Part-time work

Studying in one of the most expensive cities in the world is one factor that affects people’s decision to study at Imperial College. Rest assured it can be done, but particularly for students like myself who are undertaking a one year master’s course, the different funding options means that money can sometimes get tight. An upside of the course though, is its flexibility in allowing its students to have part-time jobs. Indeed, most students from the Science Communication Unit have part-time jobs, myself included.

I have previously mentioned my job as an Observatory Explainer at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, but have not delved into many details. To give you a flavour of what part-time jobs are available around London, I thought I’d share what a typical shift at the Observatory looks like.


09:30 No weekend lie-in for me as I have to leave plenty of time to travel across London to get to Greenwich. Although the journey is sometimes a pain, especially the steep hill climb at the end, the view is definitely worth it!

10:45 Along with the other Observatory Explainers we need to set up the first of the two activities that happen at the weekend. In the Astronomy Centre we run the ‘Young Astronomer’s Workshop’ where families visit and take part in a variety of creative activities. We have to lay out the materials and prepare for the influx of people!

11:00 Over at the historic Royal Observatory site is ‘Observatory Unlocked’, where we deliver interactive talks and demonstrations for visitors to participate in. During the winter, we set up camp in the Octagon room, one of the original buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the late-1600s. Inside we demonstrate how to use instruments such as sextants and also talk about how the mapping of planets, like Mars, has evolved.

However, now that some sunnier weather has appeared we are outside in the courtyard doing some solar observing. First, we have to set up the personal solar telescopes on tripods and position them to face the sun. Next, we have to pray that the clouds stay at bay as we help visitors look through the telescope and see the sun.

12:00 Every visitor is incredibly excited when they get to view the sun through the telescope, particularly if any solar activity is present, such as sun spots. Part of our job is also to communicate this phenomena to guests and engage in conversations with them. This does require a lot of thinking on your feet but the visitors are very engaged in the topics and I find I learn a lot from them as well!

13:00 As well as being able to answer questions about astronomy we also need to be able to answer questions about the Royal Observatory and its history. A lot of visitors ask about the red time ball drop at 1pm, which was previously used to signal to the sailors on the Thames what the local (Greenwich) time was, so they could adjust their timepieces accordingly before setting sail. Others ask about the world-famous Greenwich Meridian Line, the 0o line of longitude, and some ask about the telescopes which are housed at the Observatory. Below you can see the recently installed Annie Maunder astrographic telescope, so called to recognise the important work of female astronomers at the Observatory, which is currently used to image the Sun and other objects in the sky.

13:15 Back at the Astronomy Centre the morning rush is over but there are still families wanting to learn more about space. We provide several activities for different age groups to do on different themes such as human spaceflight, the planets and currently, stars. These include colouring-in sheets and make-and-do instruments such as planispheres. Our job is to welcome visitors to the workshop, hand out the materials and then provide further assistance whilst they’re getting stuck in. 

14:00 It is always a pleasure to see young children enthused by space and have them ask some quite challenging questions! It is also lovely to see the parents encouraging their children to pursue their interests and extend their knowledge beyond a classroom setting.

14:30 Time to wrap up the activities and tidy away all of the materials. There is a lot going on throughout the week at the Astronomy Centre and the Royal Observatory so we need to make sure everything is put back into place.

14:45 The shift is over but another chance to look at the view! Over the winter we had a later start and end time so sometimes when leaving work I would come out to a lit-up view of London…

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