Introduction to the PhD for Physics or Astronomy students

It’s the time of year when final-year students start to think about the possibility of doing a PhD after they have graduated, so I I thought I’d jot down here a few general remarks that might be useful to people who are thinking of taking the plunge. I’ve posted on such matters before, but this is something that comes around every year so I hope you’ll excuse the repeat. 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.

Here are some of the slides I used for a talk on such matters a year or so ago, which you might find useful.

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…

12 Responses to “Introduction to the PhD for Physics or Astronomy students”

  1. in your new role – shouldn’t you be plugging the sussex taught MSc?

  2. For the sake of comparison, the stipend of £13,590 works out roughly as the same income as a salary of £20,500 after tax.

    • telescoper Says:


      • Especially when you add in teaching pay that (unless you devote yourself to it) won’t put you over the income threshold to be taxed.

    • John Peacock Says:

      I think this is a conservative comparison. PhD students are exempt from council tax, and most of them routinely supplement their stipend with 1-2k of paid tutoring. Now take a new junior postdoc on (say) a salary of £29k: by the time they have paid pension contributions on top of income tax and council tax, they will have hardly any more spare cash to spend than a PhD student. I don’t think this is right.

  3. You mention the viva voce. But didn’t you mention in another post that that has been done away with? Or was it done away with only at some places?

  4. Probably the most important thing is in the slides but not in the post proper, namely the “steady state”. Like President Eisenhower being shocked when he learned that fully half of US citizens have an IQ below the mean, this is something which should be obvious but is not to many people. There are also at least some supervisors who are happy to have the “cheap labour” of a doctoral student and thus downplay the dismal long-term prospects. I wouldn’t see this as a reason not to do doctoral work, though, but perhaps one to avoid doing post-doctoral work. A doctoral degree is indeed good preparation for many other lines of work (even if in some cases people are interested just in the title), but a string of postdocs is not.

  5. I am a 70-year-old who’s had a lifetime career in software engineering and substantial experience in problem-solving and line management (to executive level), nearing completion of an Open University BSc (Hons) in theoretical physics, but with no other major academic qualifications. At my age exams are a problem, so my degree classification is unlikely to be outstanding. I want to do formal research in astrophysical thermodynamics, which I have already started on my own account, the provisional early findings of which I believe to be important. In my case the stipend could be negotiably less than standard. I am open-minded about the form of the qualification outcome, as long as there is one. I should add that I have 5 years experience as a University lecturer in software engineering.
    Any advice about how best to pursue a suitable research attachment would be much appreciated.

    • If you are 70, why do you need a stipend? Do you have no retirement income?

      If you are doing something worth doing, it should be possible to work as a guest somewhere, with no salary of any sort. It is much easier for an institute to take on someone without salary than with salary.

    • It is possible to get more money from your university if you have unusual circumstances. I asked my uni for more money because I have a child and a house to pay for as I am a bit older than the average PhD student and they awarded me an extra £3000 a year on top of my STFC funding.

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