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Careers in Astronomy

Last Updated on Friday, 30 April 2010 13:30
Published on Wednesday, 19 October 2005 00:00
While a career in astronomy has never been scientifically more rewarding,and a good degree in astronomy, perhaps more so than many other subjects, is a passport to  an interesting job, students completing a PhD may find it  difficult to obtain a permanent post in astronomy in the UK, according to a RAS report. There are clear positive benefits for students who study astronomy, whatever career they subsequently pursue.  However, the report highlights some of the challenges facing a student deciding to pursue a career in astronomy and suggests areas where the education, career structure and support process should be improved in the interests of the student.  It addresses the proposal by PPARC to increase PhD student numbers and suggests limits to the increase.

The main conclusions of the report are :

  • A third to a half of the astronomy PhD students in the UK can expect a post-doctoral appointment at the end of their studies, but they may have to go overseas for it.

  • It is unusual to achieve a permanent appointment in a university in astronomy before one’s mid- to late-thirties.

  • A minority of PhD students, perhaps a fifth, will achieve a career in astronomy in the medium term, again possibly overseas.

  • Students undertaking a PhD in astronomy expect to learn how to do research in astronomy.  They see it as a qualification for doing research in astronomy and not as a more general qualification with ‘transferable skills’.

  • Nevertheless, ‘transferable skills’ such as teaching experience and facility in Information Technology are learnt during a PhD and are potentially useful to students seeking employment within or outside astronomy.  They are not recognised by all parties (including the students themselves) to the extent that they should be.  Nor are they explicitly accredited.  It is difficult therefore for PhD students to offer them as qualifications for a job and for potential employers to assess them when the student seeks employment outside the field of astronomy.  Such an accreditation process should be implemented.

  • Over the last ten years there has been a progressive increase in the number of postdoctoral positions in astronomy and a small but significant decrease in the number of astronomy PhD students, so there is little sign that the balance between PhD places and post-doc places will worsen if the number of PhD places is reasonably increased, say by 50 students per year, but not much more.

  • However, a significant increase in astronomy PhD numbers will undoubtedly increase competition for the available post-doctoral and permanent career positions in astronomy and thus the proportion of astronomy PhD students who fail to achieve a career ambition.  If such people are frustrated, possibly embittered, they are unlikely to serve science well.  Thus, both the number of additional PhD places and the course structure for them need to be considered carefully. 
  • Over the past ten years, there appears to have been a small decline in the number of PhD students who are financed from non-PPARC sources,  although the number financed by PPARC has increased.  It appears that the PhD in astronomy has become less attractive to those who make individual choices to embark on one and some further study is required to confirm whether this is really the case and why.  
  • More location-independent post-doc positions are needed, for people to balance the ‘two-body’ problem (where both partners are professionals on short-term contracts, particularly where both partners are astronomers).

  • The available help in universities and elsewhere for astronomers moving to other careers needs to be investigated, to ensure that best practice from individual supervisors or careers advisors is implemented more widely.

The full report can be read pdf_small careers in astronomy.pdf (252.02 KB

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