Thinking of Applying for a PhD in Physics or Astronomy?

This afternoon I gave a short talk to our final-year students about postgraduate research in which I passed on some, hopefully useful,  information about how to go about applying for PhDs  in Physics  and Astronomy. I am, for my sins, the Director of Postgraduate Studies within the School of Physics & Astronomy here at Cardiff University.

Although quite a lot of what I talked about was about our own arrangements in Cardiff, I thought I’d jot down here a few general remarks that might be useful to people elsewhere who are thinking of taking the plunge when they graduate. I’m aiming this primarily at UK students applying for places in the UK; special considerations apply for students wanting to do graduate research abroad.

What is a PhD? The answer to that is relatively easy; it’s a postgraduate research degree. In order to obtain a PhD you have to present a thesis like that shown on the left (which happens to be mine, vintage 1988), typically in the range 100-250  pages long. A thesis has to satisfy two conditions for the award of the degree: it should contain original research, which is publishable in an academic journal; and it should present a coherent discussion of that original work within the context of ongoing work in the area of study. In Physics & Astronomy, the PhD is pretty much a prerequisite for any career in academic research, and it usually takes between 3 and 4 years to complete. After submission of the thesis you will have to undergo a viva voce examination conducted by two examiners, one internal and one external. This is quite a tough test, which  can last anywhere between about 2 and about 6 hours, during which you can be asked  detailed questions about your research and wide-ranging questions about the general area.

The Money Side. In the UK most PhDs are supported financially by the research councils, either EPSRC (most physics) or STFC (nuclear & particle physics, astronomy). These generally award quotas of studentships to departments who distribute them to students they admit. A studentship will cover your fees and pay a stipend, currently £13590 pa. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but you should at least remember that it is a stipend rather than a wage; it is therefore not taxed and there is no national insurance payable.

How do I choose a PhD? During the course of a postgraduate degree you are expected to become an expert in the area in which you specialize. In particular you should reach the point where you know more about that specific topic than your supervisor does. You will therefore have to work quite a lot on your own, which means you need determination, stamina and enthusiasm. In my view the most important criterion in your choice of PhD is not the institution where you might study but the project. You need to be genuinely excited by the topic in order to drive yourself to keep through the frustrations (of which there will be many). So, find an area that interests you and find the departments that do active research in that area by looking on the web. Check out the recent publications by staff in each department, to ensure that they are active and to have something to talk about at interview!

Qualifications. Most universities have a formal requirement that candidates for admission to the PhD should have a “good honours degree”, which basically means at least an Upper Second Class Honours degree. Some areas are more competitive than others, however, and in many disciplines you will find you are competing with a great many applicants with First Class degrees.

How to apply successfully. The application procedure at most universities is quite simple and can be done online. You will need to say something about the area in which you wish to do research (e.g. experiment/theory, and particular field, e.g. cosmology or star formation). You’ll also need a CV and a couple of references. Given the competition, it’s essential that you prepare. Give your curriculum vitae some attention, and get other people (e.g. your personal tutor) to help you improve it. It’s worth emphasizing particular skills (e.g. computing). If you get the chance, make use of your summer vacations by taking on an internship or other opportunity to get a taste of research; things like that will undoubtedly give your CV an edge.

The Interview. Good applicants will be invited for an interview, which is primarily to assess whether you have the necessary skills and determination, but also to match applicants to projects and supervisors. Prepare for your interview! You will almost certainly be asked to talk about your final-year project, so it will come across very badly if you’re not ready when they ask you. Most importantly, mug up about your chosen field. You will look really silly if you haven’t the vaguest idea of what’s going on in the area you claimed to be interested in when you wrote your  application!

Don’t be shy! There’s nothing at all wrong with being pro-active about this process. Contact academic staff at other universities by email and ask them about research, PhD opportunities. That will make a good impression. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Although we’re all keen to recruit good PhD students for our own departments, we academics are  conscious that it is also our job to give impartial advice. Ask your tutor’s opinion.

How many places should I apply for? Some research areas are more fashionable than others so the level of competition varies with field. As a general rule I would advise applying for about half-a-dozen places, chosen because they offer research in the right area. Apply to fewer than that and you might lose out to the competition. Apply to many more and you might not have time to attend the interviews.

What’s the timetable?  Most applications come in early in the new year for entry to the PhD in the following October. The Christmas break is therefore a pretty good time to get your applications sorted out. Interviews are normally held in February or March, and decisions made by late March. STFC runs a deadline system whereby departments can not force students to accept or decline offers before the end of March, so there should be ample time to visit all your prospective departments before having to make any decisions.

That’s all I can think of for now. I hope at least some of these comments are useful to undergraduates anywhere in the UK thinking of applying for a PhD. If there are any further questions, please feel free to ask through the comments box. Likewise if I’ve missed anything important, please feel free to suggest additions in the same manner…

14 Responses to “Thinking of Applying for a PhD in Physics or Astronomy?”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    One issue I knew absolutely nothing about as an undergraduate was the possibility of working for a PhD overseas. I really wish that I had known that it is possible to get funding to study at some institutions abroad. I had assumed that funding would not be available and applied only to British institutions, to my great regret now.

    One issue that Peter did not mention in detail in the article above is that of academic careers, and how very difficult it is to achieve one because of the extremely small number compared to the number of people who are awarded PhDs. Anyone embarking on PhD study in the United Kingdom should expect not to achieve an academic career, however talented they are, because the odds are stacked very heavily against them. It is important that people are told this explicitly at the outset.

    • I understand undergraduate degrees now publish employment statistics.

      Perhaps (all) the Research Councils could do the same for PhD students, and departments advertise these to prospective students so an informed choice is made as to where the PhD will lead them?

      I was told there would be lots of academic jobs in the UK in the near future when I applied for PhD places many years ago, and it has not turned out to be the case at all (though thats not to say I would have made a different decision, necessarily, but a more informed one certainly).

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      The United Kingdom research councils do collate statistics about future career destinations of the people they provide with PhD studentships. However, they usually only ask university departments about the careers followed by individuals, and do so for only up to 10 years after the end of the studentship. Departments commonly lose touch with former students and cannot provide information about many. The 10 year period is too short to record the end of the research careers of many postdocs.

      The result of all this is that the statistics about future career destinations tend to be very inaccurate and fail to reflect the extent of the research careers crisis.

      There has been an expansion in the numbers of academic lecturing posts in British universities over the past decade, partly reflecting the increase in the number of students and in the number of universities. The growth in basic science has been less than in some fluffy subjects. However, any increase in the number of permanent lecturing positions has been more than offset by an increase in the number of PhD studentships, particularly by PPARC and the STFC, feeding the extreme imbalance between newly qualified PhDs and permanent positions.

      I fear that many academics try to sell PhD study to undergraduates without talking sufficiently about careers issues. Academics need a supply of good candidates to support their work.

      • telescoper Says:

        I don’t think the lack of academic jobs is a reason not to do a PhD. It’s always been competitive and as long as students know the odds they should be prepared to go for it; the PhD opens other doors than academic ones. It is, however, a good reason to improve careers advice for PhD students generally.

        I do think we overproduce PhDs, and what we should have is more taught Masters programmes and fewer research degrees. I’ve said so in numerous posts, but that’s no reason for current students to ignore the possibilities that exist now.

      • Yes, I agree with Peter’s comment. People should choose to do research for a PhD because of a deep interest in a subject, and certainly not because of any interest in a research or academic career. That was the reason I decided to apply for a PhD position many years ago, alongside a desire to learn about a subject in depth (admittedly I ended up doing PhD research in a field I disliked, but that is beside the point here).

        I used to give a similar talk to Peter’s as part of a research methods module I taught to master’s students. My points were pretty similar to his.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        There was a story in the Bristol physics department years ago about a physics PhD unable to find work eventually accepting a job as a bin man – empyting rubbish bins and loading domestic refuse into a lorry. He was asked by his colleagues in the new job what he had done previously, and explained that he had been a postgraduate student studying for a PhD. The colleague then explained that he too had a PhD, as indeed did the other two members of the lorry’s crew.

        The people telling this story claimed it was true. It was reputed to have happened in the late 1970s or 1980s.

  2. Of course, NERC also funds PhDs in many areas of physics (as well as in the study of creepy crawly things living under stones).
    My main advice to potential PhD students is to really investigate the department being considered – in my experience some are well organised and give their students a good experience, and some give their students a much less satisfactory time. Contact time, supervision approaches, pastoral arrangements etc are all important. A PhD is probably the loneliest part of a career, academic or real world – whereas at most other stages one works as part of a team, a PhD student is much more isolated – so it is important to choose somewhere which feels comfortable.

  3. To add to Bryn’s comment, its essential that the PhD student knows from the offset that the chances of continuing in the field are slim. I realise that this can appear to be overly negative but it gives the student a clear picture of the challenges ahead should they seek an academic career as well as reminding them of the importance of picking up transferable skills during the PhD.

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    I used to give a talk on PhDs as part of a research methods in astronomy module for MSc students. I’ll try copying and pasting the text from my old computer presentation – it will probably display poorly, but hopefully it will be intelligible. This may help a few people.

    I should emphasise that this applies to astronomy specifically, rather than physics. It is all a few years out of date, so the figures no longer apply. PPARC was the old research council that funded astronomy, space and particle physics.


    PhD – Doctor of Philosophy degree
    Philosophiae Doctor (=D.Phil.)

    Requires research study for 3 years in a
    university / research institute
    – as a research student performing original
    research in a field
    – typically takes 3 – 3.5 years in practice
    – requires hard work, lots of dedication, lots
    of perseverance

    PhD students are supported by studentships

    Research Councils provide reasonably large
    number of PhD studentships

    PPARC funded 80 – 90 new studentships in
    astronomy in 2005-2006

    STFC provides £12600 per year tax free for
    3 years – for UK (limited EU) citizens

    Limited number of studentships also funded by

    What PhD students do
    Work hard for 3 – 4 years
    for > 40 hours a week for c. 46 weeks a year
    Carry out detailed research work using computing
    facilities, data, libraries, sometimes national/
    international facilities
    Attend regular seminars and lectures in own
    May attend a few meetings/conferences,
    go observing
    Give talks – journal clubs, meetings
    Can supplement income by marking /
    demonstrating (undergraduate teaching)
    Write a detailed thesis, c. 40 000 words long
    Be examined in a viva examination (oral)
    Need to try to finish in 3 years, certainly within
    4 years – so pressure to get results and

    How to get a PhD studentship

    People with 1st class and good 2nd class MSci
    degrees are often able to get studentships
    (UK citizens in UK)
    Choose your broad subject of interest
    Apply to several universities with a good
    reputation in those broad areas
    If possible, try to choose a PhD supervisor who
    has a good publishing record and good
    record of students being awarded PhDs
    List of UK university departments at R.A.S.
    website: > Education >
    Information for University Students >
    Postgraduate opportunities
    [This is now here]
    Think about international applications

    General skills developed during PhD study:

    Problem solving / analytical abilities
    How to learn quickly and teach yourself
    High level mathematical skills in a practical sense
    Computing skills, including programming and
    software development
    Organisational skills

    Career opportunities for people with PhDs

    Applied science / technology in industry
    Computing / IT
    General graduate employment
    Research in basic science


    Career progress in astronomy

    Need to succeed in research
    – publish lots of refereed research papers (of
    reasonable quality – number important)
    – develop reputation and visibility to community
    e.g. at conferences

    Advanced Fellowships (STFC) / Royal Society
    University Research Fellowships
    – 5 year positions, limited in number, very
    competitive, need patronage of university
    department to apply
    – give complete freedom to researcher to
    choose research paths after award
    – give opportunity to take lead in research

    – very limited in number
    – permanent (until retirement)
    – give stability for research leadership
    – lots of teaching and administration (difficult
    to balance research / teaching / admin)

    Pyramid structure in astronomy (in UK)

    A majority of people gaining employment in UK
    astronomical research at some level will leave
    and pursue careers in other areas

    Situation more relaxed in some other countries,
    but difficult in most countries

    To get a permanent position in astronomy you
    – to publish lots of papers
    – to be good at research / intelligent
    – to have some degree of luck (e.g. patronage
    of established researcher, a lucky break,
    stability to continue in the same field)

  5. Madhu Kashyap Says:

    I am an Indian student.Thinking of applying for phd in Astronomy.
    But ,Is there any possibility of me getting a studentship which covers the Phd fees and my living expenditure?

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, it is possible to get a studentship (which will pay the fees and provide living expenses).

      In practice, the number of studentships available to international students is smaller than the number available to domestic students in most countries. However, they do exist and you should contact PhD admission tutors in the university departments you are interested in.

      I am more familiar with what happens in Britain than in other countries. The United Kingdom research councils fund most PhD studentships and these studentships are usually available only to domestic students. However, there are often some other PhD studentships funded from other sources, such as university or departmental money. These rules are usually much less restrictive.

      So contact admissions students in departments you are interested in and ask them about studentships.

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