Physics What jobs can I get with Astrophysics in the UK?

1. Sep 18, 2009

Earthlight

Hey, I'm 16 and I'm currently studying A Levels at college (Physics, Maths, English Literature, and Philosophy). I've been interested in space for sometime, getting my first telescope around 3 years ago, and I don't know when but I unconsciously decided this was what I was going to do with my life. After that I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else. In 2 years I think I'll take Astrophysics at university (if I get the grades :S) because I like knowing the physics behind what I'm seeing through my 'scope - even though just looking is also amazing. I'm not sure what degree to take or what my job options (in the UK) would be afterwards, though. Could anyone tell me what to expect and offer advice? Also, what salary should I expect? I think it's average and I'll probably be living of tinned beans for a few years hehe but money isn't the driving factor, I'm just wondering.
Thanks for any replies in advance,
Katie :)

2. Sep 19, 2009

alexgmcm

Hmm... I've just started studying Physics (starts next week :O ) and it seems that most PhD's have a stipend of 13k and then post-docs can pay anywhere from 18-35k (All figures in GBP) depending on the field and your experience.

I think that Physics probably won't pay as much as Engineering or even Maths in some cases but on the other hand you will be earning above the average wage so you don't have to worry about starving.

One of the main issues about increasing the pay for research scientists is the lack of public support due to the fact they already earn above the average wage (the median wage is approx 23k I believe). So when you see people complaining about the lack of riches in Physics it is worth keeping it in perspective, it certainly isn't as well paid as banking etc. but it's not exactly a McWage either.

BTW, which universities are you considering? Also, you have a pretty diverse choice of A levels, who knows, with Physics and Philosophy you could be the next Heisenberg :P

3. Sep 19, 2009

Earthlight

@alexgmcm Thanks for the reply :)

That's pretty good pay - I was expecting lower because I do hear a fair few physicists (try saying that a few times fast!) moaning lol.

Umm, I haven't put a lot of thought into universities yet. I really wouldn't know where to begin but I've heard Edinburgh is quite good. It would mean a move but North-East England doesn't really have too much going for it so I don't mind.

I basically ran out of subjects I wanted to take after Physics which would explain the diversity lol. I know I probably should have gone with another of the sciences but my Chemistry teacher is the only man I've met who could turn a subject with explosions into mind numbing boredom, and I'm not that keen on Biology. The next Heisenburg? I'm uncertain about that ;)

4. Sep 19, 2009

alexgmcm

@Earthlight I did Maths, Chem, FMaths, Bio and Phys all through both years, I hated Chem so I wouldn't recommend that at all, Further Maths is pretty handy though as matrices and stuff come up in Physics. And Bio is awesome I got my best marks in that ^_^

Hmm.. If you wanted to stay in NE England you could goto Durham, I chose Exeter because it's awesome and has cool scholarships too, they also run some pre-university physics course thing so you can see what the course is like and meet like-minded people, it's run in july so you just missed it this year.

Yeah, I know what you mean about them moaning but it only seems to be online. I've talked to PhD students and lecturers at the different universities I visited and most of them seemed pretty happy. Tbh, once you go online you can find people complaining about almost anything although some post-doc pay can be pretty poor for sure and the PhD stipend certainly doesn't afford the life of riley but you get to live on campus and stuff so your expenses are probably lower than most peoples.

I only just got a telescope, but it's pretty cool. It must be amazing to actually be decent at using it and be able to see stuff other than the moon and Jupiter occasionally lol.

Anyways, I'm sorry I don't know that much to help you as I'm only slightly older than you lol but good luck in choosing unis! If you have any questions about them feel free to ask as I just finished visiting loads when I made my decisions so I might be able to advise (I guess I'm just pretty nosy really haha).. on topic, I'm sure if you are enjoy Physics and are reasonably good at it you will be happy and like I said the salaries tend to be above average so you needn't worry about destitution :P

5. Sep 20, 2009

Earthlight

@alexgmcm God, I couldn't imagine so much science and maths lol I like having English Lit and Philosophy because in there it's mostly opinion and I get to have a break from facts and mix with different types of people :)

My sister went to Durham and said it was great but I'm not sure it offers Astrophysics and I think I'd like to move just for the whole independence and lack of scrounging off my Dad lol. I've just went into my 1st year of college so I'll have the next 2 years to check Exeter out but I'll definitely give it a look.

Ah yeah, I guess the internets a good place to have a moan to randomers so you don't get told you're a tool in real life lol.

What telescope do you have? I'm getting an 8" Schmidt-cassegrain soon - can't wait! It's actually pretty easy to get good at using it, especially if you have stellarium (http://www.stellarium.org/). Best recourse ever and it's free :)

You have helped, I wasn't expecting any replied at all tbh. What unis did you visit? & thank you, I'm in too deep to change my mind now anyway lol it's weird to think if I'd had a different physics teacher in secondary school or just flat out not listened that I might be doing something completely different lol I can't imagine it.

6. Sep 20, 2009

alexgmcm

I visited Warwick, Durham, Oxford (they rejected me ), Cambridge and Exeter (obv. lol). My brother visited Sussex's Physics dept. as well which apparently was really good but a little close to home.

I have to admit I can't actually remember the model of telescope, as my stepmum uses it much more than me and it is packed away atm lol

I quite liked studying all the sciences as it meant all my classes were really small as they aren't very popular classes!

Warwick is a nice department but in the second year and stuff you have to live in Leamington Spa which is a 7 mile bus journey everyday, or live in Coventry which is full of chavs according to the Warwick people on TSR and still have a long bus journey everyday.

Durham was nice, and if I hadn't been offered 3k a year by Exeter I might have ended up going there, but it was really far away for me, and it's grim up north :tongue: Also all their accommodation was catered and quite expensive.

Oxford was, well it was Oxford lol, umm it looked pretty good and had 4-year accommodation at some colleges (including the one which rejected me) but yeah it has a really stressful entry exam to get in, which I kind of panicked on and failed and obv. once I was rejected even getting 5As didn't help.

Cambridge was nice and tbh I probably should have applied there instead, they don't have an entry exam at most colleges but normally require 4As or this year they will probably want A*s. The downside is that on the nat sci course you have to take 3 experimental sciences in the first year so you can't just do physics which kind of turned me off the course as I like biology but I can't stand chemistry, and I worked out I would have to study at least one chem course :( They have a maths and physics course too which is mostly maths and a little physics, but to get on that you have to get admitted by the cambridge maths department with their STEP papers and everything.

Sussex was good apparently as it was the smallest of all the departments, even smaller than Exeter, so everyone knew one another, also they have some cool research project thing you can apply to do but then you need to pass an interview and stuff.

Finally there was Exeter, obviously I am a little biased here, but it is awesome. They offer very generous science scholarships for people who can get AAA and the city is small enough so that everything is in walking distance. The relationships between the faculty and the undergraduates seems good which was apparently the same at Sussex according to my bro, I guess it's down to size, as Warwick and Durham both have large physics intakes so you are unlikely to be known personally by your teachers etc. Exeter is quite a safe city too which I liked as I have never lived in a big city before and don't really want to get mugged :P

Now I was swayed quite a lot by the scholarships (as I don't want to *have* to work, as it stands I can get a job if I want more money but can always quit and focus on my studies and be quite comfortable, it also encourages me to work harder as I need at least a 2:1). Also I hate public transport a LOT, when I visited Oxford I had to use the buses, and I can't drive so I wouldn't have a choice at uni, and yeah I just hate standing around waiting for a bus. So obviously it depends on what matters to you most as to which uni to choose.

If you really like astronomy, I would look at St. Andrews (it's a bit isolated though lol) which is in Scotland and has awesome optical telescopes and dark skies to use them on. Durham is also pretty good for astronomy as the guy said that the skies are quite dark there. Exeter has Dartmoor and Exmoor nearby which are quite dark too, and Warwick had lots of radio telescopes so I guess it depends really.

I wouldn't rely on the league tables too much when making your decisions though, just see what is in like the top 20 or 15 or so and then choose depending on where you want to live and stuff, it's better to graduate with a first from York than to drop out of Oxford. Because the league tables change quite a lot from year to year and also I wouldn't advise choosing a uni based on a single physics option it has (I nearly did this with plasma physics and Warwick) as you don't know where your interests in physics will go over the years and they might stop running the option by the time you get to the right year in any case. Also whilst the RAE scores are kind of important, they probably won't have that much affect on undergraduate education anyway.

Sorry I just realised I rambled loads and have written the PF equivalent of War and Peace

BTW have you managed to look at the ISS with your telescope, I haven't but it seems like the most awesome thing to do. Apparently it is the second brightest object in the night sky (after the Moon presumably) but there is just something so amazing about looking through a telescope and seeing something built by man with people in it floating hundreds and hundreds of miles above you. I must use those tracker websites and try to do it one day.

7. Sep 20, 2009

Earthlight

Aww, too bad Oxford rejected you :( Their loss! I could never cope there though if the impossibility of me getting the amazing grades occurred lol especially with all the snot nosed kids who are all loaded haha. Wow, you got 5 As?! I'm not someone who thinks in numbers so I'm already struggling with maths and I'm only 2 weeks in I haven't exactly lucked out on my teacher either (he thinks an explanation means repeat what he said before word for word) but I'm going to do whatever it takes to keep up.

This is a lot of info to take in lol thanks for typing it all up! I've copied and saved it and I'll find out all the required grades and stuff. I really like the look of St Andrews like, those scopes are gigantic! Since it's a small town they'd have minor light pollution too. They want AAB, it's pretty impossible to tell what I'd get right now but I'd probably at least apply to there if I get the grades. I'm seriously gonna have to work my arse off haha.

Exeter sounds really cool (I don't fancy being mugged either lol) and you're probably going to do amazing from what you've told me :) What jobs are you thinking of going into? I haven't even heard of plasma physics lol.

Lol, you haven't rambled and I'm grateful :)

I've been meaning to looks at the ISS for a while now but I've decided to wait until after christmas because I'm getting a Canon 500D and I'm going to try my hand at astrophotography so I'll see if I can catch it on camera. www.heavens-above.com is a great site to use for tracking :) There was a photo I've seen where someones got a picture of it and you can see the astronaut on an EVA! I just found it again then:
http://cache.gawker.com/assets/images/gizmodo/2009/05/iss-astronaut2.jpg
Now that is pretty cool. There was another one I've seen of the shuttle and the ISS transiting the sun so they just look like shadows but they would have passed it in a fraction of a second which makes that majority impressive. Oh, found that again too lol I'm on a roll:
:)

Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
8. Sep 20, 2009

alexgmcm

Those pictures are awesome, I saw some astrophotography album on flickr which had some cool pictures of the moon craters but I don't have the link anymore :(

It must be a pretty awesome thing to do as a hobby, I'd try it as an undergrad but decent telescopes which can fit a camera are expensive and the cameras even more so.

Plasma physics is like to do with the motion of plasma lol, nah seriously it's like the fourth state of matter which appears when you heat it so much that all the electrons are stripped from the atoms and so it consists of charged particles. Actually, I read some the start of some really complicated plasma physics book that said you needed surprisingly few charged particles present to get it to behave like a plasma but really I have no idea. I was interested in it because it's used in fusion reactors like JET and the proposed ITER and they are really interesting.

I have no idea what jobs I want to do really, I think I'd like to go into academia maybe but I don't really have any idea how difficult it gets at University lol. But I think I'd quite like teaching bits of Physics to people who actually want to learn it (which means I don't want to be a secondary school teacher!). Also doing research and stuff seems cool obviously.

As for the areas of Physics, I quite like condensed matter with like superconductors and the like. If academia turns out to be as impossible as some people on the internet make out then I guess I'd go into something else, engineering would probably be best as finance and programming are also popular and I have a bit of experience with programming (I haven't just used VB, but I'm still not very good :P ). But tbh, I don't think I'd want to do either finance or programming as a job everyday as they aren't the most interesting things in the world :P

Yeah I did get 5As lol, I'm not like a genius though unfortunately, I just did a lot of the past papers until I was really confident and got lucky on chem :P Do you have a Physics practical exam btw? Because I did really well at that this year but last year I did pretty badly on it, ugh I am quite clumsy so the timed practical exam isn't my favourite part

What are you finding hard in maths? I can try and help if you like as I need to revise it in any case, but you might want to post it in the homework section as I've derailed this thread enough as it is sorry. Argh I have a maths test on the second day of freshers week to decide the problems sets lol >.<

9. Sep 20, 2009

Earthlight

I have a few friends (online lol, my friends get a glazed look about them when space talk comes up) who take amazing astro images. I've pumped them for information and advice on camera choices and such and I think they will be getting spammed when I have to start image processing lol.

It is pretty expensive like, I've saved for about a year for the scope I'm getting soon and I can see every christmas and birthday in the future being used as ways to expand my kit

Plasma physics does sound pretty cool :) I'm quite into quantum mechanics mainly because of the completely counter-intuitive parts of it. I don't think I'd do that at uni because I doubt I'd be able to become one of the 3-4 people who actually understand it lol I swear it's like fight club; the first rule of quantum mechanics is that you don't understand quantum mechanics ;)

There's quite a few uni lectures on youtube but I doubt you get a feel of it from there. God, I'd never teach a secondary school lol we had a pretty amazing physics teacher who got me into the subject (I bought him the 1st series of The Big Bang Theory as a thank you at the end of Y11 lol) and he admits he prefers A Level because if the kids act up too much he can just tell them to go away. Yeah, the research looks cool too, and people say you get to travel quite a lot.

I doubt most things are are impossible as internet people make them out lol. It's hard to find accurate things out like, I have no idea who to ask. Connexions are bloody useless too, I told them what I wanted to be and a week later I got a load of information on meteorology through the post! I think they've missed the point. Hmm, yeah financing/programming isn't the most interesting by a long shot in my opinion lol I have no experience in either though. What's VB? (again, programming noob here :P).

I'm not sure if there's a timed practical exam but I think we do one major practical exam a year. We've done a few little ones like dropping olive oil in water and estimating the size of an atom from that, and measuring the resolution of our eyes and phone cameras. I hope we don't have a timed one lol I wouldn't want to have to try and see if I work well under pressure :P

There's no one thing I'm struggling with, it's just sort of in general. Like it takes me longer to understand things than the pace the teacher goes at if you get me. I'm average at maths, he just goes extremely quick :\ I end up getting things in the end but I know if I don't understand one thing then I'll be screwed lol I'll just have to see how it goes. I got a B at gcse which means I have to take the maths support class which I was pretty happy about, thinking I'd get help there - he taught us how to add with cups last lesson :| I wish I was joking lol. Argh, I hate maths tests, good luck! And yeah, we have gone slightly off topic haven't we lol

10. Sep 20, 2009

alexgmcm

I think my year was the last one with the syllabus which had two full-on practical exams rather than them being components of a written paper so I wouldn't worry too much.

Yeah, I love QM since reading Alaistair I.M Rae's A Beginner's Guide to Quantum Physics, the Quantum Eraser experiment is pretty awesome too especially in it's really complicated form here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delayed_choice_quantum_eraser)

VB is Visual Basic it's like a programming language by microsoft that a lot of people learn on, it's not particularly good as it doesn't teach many of the principles of programming very well. IMHO, others may worship it lol.

I think you should do fine at maths so long as you keep up with the work and do loads of the past papers prior to the exams. I can't believe they made you add with cups lol..

11. Sep 21, 2009

lincs-b

hi,
This is the first time i've ever seen any other female brits on here lol.
I personally would take a bacholars in physics and then look at the astrophysics for a masters degree. That way you are keeping your options open.
I've also got a telescope but i am so crap it is beyond belief. I don't think hating the cold helps much either.
Becky

12. Sep 21, 2009

alexgmcm

Yeah, when I went out on Dartmoor it was pretty cold, but it's not so bad if you take lots of warm clothes lol. I was really annoyed though because the moon was so bright I had no chance of seeing the Milky Way which apparently looks awesome.

BTW, I would agree with lincs-b, there are a lot of courses with buzzwords attached like Physics with Nanotechnology, generally you can take all the same courses with just a Physics degree but you get to keep more choice so I would steer clear of the weird courses and just stick with a vanilla Physics degree or perhaps Physics and Astronomy.

13. Sep 21, 2009

Earthlight

@alexgmcm The quantum eraser experiment looks quite interesting, it'll take a while to get my head around it though I think lol. Seems to involve the double slit experiment, which I think is really cool and mind-bending :)

@lincs-b I haven't noticed any other female brits either but I only joined the other day so it probably doesn't mean much lol. Practice makes perfect with a scope lol I used to be absolutely rubbish haha. Yeah, the cold is an annoyance - but I just wrap up and take a good old cuppa out with me :)

@alexgmcm(again lol) I've never seen the Milky Way :\ Too light polluted where I live. Apparently it's pretty awesome in Texes for some reason. How many years is a Bacholars? Then how many extra for a Masters?

14. Sep 21, 2009

alexgmcm

Bachelors is three years, and Masters tends to be a year. I'm doing integrated MPhys thing so I don't have to worry about funding again as I'm not sure if separate MSc degrees are funded by the Govt.?

Sucks I was in the Mojave Desert 2 years ago, but I was too much of an astro-noob to know to look for the Milky way :(

15. Sep 22, 2009

lincs_b

I don't really know much about the funding. I couldn't get any financial support when I went to college at 16, wanting to take a-levels, and couldn't live at home with my parents. The job I had only payed £3.05 an hour so a weeks wages only covered my rent, electric and food bills. I'm now 23 and an open university student, my local uni doesn't offer any physics courses. I receive full financial support as me and my boyfriend earn under £20,000 a year, so I don't pay anything at the moment.

We live in a village which is pretty dark, the milky way is beautiful in mid-winter but I only have a 3 mp camera on my phone which doesn't really do it justice. I'm taking a course next year, astrophysics, we have to work in groups using the ou's robotic telescope or the sloan digital sky survey archive and set up a project studying either variable stars or quasars. I am so excited about this course lol.

Studying with the ou I don't really have much experience with brick unis. I do go on residential courses though and this year I went to Durham for the week. For the next two years I will be at Sussex so I'm hoping for good weather on the day which I have a few hours off.

16. Oct 13, 2009

tetris11

@Earthlight, hey I'm currently in my 3rd year Astrophysics course at UCL (doing Masters) and was thinking the same thing as you just now. (You'd think I would have been thinking about this over three years ago, but hey that's just me.)

A telescope isn't a must, since you only really do telescope work in your 1st and 3rd year (2nd year just forgets about it...), and even then, at the hands of a powerful CCD telescope controlled by a computer with a 'Go to...' command. I haven't got a telescope, nor ever really wanted one (binoculars give you good detail with greater field), and I don't reckon any prior telescope work will help you out too much, except maybe to teach you mounting angles, because you'd be spending most of your time in the 'telescope' sessions data crunching.
What Im trying to say here is dont get any misconstrued romantic ideas about working in a telescope for most of the night with just you and the stars, because you dont get to do stuff like that until you're in your 4th year.

Also most of the telescope work takes part in the first term (Sept-Dec) because of good weather; second term is too cloudy, and third term you're in revision/exams (joy).

The career choices I was expecting to get out of this degree was to do R&D somewhere. Not NASA or ESA exactly, but just standard research at a tech company. I know you can do that with a normal physics degree, but it didn't look that fun, and they have to do way more lab experiments (which I've always hated), which you'll still have to do in your first and second year (usually I just pre-googled the experiment and tampered with the data until it fitted).
To be a researcher you'd need to do some kind of computer module in your 3rd year options, so I'm doing Object Orientated Java to cover that.

You're probably wondering why I even did Astrophysics judging by the amount of complaining I've done in this post (:p). When I was fifteen, I stood at the top of my family's remote mountain village in Cyprus and saw all the stars from horizon to horizon with a faint white haze trailing behind. It completely blew my mind. Have never seen anything like it since.

Edit: Also for A-levels I did Maths, Further Maths, Physics, and... English Literature to get into UCL. I applied to Imperial and St Andrews, but not Oxbridge (fear of rejection). All three uni's were pleased with the Further Maths addition of the standard Maths Physics combo, but not so much with the English Literature. Go for Chemistry, they'd love that and it would help you out in Physics of the Universe lectures.

Last edited: Oct 13, 2009
17. Oct 13, 2009

twofish-quant

If you like astrophysics, then take astrophysics.

As far as jobs go. It's not a job title but there seems to be a lot of demand for people that can do numerical modeling. Once you have the skills to figure out what makes supernova tick, then you can use those skills to figure out how bond options or oil fields work.

One thing that cool about theoretical astrophysics is that you end up working with massive amounts of computing power.

18. Oct 16, 2011

HoplessAstro

I must comment on the annual salary of a physicists mentioned at the beginning of this thread. I cannot believe that is all they earn! That's just very poor. For the amount of studying and expertise that they have, that is abominable actually.

19. Oct 16, 2011

tetris11

@HoplessAstro - Yup of the 80 percent of my class who did Bsc's, over 1/2 of them went to banking (check UCL' alumni page). In the masters years the rest of us pretty much panicked with the best of us going on to do PhD's at Oxbridge and the other just calling it a day and looking into other fields.

I threw my hat in and am now doing Msc Comp Sci.
It's a shame really in retrospect - Astrophysics was such an impractical field of study; so many people go to university and come out with real applicable skills. Astrophysics taught me nothing in my first three years except how to appreciate interstellar dust.

It was only in my 4th year that I did an interesting module - quantum computing. Yes it might seem like a theoretical field now, but the knowledge there will have real world applications in a few decades or so.

/rant.

20. Oct 17, 2011

mal4mac

Consider the BSC/MPHYS PHYSICS WITH ASTROPHYSICS course at Leicester. They have a red hot research group in X ray astronomy there, so you may eventually get to 'look' through some really cool telescopes (via computer though, they are in orbit!)

http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/physics/research/xroa

If you are very persistent, very good, and very lucky you might, after the PhD, eventually end up as a permanent lecturer in astrophysics - which involves a similar pay scale to teachers. As a fallback: teach physics!

21. Oct 17, 2011

mal4mac

My MSc in astronomy at Sussex was exactly like that! Thankfully it was only one year ... I spent most of the year teaching myself cosmology and General relativity far beyond the smattering in the course - and almost failed 'cause of my dismal efforts in the dusty dust questions...

I then slipped (was forced!) to move into a lifetime of varied, quite-fun computing jobs - they were so desperate for anyone with any computer knowledge, in my day, that I didn't need any paper qualifications! (Having programmed in Fortran for a few hours was enough to get me started...)

My UG courses at Leicester were good, so unless they've got dustier in the last few decades, I'd still recommend doing UG Physics with Astrophysics (you can quietly drop the "& Astrophysics" if things get too dusty...)

22. Oct 17, 2011

mal4mac

It's what the marketplace will stand. Vast numbers of students want to be the next Stephen Hawking, even too many with straight As and first class BSc's want to be Stephen Hawking.

So how can you do some more weeding out?

Offer 13K salaries to get rid of the "I wannna be rich and famous" brigade - or at least the "I wanna be rich now" section of that brigade - they go and mess up banks instead...

But still too many wanna be Stephen Hawking!

How do you weed them out?

Give them an endless course on dust cloud astrophysics... that did it for me...

23. Oct 17, 2011

twofish-quant

Post-docs make that much money. Theorists that end up working in investment banks make considerably more. Starting compensation for someone in NYC is $100K-$250K, and I know of astrophysics Ph.D.'s that make close to \$1M/year.

24. Oct 17, 2011

twofish-quant

And there are surprisingly few astrophysics Ph.D.'s. It's not as if the world is massively producing astrophysicists.

There is a particular problem which I call the "second Einstein problem". The problem is that one brilliant theorist can revolutionize the world which sort of stinks if you are the second person in the queue.

Unfortunately stuff like this makes it more exciting for people like me.