Astronomy: Courses for students with stars in their eyes

It's not quite 'Star Trek', but a degree in astronomy will always be well-received, says Steve McCormack
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The Independent Online

The early 19th century was a boom period for astronomy. Advances in instrumentation meant that telescopes gave a far better view of the solar system than had previously been possible. Plus, two things happened that cemented astronomy's reputation as a serious academic subject.

First, the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) was formed in London in 1820. The discoverer of Uranus, William Herschel, was its first president. Second, a BSc in astronomy was among the inaugural degree courses offered by the newly founded University College London in 1826.

Nearly 200 years later, the degree course is still going strong, albeit with content that's moved on somewhat since the days of Herschel. Between 30 and 35 undergraduates a year embark on one of University College London's three "astro degrees" in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, taking a BSc in astronomy, astrophysics, or astronomy and physics. Most stay for a fourth year to complete an MSc.

All of the courses have physics and maths at their heart, something that UCL makes clear to applicants who may be expecting it to be likeStar Trek. "For the first two years of the course, two-thirds of the work is physics and maths," says Mike Barlow, the department's head of undergraduate teaching, "leavened by some astronomy practical and lecture elements."

For the practical modules, students go to the observatory at Mill Hill, to view the solar system through the university's telescopes.

Many of UCL's graduates stay on to do postgraduate study - cosmology and atmospheric physics, dealing with "the edge of space" 100km above our heads, are particular research strengths. Around the country, there are about 250 postgraduate places available in astronomy and related fields, many attracting funding from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC).

Those students who go on to work as professional astronomers can end up in academia, research institutions, or organisations of world renown, such as Nasa. Other career paths followed by UCL graduates include school-teaching and jobs in the City, where employers value the numeracy skills of anyone with a degree that has a substantial maths content. In fact, the richness of employment openings is stressed by the RAS. The incoming chairman of the society's higher education committee, Professor Gordon Bromage, from the University of Central Lancashire (Uclan), feels that it is important to stress the all-round reputation that an astronomy degree has among employers. "Astronomy graduates' very high IT competence and problem-solving skills are in demand," he explains. And Bromage's message must be getting through: he reports increased interest from students around the country wanting to join such courses.

The RAS recognises 30 universities as doing "serious" astronomy or astrophysics courses. The former leans slightly more towards observation and practical study, while the latter is more about theory. All the RAS-recognised universities have substantial research departments, so that undergraduates can be taught by academics engaged in current work.

If a degree has "astro" in the title, the core area of study for much of the first two years will cover the physics of the make-up and movement of what older dictionaries still describe as the heavenly bodies.

Once these basics have been covered, though, courses can vary enormously, reflecting the almost infinite nature of the field. Individual and comparative study of stars and planets is a common option, as is the wider science of the universe as a whole, and "big bang" theories.

The amount of actual stargazing involved can vary enormously, according to the small print of each degree programme, and availability of telescope time. Students at Uclan, for example, go to the observatory one night a week for the entirety of their course.

The one constantis the requirement that students have good A-levels in maths and physics, without which the course content will be out of reach. But students must also have good language skills, as the communication of science issues is as important these days as their substance.