The basics
Study abroad : Subject Guides

Why study astronomy?

Always wondered what lay beyond the stars? Wanted to be the one to discover the next planet? Read our astronomy guide here.

434

Ever looked at the night sky and wondered if there was something more to all those magnificent stars dotting the never-ending black canvas and shining captivatingly down at you? Then you should consider majoring in astronomy.

 

What is astronomy?

Astronomy is the study of universe; the stars, galaxies, comets, planets etc. It also looks at things that happen outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, for instance, cosmic background radiation. The characteristics of these celestial objects are observed and studied, factors such as their life cycles, predicting lunar eclipses etc. The field of astronomy is huge, given its nature. There are still so many things about the universe that have yet to be discovered.

Divided primarily into observational astronomy and theoretical astronomy, the former is focused on collecting and analysing the data from observing these objects while the latter looks at the development of models to better describe astronomical objects and the phenomena that takes place. Today, astronomy is closely linked with astrophysics and the terms are even used interchangeably. In the past, astronomy was linked to disciplines such as celestial navigation, calendar making, astrometry and even astrology (however today astrology is not classified as a science).

Previously, most of the astronomical work is done at night through a telescope, today with digital imaging, many astronomers spend most of their days in front of computer analysing large amounts of data. Your work as an astronomer might take you to different locations around the globe - and maybe even off it! How cool is that?

 

Study route

A bachelor’s degree in Astronomy is usually awarded as a BSc, but occasionally, some universities offer it as both a bachelor of science and arts, such as the University of Texas at Austin. Students can consider taking degrees that combine both the science and arts to gain a competitive advantage over their peers upon graduation.

The field of astronomy is often studied in tandem with other sciences such as physics or chemistry and mathematics.

Typically, a bachelor’s degree in astronomy will take between three to four years to complete. A master’s will set you back another one or two years. The subject is taught through lectures, tutorials and practical seminars that will allow students to visit observatories and get a better understanding of an astronomer’s work first hand. You will be taught how to use various instruments such as catalogues, telescopes, start charts and computer-based images. Students are assessed usually via research projects, written assignments, and practical tests. Many, if not all astronomy degree programmes will include core physics modules and these will cover topics such as Newtonian dynamics, electromagnetism and atomic physics.

 

Some of the other common modules that you might study on an astronomy degree:

  • Astronomy Computing  
  • The Solar System
  • The Contents of Our Galaxy      
  • Extragalactic Astronomy & Cosmology
  • The History of Astronomy

 

 

Entry requirements

Excellent grades for A levels and between 34-38 points for the IB diploma. Interested applicants will need to have taken physics and mathematics at A level.

While no prior background in astronomy is required, it is beneficial to take some related classes when you’re in high school to demonstrate your passion for the subject.

However, a strong foundation in and aptitude for physics and mathematics is needed for students to do well in this subject. 

 

Specialisations

While there are many variations and even degree combinations on the kinds of astronomy topics that you can choose to specialise in depending on the university, we’ve shortlisted some of the more common ones below:

 

Cosmology

Cosmology, as the name suggests, is the study of the cosmos, it looks at the evolution of the universe; how it began, and its basic structure. This field is different general astronomy, because it is interested in the universe as a whole, whereas the latter is concerned with individual celestial objects. 

 

Astrophysics

Astrophysicists study the physics and properties of celestial objects, such as the stars, different planets, galaxies and how these things behave. There are many interesting areas of study within this fields such as dark matter, dark energy, and black holes that even the public are intrigued by. Concepts like the possibility of time travel, formation of wormholes or if the multiverse exists and the beginning and ending of the universe.

 

Astrobiology

Astrobiology, on the other hand, is mainly concerned with the origins, evolution, and the possible future of lifeforms in the universe, both on Earth and on other planets. This unique, interdisciplinary field also involves the search for habitable environments that exist within and beyond our own solar system. This specialisation will appeal the most to those who have a strong urge to look for extra-terrestrial life.

 

Solar astrophysics

In this particular field, you will be exploring the properties and behaviour of the sun and apply this knowledge to advance understanding of how other stars and systems work.

The work of a solar physicist is vital, as scientists believe that any changes in the solar atmosphere or activity can impact the Earth’s climate.

 

Planetary geology

Planetary geologists apply geological studies to understand the composition and behaviours of celestial objects such as planets, moons, asteroids, comets etc. It is closely linked to geology of the earth. So if you love studying geography and the astronomy, this is the field that lets you study both.

 

 

Typical day in the life of an astronomer

A typical day of an astronomer would include developing and testing out scientific theories, analysing data and writing research proposals. You will also be spending time coming up with scientific papers and presenting your findings to others within the field, in symposiums and conferences etc. Most astronomers work in a team and you start off with a more senior astronomer.

 

Career paths

Graduates typically pursue specialised astronomy careers. These careers are mainly research-based roles that require students to complete a PhD or a master’s degree. So where are these research-based roles located? Astronomers can work in many different places. We’ve shortlisted the most common ones below: 

 

Universities

There are many positions open for an astronomy graduate in a university, you can opt to work as a research associate or as a lecturer in astronomy. Working in a university will grant you access to various laboratories, libraries, and other facilities to help you carry out your research.  More often than not, research-based roles in these institutions come with teaching responsibilities. It is highly likely that you will be spending time delivering lectures and supporting students when you’re not performing your research.

 

Observatories

If you love operating equipment, then working in an observatory might just be the right place for you. Jobs in observatories are mostly research-based. This means that you’ll be collecting data from the equipment, analysing and interpreting the data. You could also be an astronomer partner, where you will work collaboratively with schools and universities to educate students. Graduates can also choose to work as a telescope operator and be in charge of all the telescopes and equipment in the observatory, however, you will need to have mechanical and optical skills to qualify for this job.

 

Planetariums and museums

If you love interacting with people and spreading your passion for astronomy, and are not interested in further research, then you can consider working in either a planetarium or museum. As an astronomer in these organisations, you are responsible for the development and delivery of planetarium shows, coordinating, and communicating the programming of the planetarium and the maintenance of the technology and content. In some planetariums and museums, you might be required to give school workshops, planetarium shows, special events and support the other activities of the organisation such as the development and planning of exhibitions and digital resources.

 

Government research organizations

Want to work in a national research organisation such as National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)? You can. However, competitive is very stiff in places such as NASA and National Institute for Earth Sciences and Astronomy (INSU) in France. You will need a PhD and have some additional research experience first to qualify.

 

Aerospace sector

Don’t want a career in research? Consider working in the aerospace industry. You will be recruited to help research, design and maintain various types of aircraft and spacecraft. Potential employers include, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

 

Other industries

Love astronomy, but want to strike out on your own in a filed different from your peers? The strong numeracy, computer and data-handling skills that you’ve developed during your degree are in high demand in many sectors such as media and communications, finance and accounting.

Like writing? Then merge both of your passions together and be a writer for astronomy, report on the latest industry findings, explain the basics all to a captive audience!

 

Skills that you will develop during the course of the programme:

  • Technical expertise- knowledge of science-related software programmes
  • Data analysis
  • Numeracy
  • Problem-solving
  • Research skills
  • Communication skills
  • Teamwork

 

How much does an astronomer earn?

Based on a report by the Bureau Labour of Statistics, the average salary of an astronomer is $104,100 as of 2015.

 

Best places to study astronomy:

US

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Princeton University

Stanford University

California Institute of Technology (Caltech)

 

UK

University of Cambridge

University of Oxford

Imperial College London

 

Aside from the universities listed above, these countries also have robust astronomy programmes- Sweden, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, The Netherlands, and Ireland.

 

We hope this article has helped you gain a better understanding of the vast and intriguing field of astronomy and the different types of specialisation that you can choose.

 

Want to study abroad? Check out the courses available here!

Or download a university’s prospectus now!

Search for a course

Choose a country
Study level*
About Author

A fan of anime and all things Japanese, Khai has been writing professionally since 2010 and “unofficially” for much longer. In her free time, you will often find her baking, reading, travelling and doing everything else in between.