Dreaming of Astrophysics

For as long as I can remember, I have had a keen interest in the night sky. On clear nights, I would marvel at the moon, the stars and their constellations, and the notion that there are more stars in the sky than there are grains of sand on Earth's beaches. 


As much as I would love to be able to say I've always wanted to be an astrophysicist, this hasn't always been a burning passion. It was more of a fleeting interest that would ignite from time to time. My first big dream was to play in a popular band and earn a living from making music. That then led to studying music technology and hoping to make a career out of producing music. Alas, that never happened, and I ended up working full time in contact centres for the majority of my adult life.  


I certainly wasn't one for reading lots of books, and most of my knowledge on astronomy had come from my dad. We would spend evenings in the beer garden at our local pub, looking up, with him telling me about the constellations and the planets that he could name in the sky. In those brief moments, I would feel a sense of wonder.  


"It was a fantastic introduction to the world of cosmology, and I was only getting hungry for more."


Fast-forward a few years, and I had begun studying in my free time. I had no intention of returning to higher education and was just learning about astronomy and the solar system as a personal interest. However, the more I learned, the more excited and passionate I became about it all. 


I found as many free courses on the topic of space as I could and started working through them. There were courses on the Sun, the Moon, physics and classical mechanics, and mathematics, to name but a few. But there was one course in particular that really sparked my passion for studying astrophysics: Astronomy with an Online Telescope. 


This course gave me online access to an observatory telescope in Tenerife, which I could use to take images of cosmological objects in our night sky. I learned all about Messier objects, the movement of constellations and planets, and even the concept of stellar brightness and luminosity. It was a fantastic introduction to the world of cosmology, and I was only getting hungry for more.


"If I’m completely honest, I wasn’t greatly confident that my best was going to be enough..."


The next stage in my journey, while exciting, resulted in a minor set-back, which could have easily discouraged me from sticking with it. I had reached the point where physics and astronomy were such a big passion that I wanted to make a career out of it and contribute to the field directly. 


I applied to five different universities to study physics: The University of Strathclyde, The University of Glasgow, The University of St Andrews, Birmingham University, and The University of Manchester. Although I live in Scotland, I included English universities to give myself the best chance of receiving an offer (and I picked Manchester because that’s where Prof Brian Cox lectures, and that would have been so cool.) 


I was so excited about the prospect of going to university that when the rejections started coming in from each application, I was getting increasingly disheartened. Until Strathclyde came back with a conditional offer. The only condition was that I had to pass their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Summer School with at least 70% in both the Mathematics and Physics courses.  


When I started the summer school, I was like a kid in a sweet shop. I hadn’t done anything with maths or physics in a formal, educational setting since I was in my fourth year in high school, so getting to grips with everything again was just the challenge that I had been craving. Thankfully, I had already covered a lot of the basics again in the free courses that I completed in my free time, so I wasn’t jumping into anything too difficult. However, it slowly dawned on me that the STEM Summer School was only six weeks long, and I had to master a lot of concepts and techniques in this brief period. The courses were also completely online (due to the restrictions from the pandemic) and the learning was almost entirely self-led. 


I did my best with my time and completed all required exercises, revision activities, and assessments. If I’m completely honest, I wasn’t greatly confident that my best was going to be enough, but I was happy with the effort that I put in, considering my experience and the limited time available to me. 


"I won’t lie, I spent a lot of time over the next few days feeling sorry for myself."


As my conditional offer was dependent on my results from the STEM Summer School courses, the assessments were to be graded quickly. This was at least a relief, as it meant that I only had to wait a week to know whether I met the conditions for entry to the degree. Alas, when I received my results a week later, it was a bittersweet moment. While I had passed physics with 75% on the final assessments, I had failed miserably on the mathematics exam. I got 33%. 


This crushed me, as it meant that I had not fulfilled my conditions for starting a physics degree. I just happened to be on holiday when I received the grades, so I tried to put it out of my mind while I relaxed. But that was a lot harder than it sounds. I couldn’t believe I wouldn’t be going to university because of one bad result.  


I won’t lie, I spent a lot of time over the next few days feeling sorry for myself. I felt stupid for not being able to pass an entry level exam. But that didn’t last long. After I picked myself up and dusted myself off, I figured that all I needed to do was get some maths qualifications. I looked online at Scottish Higher mathematics courses, applied right away, and got into a night class at college. I’ll spare you the gruelling details of doing a higher maths class online every Monday and Wednesday. There really isn’t much to tell anyway. Long story short, I barely scraped a pass on the final exam, which still wasn’t enough to get into the degree. 


"...you can’t have the good without the bad, and here’s where things get better."


Now, I know what you must be thinking: damn, this dude is so negative. Well, you can’t have the good without the bad, and here’s where things get better. I didn’t waste any time after getting the results of my higher maths exam. I immediately called a careers advisor and made an appointment to see what my options were. 


The interview initially felt quite strange. The advisor was asking me lots of questions that made it seem like he was trying to discourage me from a career in physics (which one might feel is understandable, given my string of failures up to this point). But once I relaxed into the situation and was able to give confident answers, his attitude seemed to change. 


He recommended that I apply for an access course through SWAP (the Scottish Wider Access Program). He even said that he would talk to the director of SWAP and recommend me for a spot on a course. It was at this point that I decided to apply for the Access to STEM course through SWAP. My application was accepted, and within a couple of weeks I was at college, studying maths, physics, and chemistry.  


The Access to STEM course was a fantastic experience for me. It was the first time in 12 years that I had been in a formal education setting, and I was able to study alongside other students. Having that experience was absolutely priceless, and I will never forget it. In terms of the classes, we started from the basics and worked our way up. That is, after all, the goal of an access course: to get a student from the point of having no knowledge of a subject, to being ready for university. 


I feel that many in my situation might have become complacent in the same situation, but I didn’t. I got my head down and did all of the work as if I was learning it for the first time. I was determined to do this properly, and I wanted to get the best grades that I possibly could. Well, I did just that, and I ended up being recommended for a triple A on my student profile (although there was industrial action taking place at the time, and that meant that my grades would not be officially submitted before the end of term). 


"...it was an incredible experience for me. Five years ago, I would have told you that I would never get to experience university life."


Even though I got impressive results on the access course, Strathclyde (my firm choice of university) was still asking for a pass at the STEM Summer School, as a condition of entry to the physics degree (except this time around I only needed to pass maths). I joined the summer school again, this time a lot more confident in my mathematical abilities. 


I had hoped that it would at least be slightly different from two years prior, but the material was exactly the same. The real difference was that I got to actually experience life on campus. I got to explore several buildings and attend classes at the university. I know it seems like such a simple thing, but it was an incredible experience for me. Five years ago, I would have told you that I would never get to experience university life.


Anyway, I did the maths assessments (getting 90% on the mini, end-of-topic assessments), and I feel confident that I’ve done enough to get at least 70% on the final exam. All that remains is for me to get my grade, which will be on Friday 28 July. There is still a chance that I screwed up on the exam, but I feel like I’ve done it this time. I feel it in my bones. I have to keep reminding myself that I can’t get too worked up about it, as getting my hopes up could set me up for another heartbreak. But then there’s nothing wrong with having confidence in yourself.  


There we have it. We’re all up-to-date and in the present time. Now that you’re up to scratch on my journey so far, I hope you’ll be able to appreciate what’s to come even more. There is a lot I’ve left out, like my work with the telescope, the struggles I had with specific topics in maths, etc. But this post is already exceedingly long, so maybe I’ll write specifically about those things soon.

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