Guest Post: Astronomy and Me - Christopher

Christopher - say hi on Twitter: @jooldesign
[No, we're not related...]
Christopher's another twitter contact with a passion for spacey stuff. He got in touch to ask if I'd like to hear his story: he's attempting to change career in order to spend more time with stars, planets, galaxies, black holes, orbital mechanics, rocket science and the rest of the stuff that makes up the study of our universe. I'm glad he did.

My name is Christopher. I'm a web software engineer by day and all-round geek by night. I've always had an immense passion for astronomy and the universe, so I wanted to talk about my journey to enrolment on a degree course in Astronomy and why I did it. Perhaps you'll be inspired to do the same…

My story starts at high school when I was taking my A-levels (about 10 years ago). I studied maths, biology, chemistry and physics but dropped maths after the 1st year due to a poor grade at AS level (thats another story!) At A2 level, I continued with the science subjects and met with my physics teacher to discuss what I'd like to do after my A-levels. I expressed my passion for astronomy and suggested I'd like to do an astrophysics degree. His reaction was one of slight mirth as I wasn't an A* student by any stretch of the imagination. He suggested perhaps a less challenging science subject. And so, I turned my back (academically) on astronomy and took up a subject also close to my heart - environmental science.

I studied Environmental Science at Portsmouth University, but was disappointed with the first year. As students came from mixed backgrounds, some had studied biology or chemistry or physics at A-level but not all three. So, much of the first year was dedicated to getting all students up to a similar level in each of these subjects. I didn't much like going over the same ground twice, and the second year solidified my thoughts on the course - that it just wasn't right for me. So I dropped out part way through the second year.

After leaving the course I struggled to find a job for a while, so in my spare time I taught myself how to build websites. I built in confidence and skills and passed from job to job, increasing my skills as I went for 5 or 6 years, up to the point where I find myself now: Technical Director of a web-based company in Stoke-on-Trent.

As a student I messed about a lot. I loved science, but loved messing about too, so this reflected in my grades. Now, 10 years later, I would describe myself as much more mature than I was and much more focussed. I'm able to pick up new concepts and build on them. I bought a telescope earlier this year and it has really re-kindled my love for astronomy. I felt that with my new focus I would perhaps even be able to go back 10 years and make the decision I could have made back then: to do a degree in astrophysics.

But, there's a problem. Most astrophysics degree courses only take on a small number of people and require fairly good grades. I didn't have those grades. Another problem was that I didn't want to leave employment so I was going to be restricted to distance learning courses.

After much research, I found that UCLAN (the University of Central Lancashire) was offering a distance learning degree course in astronomy to anyone with a good grasp of Maths. This seemed perfect. I could take a couple of modules per year and spread my study across up to 12 years if I wanted. The course is recognised by the IoP (Institute of Physics) and endorsed by the Royal Astronomical Society. I was so glad to have found this course, as I wondered if I would ever be able to study my passion for astronomy without good A-level grades. The degree probably isn't as rigorous as an astrophysics degree, but there are modules that cover some pretty hairy maths and physics - the kind of stuff I really want to get my teeth into.

So, I applied and I'm now enrolled onto my first two modules - 'Astronomy' and 'Cosmology', each of which are classed as university certificates in their own right if you didn't want to continue with a full degree. I start in October 2012 and I haven't been so excited in a long time.

Now I'm enrolled, it has got me thinking about my future and where I might find myself in 10 - 15 years time. I think I would like to change careers once I have the skills behind me. With such a long period of time with which to study via distance learning, I can begin a very slow transition into a new career in Astronomy without the upheaval of full-time study and leaving what I do now. What I know about computers and programming would also certainly be useful in the field of Astronomy. I guess the sky's the limit (or perhaps further - the heavens!)

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