
Glasgow
   
     
H24
Heriot-Watt                
H36
Hertfordshire
   
 
Many modular options
H60
Huddersfield    
        Earth Sciences
H72
Hull                
I50
Imperial College London    
         
K12
Keele
 
Many modular options
K24
Kent
   
      Physics with Space Science
K60
Kings College London      
     
K84
Kingston  
           
L14
Lancaster    
       
L23
Leeds      
       
L34
Leicester    
    Physics and Space Science
L41
Liverpool
 
       
L51
Liverpool John Moores
         
L79
Loughborough               Aerospace Engineering
M20
Manchester
 
      Aerospace Engineering
M25
UMIST
   
      Aerospace Engineering
N21
Newcastle upon Tyne
   
       
L79
NE Wales Institute  
          Satellite and Space Technology
N84
Nottingham      
       
N91
Nottingham Trent      
  Astronomy with Chemistry, Computing, Mathematics or Physics
O33
Oxford    
      Geology
P20
Paisley            
 
P60
Plymouth    
 
 
P80
Portsmouth    
 
     
Q50
Queen Mary London
     
     
Q75
Queen's Belfast      
       
R12
Reading      
       
R72
Royal Holloway
 
     
Physics and the Universe
S03
Salford               Physics with Space Technology
S18
Sheffield      
     
S21
Sheffield Hallam                
S27
Southampton  
      Physics and Space Science
S36
St Andrews
 
         
S72
Staffordshire      
       
S87
Surrey      
      Physics with Satellite Technology
S90
Sussex
   
       
S93
Swansea      
      Physics with Particle Physics and Cosmology
U80
University College London
 
    Physics with Space Science, Physics with Planetary Science
W20
Warwick                
Y50
York      
       
- The Open University
The OU has a modular degree structure and Astronomy and Geophysics may be included in a great variety of ways

There are options for those of more mature years and those wishing seriously to study what had previously been a hobby. Hertfordshire, Central Lancashire, Liverpool John Moores and the Open University in addition to full-time courses also offer part-time non-vocational courses. Realistically, these are unlikely to lead to full-time astronomy posts.
The popular magazine 'Astronomy Now' carries an article each autumn, usually in the October issue, listing all the universities in Great Britain offering courses with an astronomy element. If a potential student is really determined to continue to a research degree, it would be sensible to apply to universities that are active in astronomy research, especially if aiming for a particular field; the RAS booklet 'Postgraduate Opportunities' will give an idea of the emphasis of each.
Some students spend the vacation between their second and third years working at an observatory to get a feel for the way in which research is conducted. The Nuffield Curriculum Centre sponsors a scheme by which school students studying for A-levels, GNVQs and the Scottish equivalents receive bursaries allowing them to work in scientific institutions during the holidays and the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh participates in this. Write in the first instance to Nuffield Curriculum Centre, 28 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3JS or look at the grants section of their web site at www.nuffieldfoundation.org.
You must aim for a really good honours degree - a first or upper second class in an MSci or MPhys course - so that you can gain a postgraduate place on a doctoral degree course. It is almost unknown for anyone with 'only' a first degree to obtain a post as a professional research astronomer.
In the related and rapidly growing discipline of space science and technology a number of institutions offer courses, notably Cranfield, Kent, Kingston, Leicester, Salford, Southampton, Surrey, UCL and UMIST. Another opening for the would-be space scientist is the recently founded International Space University, Parc d'Innovation, 67400 Illkirch-Graffenstaden, France, Tel: +33 (0)3 88 65 54 30, Fax: +33 (0)3 88 65 54 47, email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , web: www.isunet.edu.


Back to top



 

Age 22+ (For at least 3 years)
Each year about 250 graduates with good honours degrees go on to postgraduate training in astronomy and related fields. They join the research sections of university departments throughout the UK; a few find courses abroad. After at least three years of intense effort the successful student will have written a thesis describing their research project. The thesis is assessed by senior research workers in the field and the student is interviewed at length about the work. This interview is called a 'viva voce', or 'viva' for short. If all is well, the student is awarded a doctorate of philosophy (PhD) or other further degree. It is during this three year period that the student develops the skills and determination necessary for sustained individual research.
For details of university research departments, the fields of research in which their strengths lie, and the types of degrees offered, the student should obtain a copy of the 'Postgraduate Opportunities in Astronomy and Geophysics' listing compiled by the Royal Astronomical Society.
Back to top

 

Age 25+ (For 1 to 3 years)
Newly qualified PhDs compete for short term research fellowships that last between one and three years. These appointments can be in the UK or abroad and there is significant competition. As many as half the applicants secure a fellowship.


Long term employment
About half of the research fellows mentioned above go on to secure long term posts in research. They are often employed as academic members of staff in university departments and have teaching duties. There are also posts at research laboratories such as the Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratories. Pay is on the academic scale.


WHAT IS RESEARCH?
Astronomy, Geophysics and Planetary Science research covers both observational and theoretical work. Observations are made over a wide range of wavelengths and require a variety of techniques. The instruments may be on the ground or be in orbit above the obscuring atmosphere and weather. Researchers often become involved in developing new telescopes and detectors and in the design of space probes destined for the planets. Theoreticians specialize in developing 'models' to describe and explain the results of observations and to make predictions that can then tested by further observations. Computers feature prominently in almost all aspects of astrophysics and geophysics.
As well as the posts that combine research with, usually, teaching, there are demanding, satisfying and equally important career paths in maintaining and administering observatories, developing instruments, electronics, software engineering.
Although much data is now collected remotely, there are often opportunities to travel abroad to make observations and to participate in conferences. Perhaps it sounds obvious but, particularly at visible wavelengths, astronomy often involves working at night! However radio-astronomers, geophysicists and all those making use of satellite data can work round the clock!!
Finally, there are scientific papers to write, where you present your findings to the rest of the scientific community. It is a gratifying and thrilling achievement to explain, from the results of your own research, the workings of a distant galaxy or the internal structure of a planet. This is what being a researcher is all about!


IS THERE LIFE AFTER RESEARCH?
All along the way you will be given dire warnings (often laced with impressive statistics) to the effect that it is virtually impossible for anyone to become a professional researcher. If you are truly determined, ignore them! The competition for research jobs is no worse than in any other pure science like physics or chemistry and about a quarter of all PhD students go on to find permanent jobs in research. Moreover, the training helps you develop marketable skills that can lead to equally fulfilling careers in teaching, scientific journalism, computing, electronics or even accountancy. It is almost unheard of for an astronomy research student to be unemployed for more than a short period. Finally, working in research is simply great fun!--A. C. Pickwick and the RAS Education Committee

Back to top