Taking the leap from engineering into astronomy

The Isaac Newton Telescope at Roque de los Muchachos Observatory. Astronomy is in constant need of engineers and other professionals to build better and better instruments.

The Isaac Newton Telescope at Roque de los Muchachos Observatory. Astronomy is in constant need of engineers and other professionals to build better and better instruments. Photo is courtesy of the Astrobites author Leonardo dos Santos.

It is not uncommon for professionals to want to change career paths. In fact, some might say that this is actually a healthy decision. Astronomy, as many other careers, has its qualities — independent work, exciting things to do on a daily basis, international collaborations and so on, but it also has its downsides: it generally does not pay much, has unsolved social issues and work can be overwhelming. The transition from another career into astronomy may need you to do some preparation work before taking the leap. In today’s bite, we will talk specifically about going from engineering to astronomy/astrophysics.

The academic and non-academic paths

One of the easiest ways to do this transition and still make use of your engineering background is to work on instrumentation. Astronomers are constantly in need of better and better instruments, and it is the job of engineers to make them a reality. Instrumentation does not generally require you to know advanced physics (such as quantum mechanics or field theory), but they might require some knowledge in optics, programming, and electromagnetism. Moreover, if you’re more interested in management, you can become a project manager. If you have previous experience in building high-precision instruments or optics, finding a job in astronomy instrumentation is a natural progression. However, if you do not have the experience, it could be a good idea taking on a Master’s degree in astronomical instrumentation, finding a training position — these are usually temporary jobs available at astronomical institutions — or take as many courses in optics and physics as you can if you haven’t finished your degree in engineering yet.

On the other hand, if you are interested in the meat and bones of astrophysics, delving into an academic career is the most common route. In academia, scientists dedicate their time to research a particular field of astrophysics and sometimes do teaching. A prospective astronomer should be warned, though, that it takes time — something like 10 years of studies and training, which includes graduate school and a few post-doc positions — before they actually land in a job as a scientist, and even that is not completely guaranteed. Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that being a professor is not the only outcome of an academic career: you should also be open to non-academic opportunities that pop along the way.

The academic path may require some knowledge that is not usually taught in engineering courses. The key disciplines necessary to perform and interpret research in any field of astrophysics are, arguably, quantum mechanics, classical (advanced) mechanics, statistical methods for astronomy and electromagnetism. Moreover, in order to start graduate school, candidates may be required to take an admission exam, which often involves such knowledge, and an interview. Computer programming skills are also a must: astronomers nowadays are becoming very active users of the Python programming language, so this is a great starting point if you have never coded before. Is it still possible to start an academic career without previously studying these subjects? Yes, as long as you are willing to prepare yourself to learn them along the way, and here a few ways to get it started:

1. Taking undergraduate courses: you could be good to go back to university as an undergrad, and it is up to you to finish it and get a new degree or not; be aware that some graduate schools require you to have a degree in physics or astronomy in order to enroll.

a) Pros: you can have opportunities to perform research as a junior and gain valuable experience that will prepare you for the years to come; you will be able to skip the most basic courses, such as calculus and physics.

b) Cons: it takes time (maybe 2 or 3 years); in some places, you might be required to pay tuition, which is not fun at all. Scholarships in North America and Europe are scarce.

2. Internship: in some situations you may be able to start an internship at an astronomical research institution and learn everything you need while working on it. These positions usually require a Bachelor’s degree in a related field (engineering can be considered as so, depending on the institution). You will probably have to write a very convincing letter of intentions, and clearly state your goals and ambitions.

a) Pros: no need to pay tuitions and sometimes not even go to traditional classes.

b) Cons: opportunities like these are somewhat uncommon, thus requiring persistence.

3. Learning by yourself: if you are diligent and disciplined enough, studying these subjects by yourself may provide you the knowledge necessary to perform research and pass admission exams. Online learning platforms, such as MIT OpenCourseWare has great materials on college level if you decide to study on your own. However, this is arguably the least recommended way to proceed (see cons).

a) Pros: again, no need to pay tuition or go to classes; it can be faster than going to traditional undergraduate courses.

b) Cons: you probably will not have contact with professional research if you are not affiliated to an institution, and that is a terrible idea — in the professional world, experience is generally seen as more valuable than textbook knowledge. Though you could try to complement your studies with a summer project, for instance.

Although we came up with only three pathways to learning the basics necessary to scientific research in astrophysics that engineers usually do not learn at school, nothing is stopping you from mixing them or coming up with your own ideas, but please be sure to leave a comment below if you have other thoughts! It may be time-consuming and frustrating to be a beginner again in a new field. However, if you are determined to dive into astrophysics, learning the fundamentals is the most important. In the meantime, you will become multidisciplinary: your old engineering tricks may be the seed for the next innovation in astronomy.

Looking for opportunities

It is important to keep in mind that enrolling in graduate school in the United States or Europe is usually very expensive — but don’t be discouraged by that, just be aware. Developing countries such as India, South Africa, Mexico, Chile and Brazil (links are in the local language), on the other hand, are in need of young aspiring professionals (both in astrophysics and astronomical instrumentation), and they have all kinds of scholarships, top-quality tuition-less universities and astronomical institutes with training positions. The only caveat is that you may be required to learn the local language in order to live outside the campus. Other developed countries, such as Australia and Japan, are great places to look for astronomy programs and scholarships for foreigners.

It is extremely helpful to keep some departments of interest in your radar. You could try to find a mentor, a more experienced astronomer — maybe a local professor — who is willing to advise a budding professional and who could put you in contact with other institutions, researchers and training opportunities.

Summary

If you are an engineer and are interested in transitioning to astronomy or astrophysics, there are various ways to do it: going to instrumentation is more straight-forward, while going to the academic path will require some preparation. Additionally, studying in top universities in North America or Europe does not give you an instant pass to success: much of it will come from pure luck and your efforts. Whatever your choice, keep in mind that experience is a key point, and you should try to grab every good opportunity that opens in your way, even if that means leaving your field.

Info on the contributing authors of this astrobite

  • Leonardo dos Santos — background: geotechnics and civil engineering, 2 years of physics BSc and 1 year of exchange studies in astronomy BSc; contact: @RogueAstro on Twitter
  • Gourav Khullar — background: engineering physics, Master’s degree in astronomy; contact: @gouravk04 on Twitter
  • Benny Tsang — background: finished one year of civil engineering in college before switching to physics/astrophysics; contact: bthtsang /at\ astro.as.utexas.edu

About Astrobites

This post was written collectively by multiple members of the Astrobites team. Meet the authors of Astrobites.

2 Comments

  1. Hello. Very well written. I am myself a mechanical engg. in India who went for PhD in astrophyscis. I got enrolled by a mix of the 2nd and 3rd pathways mentioned in your post.

    Reply
    • I live in pakistan and I have just passed 12 grade I am ready for graduation in space science but the institute is Ist in the capital and i dont know if its good and also i worry about my career as an astronomer what should i do kindly help should i go abroad .

      Reply

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