Case study: Samantha Penny

A British astronomer finds Australia to be the ideal location for pursuing an academic career.

Samantha Penny

Age: 29
Postdoctoral Fellow
Employer: Monash School of Physics at Monash University
PhD from the University of Nottingham

My background is in observational astronomy. My research interests are galaxy evolution and environment, dwarf galaxies, and ultra-compact dwarfs. I obtained an MPhys in Physics with Astronomy from Cardiff University in 2006, and a PhD from the University of Nottingham in 2010.

I then took up a six month Endeavour Award Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Centre for Astronomy and Supercomputing at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne Australia. I am currently an Australian Research Council Super Science Postdoctoral Fellow (research fellow) at the Monash Centre for Astrophysics at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

I looked at various locations for my postdoctoral work, including institutions in the UK, USA, and Europe. Job options in the UK were somewhat limited for my career stage due to the Science and Technology Facilities Council funding crisis, which lead me to look abroad for postdocs.

I was particularly interested in getting an early career fellowship to provide me with more freedom and independence in my research. I utilised the American Astronomical Society Job Register when looking for job openings, as this is the most comprehensive list of worldwide postdoctoral positions.

Australia was particularly appealing, with a number of strong research groups throughout the country, and a good selection of facilities to assist with my research (i.e. telescopes). Australia is also an exciting location for astronomy research at the moment, with new facilities such as the Australian Square-Kilometre Array Pathfinder radio telescope now coming online, and part of that telescope will eventually be built here.

Australia also has many world-leading astronomers and research groups, which made it my top choice when selecting a place to work. Settling into life in Australia was relatively straightforward. The culture is not that much different to that in the UK, though it is definitely more relaxed. Australia has a large number of immigrants from the UK in particular, and you can even set up your bank account before you arrive.

The higher cost of living was a surprise though, with Melbourne currently ranked as one of the world’s most expensive cities. And the large time difference can make talking to friends and family back in the UK difficult.

Astronomy is an international area of physics research, with collaborations typically spanning multiple countries and continents. When searching for postdoctoral research positions, it  is important for physicists to find the best group to match their research interests, which may be in another country.

Observatories are also located around the world, many of which still offer classical time where the astronomer has to visit the telescope to obtain their data – this has allowed me to carry out observations not only at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia, but also at observatories in Chile, Arizona and Hawaii. I typically attend one or two international conferences per year, as well as visiting my overseas collaborators.