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Studying and Working in Astronomy and Planetary Science in the UK

Geographic distribution

 The geographic distribution of UK institutes for astronomy, observatories, planetaria, astronomical societies and astronomical publishers is given by Heck. See also Heck Astronomy Now August 1998. Like the Eastern and the Western United States and Japan, the UK has a strong density of astronomical interest, together with the Netherlands, central European countries and the rest of Europe. Unlike France, with its strong centralisation of research in the Paris area (which has the highest concentration in the world of astronomy organizations), the distribution of interest in astronomy in the UK is broadly based and follows the population distribution. As the climate, and radio and light pollution in Britain might suggest, the number of publicly operated observing sites (i.e. excluding individuals' own telescopes) in the UK is relatively low, but even so there are over 50, some associated with universities and some with astronomical societies, the number of which in the UK is relatively high. The London area is a centre for global astronomical publishing.

 

Demographic 

About 50 UK universities teach astronomy (including undergraduate degree courses), and about 25 carry out research in astronomy and the allied fields. Other institutes like the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the overseas observatories also carry out astronomical research and employ research and other workers in astronomy
PPARC and the Royal Astronomical Society together carried out surveys in 1993-1998, the latter under the direction of Dr Clive Tadhunter of the professional base of astronomy research in the UK (C. Tadhunter, Astronomy and Geophysics, Vol. 41, pp. 2.19, 2000). It found that in Britain there were the following workers in astronomy:

460 permanent academic staff (predominantly professors, readers and lecturers)

550 fixed term staff, mostly post-doctoral research workers

230 technical staff working on astronomy projects

510 postgraduate research students.

In the Royal Observatories and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory there were additionally working in astronomy:

250 technical staff.

 

Gender 

The 1998 PPARC/RAS survey for the first time enquired into the gender of members of the UK astronomical community. Women comprised 22% of the population of PhD students, which compares favourably with the 20% of students accepted for undergraduate places in physics and astronomy. However, only 7% of permanent university staff in astronomy are female. Of the UK IAU membership in 1998, 9.2% are female.
Astronomy's academic staff are in the main financed by HEFCE and SHEFC. Some academic staff are financed by other sources outside PPARC (e.g. the Royal Society). Most of the astronomy population in the UK is funded by PPARC.

 

Funding 

Under the Dual Support system for research in the UK, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC) provide funding to British universities both for the teaching of astronomy and research into astronomy, according to the principles laid out in the given hyperspace links - basically, the Funding Councils provide support (a) according to the need to teach students and (b) according to the research productivity of university groups. The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council adds a second line of support for research into astronomy, including support for postgraduate students. PPARC's support is awarded competitively in response to proposals made or which is in the form of access to centrally provided facilities.

 

Half the postgraduate students are funded by PPARC. The very best students come forward to study astronomy at this level and a first class degree is always an advantage for people seeking a PhD award from PPARC. Other students are funded by themselves or their families, by foreign governments, by charities or educational foundations, and possibly by social security. This proportion of astronomy PhD students who use non-research council support for their studies is amongst the highest proportion amongst the sciences, and is a tribute to the motivation of the students concerned. It is supposed to take 3 years to complete a PhD course in Britain. In practice in astronomy the average is 3 years and 8 months.

 

Trends 

The PPARC-RAS survey showed that number of workers in astronomy has been increasing at a modest rate since the first survey in 1993, particularly in the area of postgraduate students and post-doctoral research assistants. Additionally there has recently been an increase in the number of high-level university teachers, where several universities have added astronomy courses to those previously on offer and have recruited astronomers to teach them, including half a dozen new professorial appointments.

 

Lists 

The names, email addresses, institutes, phone numbers, and postal addresses of a significant part of the international astronomy and planetary science community (particularly comprehensively for the UK, but excluding geophysics) can be found here. See also the membership list of the International Astronomical Union.

 

Societies 

There are several professional societies in the UK that represent the interest of the astronomy community, including those of astrophysics and the planetary sciences.

  • Candidates for a PhD place must ordinarily have the equivalent of a first or upper second class honours degree in an appropriate subject. They must also be recommended by the head of the department from which they graduated. There is a move in PPARC towards the requirement that its PhD students should have the four-year MPhys or equivalent.
  • The candidate for an award must usually have been ordinarily resident in the UK throughout the three years preceding the date of application for an award, for reasons other than (or additional to) receiving full-time education.
  • A candidate who does not meet the above criterion, but who is a national of (or the child of a national of) another EC member state is eligible for an award paying tuition fees only, provided the candidate has been ordinarily resident in the EC for the three years preceding the application for the award.
  • There are special arrangements for grants to candidates from the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man.
  • Under the La Palma agreements, the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) selects from Spain two PhD students who are offered for training at British universities, with the agreement of the universities in question. A similar arrangement under the Gemini agreement is being put into place for students from Argentina, Brazil and Chile.

The Royal Astronomical Society
The Royal Astronomical Society represents the interests of its fellowship, which is largely based in the UK and the Commonwealth countries. The RAS is the adhering organization by which Britain is part of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) . The membership of the IAU in 1998 was 8328, of whom 535 adhere from the UK (have an address in a UK institute). During the academic year, the RAS organises meetings in London monthly on the second Friday of the month (starting about 10.30 specialist discussions separately on astronomy and geophyics, and at 4.30 p.m. a general meeting on both subjects). The RAS organises annually a longer National Astronomy Meeting held elsewhere than in London. The RAS publishes:

  • the highest impact primary astronomical research journal, traditionally named Monthly Notices (the issues are neither monthly nor notices, but fortnightly and containing completely professional research papers),
  • Geophysical Journal International, the leading solid-earth and theoretical geophysics journal,
  • Astronomy and Geophysics, a journal for the publication of scientific articles of general interest to a broad range of astronomers and geophysicists,
  • a booklet Postgraduate Opportunities in Astronomy and Geophysics , with details of all the relevant university departments, post graduate support opportunities etc.
  • subsidiary publications.

The Institute of Physics
The IoP represents the interests of physicists in the UK, and publishes books and journals on physics (including Physics World), often with astrophysical interests.The Astrochemistry Group is sponsored also by the Royal Society of Chemistry.The Royal Society of London
The Royal Society is the most prestigious society of scientists in the UK and includes many astronomers amongst its fellows. It funds for outstanding individuals professorships and fellowships in universities, including in astronomy. The Royal Society has the responsibility to represent UK scientists at international societies such as:

Astronomy journals
There is a large number of astronomy journals published in the UK. Apart from those published by the RAS, the following are noteworthy:

  • The Observatory is an independent and delightfully human magazine containing summaries of the RAS meetings, papers, short contributions, correspondence and reviews.
  • Astronomy Now is commercially published at monthly intervals and, while targeted toward the amateur community, contains a lot of material for professional astronomers who are interested in educational activities.

 

Becoming a professional astronomer

Careers advice on joining the community of professional astronomers in the UK is available on the Web in Portable Document Format (pdf) from Cardiff Astronomical Society. There is an information leaflet, How to become an astronomer, available from the public information service of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. The Royal Astronomical Society also offers advice on becoming an astronomer, planetary scientist or geophysicist.

 

An Australian perspective is available from the Astronomical Society of Australia. Three comprehensive American discussions on astronomy as a profession are available from NOAO, from the American Astronomical Society and from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. All these references include realistic statements about employment prospects.

 

The qualification process for most opportunities to become an astronomer or one of the allied physicists or engineers is by education at university.

 

Undergraduate study in astronomy

Our main education page features relevant information on university courses in astronomy, usually in conjunction with physics or some other subject such as maths, languages or engineering. A degree gained through such a course is, on the one hand, the means to appreciate modern astronomy at a professional level, and on the other hand, the entry qualification, particularly in combination with a course which concentrates on main-stream physics or maths, to the post-graduate level at which professional astronomy begins. And, besides, in the universities the undergraduate teaching and post-graduate research components in a department's activities are interwoven.

 

Course lists for astronomy and related subjects are available from:

The RAS lists courses by UCAS number.

The RAS also maintains a page of links to university departments featuring information on their astronomy courses.

UKSEDS lists undergraduate space courses.

BNSC lists the ‘space universities’

Pre-university space courses, and other miscellaneous opportunities are listed by UKSEDS.

 

Postgraduate training in astronomy, astrophysics and planetary sciences

PPARC supports researchers working towards a PhD in astronomy and its related fields by making studentship awards, tenable for up to three years, for study at appropriate universities (some universities also have grants for study available from sources other than PPARC). The awards consist of tuition fees, a very modest living allowance, and appropriate necessary supplements for travel to telescopes etc.

 

The PPARC grants are awarded to university departments in Great Britain. PPARC does not make grants for studentships to be held at Northern Ireland (NI) universities. Grants to study at NI universities come from the Department of Education Northern Ireland. As laid out below, however, students from NI are eligible on the same terms as other British students to receive PPARC awards for study in Great Britain.

 

PPARC studentship awards are mainly given through quotas used at the discretion of university departments. The departments themselves select the PhD students to whom to award the grants, subject to eligibility criteria set by all the Research Councils, so applications have to be made to the department(s) of the student's choice.

 

The elegibility criteria are, essentially, as follows (but this brief summary does not substitute for the detailed regulations):

 

  • Candidates for a PhD place must ordinarily have the equivalent of a first or upper second class honours degree in an appropriate subject. They must also be recommended by the head of the department from which they graduated. There is a move in PPARC towards the requirement that its PhD students should have the four-year MPhys or equivalent.
  • The candidate for an award must usually have been ordinarily resident in the UK throughout the three years preceding the date of application for an award, for reasons other than (or additional to) receiving full-time education.
  • A candidate who does not meet the above criterion, but who is a national of (or the child of a national of) another EC member state is eligible for an award paying tuition fees only, provided the candidate has been ordinarily resident in the EC for the three years preceding the application for the award.
  • There are special arrangements for grants to candidates from the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man.
  • Under the La Palma agreements, the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias (IAC) selects from Spain two PhD students who are offered for training at British universities, with the agreement of the universities in question. A similar arrangement under the Gemini agreement is being put into place for students from Argentina, Brazil and Chile.

 

Post-doctoral research

Research assistants (sometimes 'research fellows' or 'research associates') in academic research in astronomy are normally post-doctoral (post-doctoral research assistants, PDRAs, or RA1As, analogous with a lecturer). PDRAs assist faculty members in university departments collaboratively to pursue selected programmes of research. Members of a more junior tranche (RA1B), mostly comprising those with a first degree only, are to a large extent being trained in research as well as contributing to its execution under the direct supervision of a university academic. RA1Bs are usually simultaneously registered for PhDs.

 

PPARC supports these research assistants with grants awarded to the faculty members, and the RAs, who are selected by the university, are employees of the university for a fixed term. For these contract researchers, PPARC subscribes to a concordat on good employment practices. The concordat has been agreed between the Research Councils and the universities (through the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals) and covers such issues as pay, pensions, career development advice, supervision and training.

 

PPARC also awards about ten Postdoctoral Fellowships a year to individuals to enable them to devote themselves to independent and original research for a period of up to three years. They are intended for researchers who do not have a permanent academic position.

 

Researchers with at least two years experience of postdoctoral research, not yet in a permanent academic post but likely to become so, are eligible for PPARC Advanced Fellowships, tenable for up to five years. About a dozen of these are awarded each year.


Employment opportunities in universities and institutes as researchers or lecturers

PPARC finances directly the employment of research astronomers through the universities and observatories, some working purely on research and some on support roles (programming, instrument design, etc) which usually include an element of research. The universities and the independent research institutes employ astronomers e.g. to teach, but also usually with a research component.

 

Since the number of potential PhD supervisors of astronomy in the UK population is about 500, twice the number (250) of astronomy PhD students sponsored by PPARC, then in, say, 25 years, an average potential supervisor has a lifetime output of several PPARC-sponsored PhDs. It is clear that the supervising population produces more PhD students than is necessary to reproduce itself, and, in steady state, there is potential for about a quarter of PhDs to have jobs in astronomy. The entrants into PhD studies in astronomy will, therefore, understand that the probability is 75% or so that, for three years, they are going to enjoy achieving a quantum of advancement in human knowledge about the Universe, after which they will be able to take pride in their achievement during a life of work in affairs of the nation outside astronomy. The rough estimate based on demographic considerations has been borne out by a specific analysis of PhD students' careers.

 

General information about the career paths of science students is to be found at the site of the Universities Research Careers Initiative (RCI) In December 1994, PPARC's Education and Training Committee commissioned a survey of the career paths of former research students who had completed PhDs in either astronomy or particle physics between 1986 and 1991. The survey, carried out by Pieda plc, looked at 289 students in all, split into two cohorts: those who completed their PhDs in 1986-88 and those who finished in 1990-91 (1989 finishers were not surveyed). 

It found for the 1986-88 cohort:

  • Three out of five began their post-doctoral careers in universities, mostly in fixed-term research posts.
  • One in five started in the public sector (e.g. research establishments or the Civil Service).
  • One in five started in the private sector.
    • The Information Technology (IT) and business services sectors accounting for two thirds of these.

At the time of the survey, six to eight years after the completion of their PhDs:

  • Fewer than 2% of the 1986-88 cohort were unemployed.
  • The proportion employed in universities had slipped slightly to one in two, most still in fixed-term research posts.
  • The number employed in the public and private sectors had correspondingly increased, each accounting for one in four of the cohort.
    • The IT and business services industries remained the main private sector employers.
  • The survey concluded that almost four in five students were still using their scientific research skills in their current job.

 

The former students clearly valued their research training. Over three quarters regarded it as being of at least some importance in helping them to get into their area of work and/or to progress more quickly than they would otherwise have done. Those no longer involved directly in research valued the general skills their training had given them, such as data analysis and interpretation skills, software writing and familiarisation with IT systems, and problem-solving ability. In the conviction that the people whom PPARC supports to carry out research at the PhD level become confident, well-rounded scientists with transferable skills of general applicability in British society, the PPARC Council has set itself the objective to increase by 50% the number of PhD students that it supports.

 

A report on the career paths of PhD students from all the Research Councils, including PPARC, was published in 1998 by the Office of Science and Technology (OST). The survey of students whose funding ended a decade ago was commissioned in 1996 by the OST, the Research Councils and the Royal Society and was carried out by Social and Community Planning Research (SCPR). The survey was undertaken to identify the benefits of postgraduate education to former students and the economy in the widest sense over the longer term; and to examine the effectiveness of that education in preparing the student for employment, and if and how it might have been improved. The report, which provides some interesting information on the prospective careers of PPARC students, is available on the OST website.

 

In the longer term, within astronomy, the PPARC/RAS survey found that historically about 30% of astronomy PhDs have ended up with long-term employment in the subject, either in universities or in research establishments. PPARC plans to increase the number of students that it supports at a rate which will probably be faster than any increase in the number of positions.

 

In round numbers, if you are a PhD student in astronomy sponsored by PPARC you have more than a 50-50 chance of getting a post-doc position at the end of your PhD course. And there is a 50-50 chance after that that you end up in a long-term job in astronomy. Considering that many people don't seek long term jobs in astronomy in Britain after their PhD, the competition is real and strong but not impossible. If a PhD student wants to try to measure him- or herself for a job in astronomy, there is a safety net covering the risk of not achieving this ambition. The bottom line is that it's practically unknown for a PPARC-sponsored PhD student to be unemployed. -- Paul Murdin, 2001 December

Part-time and Distance Learning Astronomy Courses

The RAS has edorsed the following courses 'as a relevant component of training in astronomy, which will be acknowledged as such if used to appy for fellowship of the Society'

Open University Certificate in Astronomy and Planetary Science
UCL Diploma in Astronomy
-  Liverpool John Moores University's certificates in astronomy 
University of Central Lancashire's certificate and diploma awards in astronomy