Career in Astronomy PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 11 January 2007 19:07

After getting reasonably good marks in HSC exams, generally, you are asked a common question, ``What are you going to do from now on?'', and by chance if you say that you don't want to go for professional courses like medicine or engineering, they will stare at you, like you are gone crazy. The same thing happened to me as well. All of 'them' stared at me, like I am crazy for five years till I completed my MSc and then left home for doing PhD.

Sanhita Joshi
Sanhita Joshi at Jodrel Bank

Before I tell you what should you do if you are seriously interested in astronomy, let me tell you some facts as well. Generally, not too many talented people want to go for pure science, for there isn't a lot of money in these fields, which is true. But most of the people who work as scientists in pure science have got some brains. (Otherwise, they wouldn't have got so far.) If I compare what PhD students like me earn and the
others doing some other jobs do, I don't earn too less compared to them. But many facilities, discounts, privileges I get, are not for the others.

I am studying in the UK and I've visited to 4 EU countries till now for (for work, paid working holidays) and 2 more visits are due in next 4 months. I pay half rent for the university accommodation I live in, and I get many
discounts on train, bus travel, many shops and so on so forth. I can't hide from you that I can internet for 24 hrs a day in the office, and I never tried to know how fast it is. Before the firefox window shows me how fast the download speed is, it gets done.

Even after you are done with PhD, and remain in same business, you don't get more money compared to the others, but still you are always blessed by foreign tours for workshops, schools, conferences, observations, collaborative work, etc.

But this is not just the only fact. Everything isn't just as rosy as you might think. There are some negatives for such a life as well.  It is true that you won't get a lot of money in hand. Mostly, astronomers keep traveling from one place to another for work till very late age, compared to the others. It takes about 3-6 years to complete PhD, after getting masters degree, depending upon where do you get it from. Then generally, 1-2 post-docs
for 2-3 years each and then you might find a job for yourself. And even after you find yourself a job, you might have to travel for an year or so for sabbatical leave, go to some other place to work for that time. If you are a
teenager, you might not think seriously about these things, but these things are more of a concern for married or about to get married people. But if you are determined that you want to do it, then go for it. There is nothing as good as to be an astronomer, a proud astronomy student says this.

There are a few things people always ask me about. Should you have physics or astronomy background to go for research in astronomy, should you be good at computer programming, should you be a good mathematician, etc. I'll try to address these questions one by one.

There are different fields in astronomy. I'll roughly divide those into, observational, modeling and instrumentation. Generally, people are never `pure'. People who are good observers are well aware of instrumentation and vice-versa. Theoreticians build models and try to justify observed data or pose
challenges to observers to know more and more about this universe we live in. Unlike, other branches of physics, there is no scope for 'experimentation' in this field. But if you are a theoretician, I might compare you with poets. Both of them have their own freedom to think about anything. The only difference is theoreticians have to prove it with mathematics.

So depending upon your interests, you have to have or develop different skills. Instrumentation in astronomy includes designing, building prototypes, write softwares for those instruments, for different telescopes, etc. This etc includes the mars rover as well. Building telescopes is stimulated by astronomers and they need engineering skills here. If, for instance, consider Square Kilometer Array, SKA, about which scientists have started planning and design study. They need all kind of people including, astronomers who know what
they want to do with the celestial sources, engineers to develop such an instrument, to design cheaper and less noisy electronics for that, to write software to analyse that data, etc.

Observers, like me, use these instruments, get the data, analyse it and try to make sense out of it. It isn't simple as it might sound because you can't control anything but the telescope. And making sense of the data is a big ob most of the times.

So if you want to be an astronomer, you should be very good at designing algorithms. It's even better if you know a programming language. It's not that you should learn Fortran or C or Java; it's upto you. But many oftwares used in astronomy, many libraries are available for Fortran and later translated to C. So it's a good idea to know either or both of these languages.

If you want to do physics and then go for astronomy, there are a lot of opportunities in India and in Mumbai as well. After you get BSc in physics, you can appear for IIT entrance test for MSc and/or for Pune University entrance. Pune University and IITs are considered very good for post-graduation in Physics. It doesn't matter a lot if you don't do astronomy during post-graduation. There is a good course offered by Mumbai University, in
collaboration with IIG, TIFR and IUCAA for MSc in astronomy and space physics. Mumbai university has recently started an integrated MSc course in astronomy last year.

After getting MSc, (or BE in case of engineers), you have choice of either staying in homeland or going out for further education. For PhD in India, there are a few options. TIFR conducts it's own entrance exam to select candidates. About 16 different physics research institutes conduct JEST to short list candidates for interviews. These institutes include IUCAA, NCRA/GMRT, IISc, IIA, etc. The third way is to appear for NET, where candidates getting JRF (Junior Research Fellowship) are invited for interview at IISc. Also, one can apply to various universities for PhD position who succeeds getting JRF.

If you want to go out of India for PhD, to US, you've to go through tedious way of GRE, subject GRE or AGRE and TOEFL. With these scores, your resume, letters of recommendation, 4-5 paged long forms and thousands of rupees you've to send your application to these places. In general, students apply to about 10 universities. All the expenses for this procedure goes to about 100,000 rupees. The other choice is to go to Europe. There isn't any standard exam you have to take for this. This means it saves a lot of efforts to learn a lot of words for GRE, saving a lot of money and saving time as well. There are different EU fundings for collaborative work in the EU, where 30\% seats are reserved for non-EU applicants. They prefer female and/or handicapped applicants. Also, some places like Max Planck Institutes in Germany have some quota for foreign students. It's not frequent to find posters, flyers for their advertisements in the Indian universities. These positions are more advertised by mouth (or email). A good idea is to google for such positions. Funding is guaranteed for such positions and you don't have `invest' a lot of money in that as well.

There are a lot of opportunities all around the world and a lot of money is spared for astronomy and for astronomers. It's just a matter of finding eligible people to grab those. So all the best!

The author is doing PhD in astornomy at Jodrell Bank Observatory, University of Manchester, UK. Visit her at 

Last Updated on Thursday, 11 January 2007 19:23