A letter to year 12 students from Australia’s favourite astrophysicist*

Please login to favourite this article.

Alan Duffy

Associate Professor Alan Duffy is an astronomer and physicist at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne. He’s also lead scientist for Australia’s Science Channel. You can find him on Twitter @astroduff.

Astrophysicist and TV star Alan Duffy talks about having all the answers to your future and how it’s actually okay to not have any.


Knowing what you want to be, the career to have and the path to follow is not something many of us are lucky enough to experience. Even now, having reached my dream as an astronomer at a top university in one of the most liveable cities on Earth I can’t pretend that I got here by design. Hard work, lots of luck and also being open to opportunities all factored in. So take my advice with a grain of salt as I’m not really sure how I did what I’ve done, and certainly have no more idea of where to go with my future than you do with yours now most likely.

I only want to suggest one, and only one, lesson that you might consider learning and that is; it’s okay to not have all the answers about your future, it’s actually okay to not have any!

You might be getting pressured into making some big life choices by friends, family or authority figures in your life, but it’s honestly okay to say to yourself I don’t know what to do.

If that’s the only lesson, then the rest of these can be seen more as guiding principles that have served me well in my life and might be of help to yours.


Travel. If you can do something here, or you can do the same thing there then always choose the option that lets you travel. You see new ways of working, thinking and interacting. Being exposed to different groups and cultures made me a better, more considerate person, as well as more confident as I had survived certain challenges (such as learning physics in Dutch when you don’t speak that language initially!) and knew I could do so in future too.

I don’t come from a wealthy family so my travel has always been a part of my work and education, such as selecting a university that funded a study abroad year as part of the degree. Make sure to ask your future employer/educator what they have in terms of travel opportunities and external work placements.


Open. By which I mean, open to new possibilities or opportunities. It’s different from a guiding principle of always ‘saying yes’ as there are many things in life that you might do well to say no too. It just means, don’t let your first reaction be to disregard something initially, especially when it’s unexpected or intimidating because you feel you’re not ready. My first time on TV was to discuss a new book by my hero (and main reason I am in astronomy) Prof Stephen Hawking. It was unexpected, I’d had little/no TV training, but I said yes. Fortunately it was delayed by a few days meaning I had a chance to work hard practicing interview questions and answers with friends. It was still one of the worst TV interviews I’ve ever given and I could barely hear the interviewer over my racing heartbeat but I gave it a go, and someone noticed, and now I have been on TV hundreds of times since.


Practice. That last boast about being on TV hundreds of times? If it’s a new topic or show I still practice. If it’s a seminar or public lecture about my research then I doubly want to convey it as clearly and enjoyably as I can, so I practice it fully at least three times. So make sure you do too. The more you practice, the less nervous you will be. When you are trying to learn a new technique (be it mechanical or mathematical) you will only do so by practicing it. The more real the practice opportunity, the more you will gain from it so try to have an audience or at least critically assess your work after. You’ll also find you enjoy this strange opportunity that presented itself to you all the more.


These three guiding principles of trying to travel, being open to new opportunities and ensuring you work hard practicing whatever it is that you do, will ensure that the one lesson I shared about it being fine to not know exactly what you want to do as you will find your future path as you live it in the present. And maybe you’ll discover yourself on a distant island far from your land of birth too.


* Definitely top three

Sign up and subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter to get the latest education resources and career information straight to your inbox.