career repository

Physicists and Astronomy

By on Dec. 16, 2017

1. Career Overview
“We’re still pioneers, we’ve barely begun. Our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, cause our destiny lies above us.”

Wonder whose quote this is? Or maybe you already know, else you wouldn’t be reading about a topic on Astronomy as a career path. This quote is from the movie Interstellar, written 6 million years after the beginning of human life.

Even after millions of years of human history, there is still so much scope to unveil the mysteries of all things celestial, be it the planets, galaxies, stars or the infinite space itself.

Given the complexity and depth of the field, a career in Astronomy is beyond a typical 9 to 5 employment. It falls in to the category of research, is driven by passion, and requires patience as will any research career.

An aptitude to learn and understand science, through Physics and Mathematics, is a pre-requisite to start and be successful in the field of Astronomy. In fact, a career in Astronomy is a natural extension for a physicist. Now let’s get to what is needed to have a career in Astronomy.

2. Role Models
Indians have been the frontrunners in astronomical science, starting with Aryabhata, as early as AD 499. There have been several great Indian astronomers all through the history of India. Below are a few Indians who have contributed to Astronomy in the recent times:

Vainu Bappu
Vainu served as the president of the International Astronomical Union and established a number of astronomical institutes in India. His contribution to research is known as the Wilson-Bappu effect, which amongst other uses, is used to measure the distance of the star based on the emission band of the star.

Subrahmanyan Chandrashekar
Subrahmanyan was an Indian American, who was awarded the Nobel prize for Physics for his contribution to understanding the structure and evolution of stars.

Jayant Narlikar
Jayant Vishnu Narlikar is an astrophysicist. Narlikar is a proponent of steady state cosmology. He developed with Sir Fred Hoyle the conformal gravity theory, commonly known as Hoyle–Narlikar theory.

3. Education Track
There are two types of contributions to the field of Astronomy:

  1. Observational astronomers work on acquiring data from observations of astronomical objects, which is then analyzed using basic principles of physics.
  2. Theoretical astronomers explore the development of computer or analytical models to describe astronomical objects and phenomena.

For both streams, the aspirants need to possess a minimum of a doctorate degree. The difference in qualification is the graduate course – observational astronomy can be kick started with a graduate course in Engineering and Technology, whereas theoretical practice needs a graduate course in Physics to start with. As mentioned already, the foundation to understanding and working in the field of Astronomy is Physics.

Graduate Courses
There are multiple options to qualify professionally in the Astronomy field. The key is to get the required knowledge in Physics, while getting to understand the basics of Astronomy.

  1. After completing 12th grade, secure a place in a good science graduate course, such as B.Sc. Physics. During the graduate course, select subjects related to Astronomy.
  2. Another option is to enroll in Engineering Physics courses in any one of the IITs. The standard rules and regulations to secure a seat in an IIT apply. It is possible to gain admission to the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) by writing the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) - Advanced. The rank list for IIST admissions are based on the JEE – Advanced scores. The courses available are:
    • 4-Year B.Tech. (Aerospace Engineering)
    • 4-Year B.Tech. (Avionics)
    • 5-Year Dual Degree (B.Tech. + Master of Science/Master of Technology)

Post-Graduation Courses and Ph.D
The nature of the field requires doctorate and post doctorate qualifications, in order to pursue a successful career. Again, there are multiple paths to securing a doctorate:

  1. If you have completed a B.E or B.Tech in Engineering and Technology, an M.Sc. course needs to be completed before pursuing Ph.D., with specialization in Astronomy and Astrophysics. Some universities have included Astronomy and Astrophysics as part of their M.Sc. Physics course. Noted amongst such universities are:
    • Delhi University, New Delhi
    • Osmania University, Hyderabad
    • Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh
  2. In order to get in to the research stream to work towards the Ph.D., post-graduation in Physics with specialization in space science or astronomy is required. If you have opted for the dual degree programme offered by IIST, then it is easier to start with the Ph.D. programme. The below institutes offer integrated M.Sc. and Ph.D. programmes:
    • Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore
    • Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), Bangalore
    • Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune
    • Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad
    • Raman Research Institute (RRI), Bangalore
    • Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai

Post Doctorate Research
The research institutes listed above offer post doctorate research facilities as well. Noted amongst those is the Joint Astronomy Programme offered by IISc. In order to qualify for the Ph.D. and post doctorate programmes, majority of the institutes have the Joint Entrance Screening Test (JEST) as a requirement.

To compliment the educational qualifications, it is highly recommended to participate in internships offered by the noted institutes such as TIFR and ISRO.

International Institutes
Institutes such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard also offer astronomy courses. The qualifying requirement is still a strong foundation in Physics and Mathematics, but these institutes require the candidates to complete mandatory and standardized tests such as SAT in order to gain admission. It has been found to be beneficial to complete the undergraduate course here in India and then opt for post-graduation or doctorate in international institutes.

4. Specialization or Branches
Astronomy is split in to branches in order to manage the vastness of the subject, and the depth of the specific topics that need to be explored. The most common specializations are Cosmology, Astrophysics, Astrobiology, Planetary Geology and Astrometry.

  • 4.1 Cosmology Study of the origins, evolution and basic structure of the whole of the universe.
  • 4.2 Astrophysics Study of the physics and properties of individual celestial objects. Researchers can choose to specialize in a specific celestial object, for example planets.
  • 4.3 Astrobiology As the name indicates, it is the study of the origin of life, and use the knowledge to predict the future of life on Earth and if possible other plants.
  • 4.4 Planetary Geology Study of the nature and composition of the planets, comets asteroids etc., This branch is similar to the study of Earth geology.

5. Career Path
Researcher is the most common career path in Astronomy. Starting with internships, you can grow in to a senior researcher and lead multiple research teams as well. In the line of teaching, the career growth is the same as any teaching career. If you start as a researcher, it is also possible to switch to teaching after gaining a few years of experience.

6. Job Roles

  • 6.1 Research
    The passion to be a researcher, and the curiosity to go with it are the most common reasons for candidates to desire a career is Astronomy. Researchers are eventually expected to have the highest of qualifications, Ph.D. or a post doctorate. But it is possible to start as a researcher assistant after post-graduation and complete the doctorate thesis through the research project itself. Typical employment opportunities are as a researcher in agencies like NASA, CERN, and ISRO. Observatories and planetariums also employ researchers to observe, record and interpret data that will contribute to various research topics.

  • 6.2 Teaching
    Teaching Physics and the various branches of Astronomy is another sought after career option. It is possible to be a researcher and a faculty in an institute at the same time.
  • 6.3 Aerospace
    Private companies that build satellites and space ships require people qualified in Astronomy and Physics as the knowledge base is the same.
  • 6.4 Overlapping Domains
    As the fields of Astronomy and Physics overlap with the Aviation industry, there are opportunities to find employment with companies like Boeing that make aircraft. Because of the skills acquired in logic and computation, it is possible to find rewarding careers in the finance and technology domains as well. As modern day Astronomy is greatly dependent on automated means to record, process and interpret data, a career in developing such instruments and supporting software is also an interesting career option.

If you have an aptitude to explore the unknown and do not shy away from complex subjects such as Physics and Mathematics, then Astronomy is a great career option. Even though you might have started in another branch of study, say Engineering, it is still possible to switch over to the study of Astronomy and make a rewarding career out of it. Being able to pioneer the understanding of the Earth, planets and the stars, and the impact on life is a very satisfying field and will never get monotonous as the avenues to learn and grow are never ending!

7. References