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Career in Astrophysics


Naemeth
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Before I ask the question, I feel a bit of background is in order.

I've always been interested in Astronomy and space, the planets always seemed to draw my attention. The problem was, although I was good at science at GCSE (BB - Double Award, B in Maths), I never really pushed myself at anything. I had no idea where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do, and so never really tried, or put my best efforts into education. Moving onto A-Levels, I chose a strange (looking back at it) range of A-Levels (Maths, Music, Psychology, ICT) and ended up dropping ICT as I really didn't like it. I came out of GSCE's with 1 A (Music), 5 Bs, 4 Cs. In my A Levels I got a B in Maths (nearly an A), C in Music and Psychology.

When it came to choosing what to do at University, much like my A-Levels, I was a bit lost. I had always done Music, having started music lessons at the age of ~5, so it was hard not to go to University and do Music. I knew, though, that I liked (and was good at) Maths too though, so I went to University to study Music with Mathematics. Now, in the 1st semester I did nowhere near as well as I should have due to a combination of factors, and whilst I was getting some good marks back for Maths, I ended up failing both Maths modules. I decided then to do the sensible thing, at least I thought, and drop Maths.

However, in the 2nd year, I really felt I missed Maths, so I did an entirely different module, free choice module about Logic. This, I felt, suited me, and I nearly got a 1st in that module (68%), compared to the low 60s and high 50s in my music modules.

Now, around this time I had also re-discovered astronomy, as many of you know that I started that journey in March. I began to read more into it, and came to realise that this, not Music was where I should've put my mind to. However, when you're nearing the end of your 2nd year of University, you hardly want to change course, so I stuck with the Music. For my 3rd year, however, I found a module in Astrophysics that I knew I would enjoy, and I did a preparatory module along side it which covered the basic A-Level Physics I needed. Finally, I had found something that I loved doing, and I ended up putting in a lot more time and energy into these two modules. Finally the results came in, and I got 74% (1st) in the preparatory module and 80.5% (1st) in the astrophysics module.

These results have really shown me where my real talents are, and what I am good at. Where I'd been struggling on the 2:2 / 2:1 border in Music, I got firsts in physics.

In July, I'll be graduating with a 2:1 degree in Music, but ultimately want to pursue a career in Astrophysics. I cannot get another student loan to do another undergraduate degree. With this in mind, what would you recommend?

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Astrophysics will be all Maths, Physics, Chemistry. Are you 100% sure your mind works like this? I love Astronomy and get some of the Physical principles quite well I think. But would i want to be living in the world of advanced maths and physics all day long? Hmmm, no personally. Do you want to? Do you? If so then go for it. But only the elite or someone very special gets to become the next Brian Cox or Chris Lintott. I don't wish to discourage you but think carefully. What would you do with the said qualification? There are only so many reserach posts that are funded.

Think these things through. But if you still think its for you then go for it 100% and follow your dreams.

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Problem is there is no "real" job called Astrophysics or even close. Study Computing and you do software, study chemistry and you enter a field of chemistry, study astrophysics and you ????????????

The last astrophysicist I worked with was the test manager at the company. That made for some interesting conversations.

It is like when people say I want to study astronomy and be a professional astronomer - you don't get paid to look at the stars. The people that get paid to look at the stars are the engineers and technicians that look after, maintain and collect the data for the astronomers to analyse back in their offices at the universities. If you were at UEA did you go to any maths lectures to see what they were like ? Physics is at least 2/3 maths, more likely 80%.

Another reality, 2 modules are not a lot, 6 a year is normal and you do not get to pick only the ones you like. When I did mine we covered the whole A'level sylabus in 2 one hour periods for 4 weeks (8 hours), then things picked up to the speed that the university expected.

Few years back I visited an observatory, the person showing us round and who had the greatest hands on knowledge of the place was an engineer that worked in the low temperature field. They kept all the sensors at liquid nitrogen temperatures to keep the noise down. Other engineers and an assortment of overseas secondments kept the place running and collected the data for the astronomers who were elsewhere in the world. One of the "jokes" were "I don't know what an astonomer looks like, never seen one here."

Ideas for what to do, well none. You have done a degree in music, and from what you say cannot do another easily in something like physics, which would possibly supply the opening to astrophysics at PhD level.

Most economic way would be to go abroad and study I suspect, Holland is good University of Utrecht I think is one. Strangely I think that Danish universities are free and being in the EU free to you if accepted. However living costs, accomodation and food, are I think high. You would get only the University cost covered.

Just be very careful of thinking a small amount of maths makes it look rosy. One thing that is never realised is that even if you were the best at school/college in Maths and Physics, at University you are with others that are the same and many are better. It can be difficult to find you are not one of the best anymore, just a mediocre one in a pool of many.

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I have an MSc in astronomy from the Kapteyn Institute of the University of Groningen. I was always very much into maths, physics, chemistry, biology (and history, and life, the universe, and everything). Many people started out their astronomy program from a love of stargazing, and lost of these dropped out in the first weeks or months. By contrast, a number of fellow students and myself started out in astronomy from a love of physics and maths, combined with a love of stargazing. Almost all of that category made it through their MSc (4 out of a total of 14 students in my first year, about 8 or 9 dropped out in the first weeks or months). We had been given a stern warning that if our maths and physics grades at school were not at least 8 out of 10, we were very likely to fail.

Given that you have passed one maths course at university, you do seem to have the maths skills, though logic is not the branch of maths most needed in astronomy: calculus, linear algebra, metric spaces, and weird forms of geometry are needed more. Also note that after finishing the MSc few got a job in astronomy. Finding a job is not much of a problem, as the physics and maths bits have many applications elsewhere (and the computer vision and image analysis you may get taught is much sought after in industry and academia alike), I have found. I fell in love with image analysis on the way, which is what my PhD research was about, and most of my work since. I still collaborate with astronomers, so do still work in that field professionally.

If you like subjects like quantum mechanics, relativity, statistical mechanics, etc., and you feel at home with maths, by all means give it a go.

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Problem is there is no "real" job called Astrophysics or even close. Study Computing and you do software, study chemistry and you enter a field of chemistry, study astrophysics and you ????????????

The last astrophysicist I worked with was the test manager at the company. That made for some interesting conversations.

It is like when people say I want to study astronomy and be a professional astronomer - you don't get paid to look at the stars. The people that get paid to look at the stars are the engineers and technicians that look after, maintain and collect the data for the astronomers to analyse back in their offices at the universities. If you were at UEA did you go to any maths lectures to see what they were like ? Physics is at least 2/3 maths, more likely 80%.

Another reality, 2 modules are not a lot, 6 a year is normal and you do not get to pick only the ones you like. When I did mine we covered the whole A'level sylabus in 2 one hour periods for 4 weeks (8 hours), then things picked up to the speed that the university expected.

Few years back I visited an observatory, the person showing us round and who had the greatest hands on knowledge of the place was an engineer that worked in the low temperature field. They kept all the sensors at liquid nitrogen temperatures to keep the noise down. Other engineers and an assortment of overseas secondments kept the place running and collected the data for the astronomers who were elsewhere in the world. One of the "jokes" were "I don't know what an astonomer looks like, never seen one here."

Ideas for what to do, well none. You ahve done a degree in music, and from what you say cannot do another easily in something like physics, which would possibly supply the opening to astrophysics at PhD level.

Mose economic way would be to go abroad and study I suspect, Holland is good University of Utrecht I think is one. Strangely I think that Danish universities are free and being in the EU free to you if accepted. However living costs, accomodation and food, are I think high. You would get only the University cost covered.

Just be very careful of thinking a small amount of maths makes it look rosy. One thing that is never realised is that even if you were the best at school/college in Maths and Physics, at University you are with others that are the same and many are better. It can be difficult to find you are not one of the best anymore, just a mediocre one in a pool of many.

My dear friend and colleague Scott Trager would quite likely call himself astrophysicist (or just plain astronomer). That is one of the job opportunities, but there are others.

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I had a similar ambition, fortunately I thought it through before I went to University. I was going to study Astronomy but was advised by an Astronomy professor against it as Astronomy degrees were seen as specialist and Physics would give a better grounding and open other doors if the Astronomy didn't work out. So I graduated with a degree in Theoretical Physics but had very little hope of further study.

Having learnt programming at University, this was 1980, there were not many computers around I got a job with a data communications company and was introduced to embedded systems programming.

I saw an advert in the computer press for a programming job at the Royal Greenwich Observatory for the Starlink system. I didn't get that job but was invited to apply for another position that matched my experience better which I did get.

Note about CVs. -- whatever you put in your hobbies and interests section make you sure you know about it. Expressing an interest in Astronomy and being asked about galactic evolution by the Astonomer who wrote the books (Paul Murdin) is probably the hardest question I've ever had to answer in an interview.

This job I did get and spent 5 years there before moving onto space probes.

The point here is that it is hard to become an Astronomer but there are plenty of other openings in the engineering field if you have the right experience. Astronomy is a very narrow field but space in general is an ever expanding industry with many companies operating in that sector. For example here in Oxfordshire the Harwell site is expanding rapidly in the space sector. It may be worth looking for graduate opportunities in these sort of companies.

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It largely depends on what you mean by a 'career' in astro physics. if it's a permanent position as a researcher in university, then you'll need to be going down the MA and PhD rout.

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Another thing to remember. Its almost a banal cliche, but there is a lot of truth in it; when you look back, you regret the things you didn't do, not the things you did do. We all do this. I really wish I'd joined the Royal Navy. I am very successful now at what I do as a senior consulting partner but I just wanted to join the navy and I still regret it. I always will. I'd do anything to have my time again. Make sure this does not happen to you. If despite what we've said you want to do Astrophysics then do it. If you are wise, resourceful and can learn and adapt there will always be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for you. Follow your dreams.

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One other thing to remember is that the most important thing you learn at university is learning and delving deep into problems. Most of the theoretical work I am doing (and algorithm development) is in fields I did not take at university (some fields did not exist), but which I taught myself later. Most BSc programmes in astronomy are essentially physics, with a smattering of astronomy thrown in. In my BSc programme I had just 15 or 20 credits out of 180 which were astronomy. The rest was identical to physics. For a BSc it therefore does not matter very much which direction you choose, because with a BSc in astronomy you can enter most physics MSc programmes and vice-versa. Even in my MSc programme, the number of physics classes was so large that with a few extra courses you could get a double degree: Physics and Astronomy (I did not, because I wanted to do computer science at the time).

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I have a Bachelor and Masters degree in Physics and Astrophysics but I declined an offer from my University for a Phd and decided to pursue a career in finance in an attempt to find my fortune. Now why did I do that? My love of science and astronomy in particular really started in earnest when I was around 6 years old and it never left me, and it still has not, but the reality of an astrophysicist in the 21st century was not something I could see myself wanting to do for the next 40 years. In my masters I spent a good 6 months using the Uni telescopes on a photometry project on T-Tauri stars and while using the scopes was fun, the real work was spent in the computing lab analysing the data, looking for patterns etc, and then investigating the underlying physics principles that drove the variability we recorded. And that is when it became clear to me, that the real life of a 21st century astronomer / astrophysicist is spent hunched over a computer trying to figure out what it is you have hidden away in your data.

One of the big shocks to me when I first started my undergraduate studies is that virtually all the professionals did not even know their way around the night sky, certainly not to the degree that I did.... And the reason they did not is because they did not need to. At that time, they would travel off to exotic locations but then tell the telescope operator what to point the scope at, take a lot data and then head back to their office and spend 6 months crunching it (now with tele-commuting you do not even get the travel!).

Perhaps I had a silly romanticised view of being an astronomer when I arrived at Uni (thinking more like Herschel our under the stars trying to make sense of what I was seeing) but the reality is quite different and I decided not for me. I am aware of the irony that I now spend 12 hours a day in front of computer, but Hedge Fund manager pays a bit better than professor! :wink:

As far as jobs go in the space (no pun intended), astrophysics really is an academic pursuit only which means University researcher / lecturer. The beauty of astrophysics is it is a pure science and by that I mean we do it because we wonder why and want to know. So many other areas of physics (solid state, quantum etc) have practical applications and studies in this area can naturally lead to a position in industry. So all I would say is be aware that the opportunity set for a pure play astrophysics job are more limited.

As to Michael's point, I cannot stress enough how important mathematical ability is. To be honest without an A-Level in physics and you could still make it in a bachelor degree, but if you maths is not first rate you will really struggle. Advance Quantum and general relativity will make your head spin without great maths. So that has to the be the real focus in my opinion. Perhaps you could investigate the possibility of a masters degree in astrophysics. Perhaps with your selection of modules, a University might offer you a place. That way you only need study for perhaps one year rather than another 3.

Good luck with what ever you choose.

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One of the "jokes" were "I don't know what an astronomer looks like, never seen one here."

It was a bit like that in Space Science. However the RGO had to have real Astronomers.

I did meet quite few, one I became friendly with was a real character.

I found Martin Rees to be a real gentlemen, would always listen to you whoever you were.

Colin Pillinger I have no time for. An over opinionated bully IMO.

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Follow your nose and your instincts. Passion goes a long way of you are prepared to put the work in. If you are still young enough the doors are open. I did a combined BSc in math and chemistry, did a PhD after in molecular physics. I also did a postdoc for a number of years in theoretical chemistry, they were the years I enjoyed most looking back at it by far. After I drifted into IT for various reasons as other things in life took over, but it is something I regret. IT is dull IMO, but programming is interesting when applied in science and subjects of interest. Plugging away at a database looking at boring data, or writing another word processor does not exactly turn me on.

While you have the chance think carefully and choose wisely, I was naïve with some of my decisions when I was younger, when I could afford to take a lot of things for granted and academic jobs were up for grabs quite easily for me at one stage ... but you learn as you get older :)

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Thank you, all, for your contributions.

The maths doesn't worry me, I know Physics is very Maths heavy. But I think it will take a long time to mull over my possible options. My brain seems to work very well in Maths, so perhaps it might be wise to get some Undergraduate level Maths and Physics books to get me started?

One problem I find is that I don't believe in myself enough, it doesn't help that I don't try for something unless it really interests me. In the astrophysics course, I went to all of the 2nd year level lectures, and learnt about special relativity and the derivation, I do understand calculus but it's just a long time since I've done any. That is one problem, it's been a while since I've done that type of Maths, I'm sure it will only be a matter of picking it up again though :).

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Totally agree with most of the above comments. Science pays very poorly in this country and there are few jobs and lots of candidates for the few positions available. If I were you at your age I'd try and find the best paid job I could that I didn't hate and always keep astronomy as a cherished passtime.

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If I were you at your age I'd try and find the best paid job I could that I didn't hate and always keep astronomy as a cherished passtime.

I'd agree with that.

Among my many interests, when I was younger, was mountaineering. Still is there, to be honest - but with other (newer) interests too. Anyway, after I finished Uni I went to New Zealand on a working holiday visa, and while I was there I went on an Alpine Mountaineering skills course. We were down in Fiordland, in some of the most spectacular scenery I've ever seen. The weather wasn't great, though, and I ended up bivvying under a rock with our guide for two days, so we got to talking. He'd just got back from being a rigger on Lord of the Rings, and Vertical Limit.

I said to him "You've got the most fantastic job! You're paid to mountaineer in this beautiful country. You go to the most fantastic places".

He looked back at me, straight in the eye. "I want a 9 to 5 job."

"What? Why?" I said, thinking he was crazy.

"I want to sleep in my own bed, to see my girlfriend, have a beer with my friends. I used to mountaineer for fun. Every weekend I'd be away. Now, if I get a weekend off, the last thing I want is to go up a mountain. I've lost my passion for it, and I think if I'd a normal job it'd come back."

That made me think. In the end, I went into IT (I'm a software developer) as it pays better, and I didn't think I'd hate it. Since doing so, I've noticed something. I used to program for fun and curiosity. There is absolutely no way that I'd do that now. Now, I'm okay with that - trading it as a hobby to being a job is one I was willing to make, and after 10 years I don't hate software development - but it suggests that what he said was true; if your job is your hobby it ceases being your hobby.

(For most people, anyway)

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I have the traditional set of a BSc/MSc in Physics with Astrophysics and then a PhD in Astronomy, although my PhD work was all theory (N-body/hydrodynamical simulations of galaxy clusters) whereas my subsequent research is observational astronomy, mostly using ESO's VLT. To be honest most observational stuff isn't very maths-heavy at all, not much more than typical undergraduate-level statistics.whereas theory and numerical modelling is generally intensely mathematical.

If I were you at your age I'd try and find the best paid job I could that I didn't hate and always keep astronomy as a cherished passtime.

I think this is good advice; my wife, who is a university reader in music says the same about her field too. If you want to do research then a PhD is essential, both for the training to professional level and for gaining the contacts and link necessary to run a research programme, but once you have it it is certainly possible to do top-level research outside the standard postdoc/lecturer route if you want to. A well paid day job and research as a 'hobby' makes a lot of sense these days.

However the RGO had to have real Astronomers.

The RGO was great, I was a summer student there before it closed.

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If you want a career in any science, you will have to consider jobs abroad. Various countries have considerably better pay than the UK in academia.

That was the main factor I started having doubts about pursuing academic positions after some time, I had already moved abroad once as Child with my parents, then moved to the UK to do a PhD, and after some years of additional research, I had several positions open to me that I felt were worth capitalising on, but they were all far away. My next move would have been either in Canada, USA or Finland for the better positions in my research area, and at that stage I didn't want to move for the sake of a career, considering the situation my misses was in at that time with her job as also. The living out of a suitcase lifestyle that comes with a PostDoc lost its appeal after a bit, at that stage I wanted to settle, and so I did.

My message to Naemeth would be to consider that, deep down if you feel you can do it, do you really see yourself as a career person, do you like other things, like living closer to relatives, having a bit more of a social life. With hindsight, when I was younger at degree and postgrad level, I was one of those 100% career driven types, it was all that mattered. Suddenly 4 - 5 year later I realised that perhaps I wasn't as much as I once thought, though that was also at a time when I could take it pretty much for granted what it was like to have an enjoyable job.

On reflection, I miss it as well, I'd rather be doing research and I'd rather have a postdoc as a day job any day of the week compared to the kind of jobs I drifted into since. In spite of the pay, if I could have settled and stay put to do the kind of work I enjoy most, that would have been ideal, I don't care about big money, it is secondary as long as you can get by.

You may also find this video will provide a bit of useful insight.

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... and a final word, something I wanted to add, research and where it is heading, it not the same as it once was. The ties with industry is forever growing, while understandable, freedom is more limited as well, unless you really do get the opportunity to work in the right sort of environment and work in the better research groups.

I agree a 100% with his views here, but it is what it is nowadays.

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In very distant hindsight, I would have loved to have earned a degree in Astrophysics. Alas, my childhood, and schooling, whilst enjoyable, was never going to permit a path along such a glorious route.

However. I've enjoyed very much reading this thread, because it does reveal the in depth knowledge displayed by the contributors, and some of the advice offered I'm sure will be appreciated by the OP.

Naemeth, Someone has already indicated to you that you should go ahead and strive to achieve your goal, and I agree with that 100%. At 22, you are certainly young enough, all you need to muster is the intense desire.

I wish you good luck. On a last note. Don't neglect the Music, although I'm sure you won't. After all, it has been established that the Universe itself is musical, and it sings.

Best Wishes,

Ron.

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Lots to consider again, thanks everybody :).

I do see myself as a career oriented person, and I would be okay with moving out of the UK as long as I had a career for me when I got there ;).

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Interesting - I'm considering going back to Astrophysics after a 13 year hiatus. Student fees are extortionate now, but I work and would plan to do some courses with the Open University to dip my toe back in the water. I gave it up after a few problems at the start of university and running into problems with the Maths side of things. I ended up doing Earth Sciences and Psychology in my second year and then Zoology in my third year which was great because I'm also passionate about wildlife and got to study vertebrate palaeontology which, like astrophysics, doesn't really lead to anything much. But at least I got to mess around with fossil reptiles for a year... I'm not sure I really ever was academic material, although I'd love to be in the place where Brian Cox and Chris Lintott are now (Especially because I was in the same year as Chris Lintott at university - nice guy incidentally), but from the point of view of presenting and communicating science without the hard-core physics and maths.

Now I work in conservation, and it's much the same deal that everyone thinks it's all about amazing discoveries and spending time outdoors with animals. I remember doing some work experience with a couple of botanists and remarking how exciting it must be to work in science. They just looked at me and said, "No, it's mostly just boring data collection," before going back to their quadrat... Oh the joy of discovery!

DD

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and a final word, something I wanted to add, research and where it is heading, it not the same as it once was. The ties with industry is forever growing, while understandable,

Agree completely. This is the same whichever your scientific discipline you're in. My discipline in chemistry and I opted to go into industry after my PhD figuring that that this was where the money was. I was wrong. Big pharma decided a long time ago that that instead of employing skilled workers on inflated salaries with pensions that it would be a lot cheaper to get research carried out at universities and small outsourcing companies without employing permanent staff; and doing this for peanuts. Combine this with India and China doing work for a fraction of the cost makes Euorope unconpetetive on a global scale and this is where all the jobs have gone.

In some of companies I've worked for over the past few years graduates are starting work with 30K student loans on poor salaries with bleak futures in the industry.

Of my friends friends, all the ones that are doing the best for themselves are the ones with the less focussed degrees (psychology, history and business studies) whom just used their degrees as a 'foot in the door' to unrelated jobs and have worked their way up.

So in answer to your question Johnathan:

I cannot get another student loan to do another undergraduate degree. With this in mind, what would you recommend?

I would take my qualifications and run. Find a job you are vaguely interested in and work your way to the top gaining as many transferrable skills on the way so that you can hop jobs more easily.

I feel I've vented my spleen here. Just my two pennies worth.

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I cannot get another student loan to do another undergraduate degree.

I know someone in a similarish siutation (i.e. had done subject as a first degree which they later regretted) who was able to take another degree (Physics in fact) by moving up to Scotland, where such things are free.

By the way, for those who say you cant work in a field and have it as a hobby, having been a professional astronomer for the last 30 odd years I can tell you that it is a fantastic position for an amateur astronomer to be in!

NIgelM

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