Astronomy as a career
What is an astronomer?
Astronomers are scientists who study the origins, evolution, physical and chemical nature of objects beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Astronomers work to increase our understanding of how the universe began, how it has evolved and how it will evolve. They study how interstellar dust, gas clouds, planets, stars, galaxies and clusters of galaxies came to exist and how they behave. A professional astronomer will typically have a doctorate (PhD) in astronomy, astrophysics or physics. The university study path is usually as follows.
Minimum entry requirement at university: Matric exemption with Physical Science and Mathematics on the higher grade. Computer Science and Additional Mathematics are useful additional subjects.
Typical junior degree: Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree in Physics, Mathematics or Engineering, or a specific undergraduate astronomy degree. See http://www.saao.ac.za/public-info/education/astronomy-studies-and-scholarships/ for a list of universities offering astronomy courses.
Other recommended subjects at university: Pure and Applied Mathematics, Computer Science, Statistics, Electronics and Chemistry.
Undergraduate scholarships are available, see http://assa.saao.ac.za/html/25_scholarship.html.
The National Astrophysics & Space Science Programme (NASSP) is a cooperative, combined graduate programme launched by the South African astronomical community and a number of South African universities. It also offers Honours and Masters Programmes in astronomy / astrophysics and space science.
The Honours programme lasts one year and the Masters programme lasts up to two years. NASSP also offers an extended Honours programme for students who have no astronomy background or who need to improve their physics and mathematics proficiency.
Students are supervised by scientists from universities as well as the specialist research organisations doing work in astronomy such as the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Cape Town, the Hartebeesthoek Radio Observatory (HartRAO) in the west of Gauteng, and the South African Square Kilometre Array Project (SA SKA) in Johannesburg.
Bursaries are available to study astronomy at Honours and Masters Level. Refer to the NASSP website for more information, www.star.ac.za. Other bursaries are available from the National Research Foundation (www.nrf.ac.za), the South African Astronomical Observatory (www.saao.ac.za) and the South African Square Kilometre Array Project (www.ska.ac.za).
After completion of a Masters degree, the aspiring astronomer will conduct supervised research to obtain a doctorate (PhD). This can take from one to three years.
Graduates in astronomy are equipped to conduct research at the cutting edge of Astrophysics and Space Science and will have the broad science skills needed in any modern technological society. They would normally find employment at astronomical research facilities (e.g. HartRAO, SAAO, and MeerKAT) or universities.
Opportunities in South Africa are especially good with two multi-million rand astronomy projects in progress: the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and the South African Square Kilometre Array Project (SA SKA) which includes the Karoo Array telescope (MeerKAT).
Astronomers’ abilities, especially their scientific approach to problem solving, are also highly valued in almost all fields, ranging from aerospace, information technologies, telecommunications to financial services.