Choose an astronomy degree, and you’ll have the chance to grapple with scientific questions ranging from the origins of the universe to the nature of ‘dark energy’. Often offered alongside physics, astronomy is basically the science of the physical universe, typically focusing on objects and events outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Common skills gained from an astronomy degree include:
In general, astronomy degrees involve a combination of theory and observation, though some courses will focus more on one of these aspects. The observational side could include opportunities to use telescopes and other professional equipment at major observatories, which may mean travelling to different locations around the world. However, you should also be prepared to spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen, as computer-based analysis is a key component of modern astronomy.
Usually students with a variety of backgrounds and experience are accepted to astronomy degrees, and the entry requirements may be flexible. No particular previous knowledge or experience of astronomy is expected, but you should be able to demonstrate a strong interest in the subject. You’ll also need to show aptitude for mathematics and physics; other sciences which may aid your application include geology, geography, statistics, environmental science, chemistry and biology. Always check the specific requirements set by your chosen university.
Astronomy degrees typically last three or four years at undergraduate level and one or two years at master’s level, depending on the location. Teaching will usually be based around lectures, discussion sessions and practical seminars, including work in observatories. Students are taught how to use telescopes, catalogues, star charts and computer-based images. Assessment is usually based on research projects and practical tests.
The exact astronomy topics covered will vary from one university to another. However, some of the more common ones are:
Cosmology is the study of the origins, evolution and basic structure of the universe. While general astronomy deals with individual celestial objects, cosmology is concerned with the universe as a whole. It is also closely related to physics, so if you wish to specialize in this area be prepared for lots of physics!
Astrophysics is concerned with the physics and properties of celestial objects, including stars, planets and galaxies, their properties and how they behave. Some of the most intriguing areas of study for astrophysicists, often of much interest to the public, include attempts to determine the properties of dark matter, dark energy, and black holes; whether or not time travel is possible, whether wormholes can form, or the multiverse exists; and the origins and ultimate fate of the universe.
The field of astrobiology is the study of the origins, evolution and possible future of living organisms in the universe, both on Earth and – who knows? – beyond. This interdisciplinary field includes the search for habitable environments both within and beyond our own solar system. Many will be interested in this specialization, especially those with an inner urge to search for extra-terrestrial life!
If you choose to specialize in solar astrophysics, you will study the properties and behavior of the Sun and use this knowledge to progress understanding of other stars and systems. The study of solar physics is very important, as it is believed that changes in the solar atmosphere and solar activity can have a major impact on the Earth's climate.
Those who specialize in planetary geology apply geological studies to learn about the composition and behavior of planets, moons, comets, asteroids – and anything else floating around out there. This field of study is closely linked to Earth-based geology.
Most astronomy degree programs also include some core modules in physics, covering topics such as Newtonian dynamics, electromagnetism and atomic physics. Other astronomy topics covered may include the history of astronomy, and opportunities to gain practical skills in current observational methods.
Many graduates of astronomy degrees go on to pursue specialized astronomy careers. Mainly research-based roles, these usually require completion of a PhD or at least a master’s degree – but then, if you’ve truly got a passion for the subject, the idea of spending an extra three or four years studying astronomy should appear more as a welcoming nebula than a scary black hole.
Astronomy careers based in universities include jobs as a research associate or as a lecturer in astronomy. You will have various laboratories, libraries and other university facilities at your disposal to carry out research in your field of interest. Often, research-based astronomy roles are combined with teaching responsibilities, so you’re also likely to spend time delivering lectures and supporting students. This means astronomy careers at universities are also a great chance to share your knowledge of astronomy topics with the next generation of enthusiasts.
Astronomy jobs in observatories will typically be research-based. As an observational astronomer, you’ll spend some of your time collecting data from equipment at the observatory, and the rest analyzing and interpreting the data. You could also be an astronomer partner, working in collaboration with school and university teachers to bring the subject to life for to new audiences. Alternatively, you can work as a telescope operator and be responsible for all the telescopes and any other equipment in the observatory. To qualify for this job, you need to have mechanical and optical skills.
A planetarium astronomer will be mainly responsible for the development and delivery of planetarium shows, the coordination and communication of planetarium programming and the maintenance of planetarium technology and content. This job will give you the opportunity to engage with a wide range of audiences in a range of settings. In some planetariums and museums, you will be expected to also deliver school workshops, planetarium shows, special events and to support the wider activity of the organization, including the development and planning of exhibitions and digital resources both on- and off-site.
Fancy a job at NASA? It’s possible. There are many national research organizations all over the world which offer positions for graduates with degrees in physics or astronomy. However, bear in mind that governmental agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the US or the National Institute for Earth Sciences and Astronomy (INSU) in France, have very specific goals and interests when they hire new people. This is a highly competitive sector to get into and you will probably need to complete a PhD and gain some additional research experience first.
Astronomy careers within the aerospace sector are related to researching, designing, manufacturing, operating and maintaining various types of aircraft and/or spacecraft. The aircraft in question may have commercial, industrial and military applications. There are many private companies which produce technical tools and components for craft such as spaceships and satellites, and astronomy graduates may find roles here. Possible employers in this sector include Boeing, EADS, Lockheed Martin, MacDonald Dettwiler and Northrop Grumman.
If you’re ready to try something different, there are many other sectors in which the strong numerical, computational and data-handling skills provided by an astronomy degree are in high demand, ranging from media and communications to finance and accounting.