Career as an astronomer

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Sarah Shaw works as an astronomer at the Institute of Astronomy at a famous University, trying to understand the workings of the universe and how it all began. She spends a lot of time analysing information gleaned from looking into space using optical telescopes on mountain tops.

Where do you get the information to research?

I work on data collected by ground based optical and radio telescopes, satellites orbiting Earth and spacecraft and space probes. I use this data to test existing theories about how the universe was formed.

What does your career as an astronomer involve?

No one really knows how the universe was formed, although there are many theories. I have to constantly think of new ways of looking at data and the information gathered throughout the ages, to see if we can find the answer.

Although much data is now collected remotely, there are often opportunities to travel abroad to make observations and to participate in conferences. Finally, there are scientific papers to write, where I get the opportunity to present my findings to the rest of the scientific community. It is gratifying and fun to explain the results of your own research.

Do you have a typical day?

I start by reading the latest research from a public database for new astronomy papers which is updated daily. I may then do some calculations on my latest project before getting involved in discussions with colleagues or students who are doing their PhD research. Some weeks are spent travelling to seminars and conferences.

What type of equipment do you use?

Mainly the computer. The observational results I use come from telescopes around the world and I mostly use data which has been heavily processed by colleagues which I get via the web. The internet has made this sharing of data much easier than it used to be a few years ago.

What do you like best about being an astronomer?

Working towards understanding the beginning of the Universe. I enjoy talking to other scientists around the world who are working on joint projects with me, and I get a lot of satisfaction when I find neat ways to solve problems.

Where have you travelled for research?

I took my postdoctoral fellowship at Toulouse in France and have travelled to Sydney, Aspen Colorado, Copenhagen, Honolulu, Strasbourg, Bonn and Boston. I have also visited many UK universities.

Why did you choose a career as an astronomer?

I have always wanted to have interesting and fruitful conversations with people about an exciting topic. There is plenty of this in astronomy.

Sarah's route to working in astronomy

  • GCSEs.
  • A Levels.
  • Natural Sciences degree.
  • PhD Astrophysics.

Sarah's tips

  • Seek out researchers and lecturers and get talking to them.
  • Find relevant articles in popular magazines and books and watch TV.
  • Look out for summer placements, for example, at organisations which are monitoring space using telescopes.

Astronomy related jobs

  • Meteorologist
  • Geologist
  • Oceanographer
  • Medical physicist

Salary of an astronomer

  • A newly qualified entrant with a doctorate and a Research Fellowship could expect to earn about £20,000.
  • After more than one Fellowship an astronomer could earn about £30,000 and a senior astronomer/cosmologist would earn up to £50,000.

Becoming an astronomer

  • To carry out research, a degree or equivalent is essential – mainly in physics or mathematics.
  • However, mathematics or computer science might well be appropriate, as might some branches of chemistry or engineering.
  • There are demanding, satisfying and equally important career paths in maintaining and administering observatories, developing instruments, electronics and software engineering and in scientific journalism.

Modified: 16 June 2013

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