Still Thinking of Applying for a PhD Place in Physics or Astronomy?


Last term I gave a short talk to interested students within the School of Physics & Astronomy here at Cardiff University about postgraduate research in which I aimed to pass on some, hopefully useful,  information about how to go about applying for PhDs  in Physics  and Astronomy. Since the time is rapidly approaching when applications need to be sent in, I thought I’d repeat 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 £14296 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. There is a fee (currently £4121) payable for a PhD course, but that only comes into play if you are planning to fund yourself. If you receive a studentship it will normally cover the fee as an additional component. What I mean by that is you don’t need to pay it out of the stipend, it is separate. In top of that, research council funding also supplies a Research Training Grant which covers, e.g., travel and small items of equipment so you don’t need to pay for those out of your stipend either.

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 September/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…

5 Responses to “Still Thinking of Applying for a PhD Place in Physics or Astronomy?”

  1. Hi, this is a very informative post, thank you for it. I have a question.

    If getting a high enough grade to be accepted for a PhD turns out to be a serious challenge, would it make more sense to not do a PhD at all, for risk of burning yourself out?

    Of course, PhDs are challenging for (probably) everyone, but other people who are far better at physics than I am struggle so much in their PhD, that it makes me think that even if I get a first (which for me is achievable but far more of a challenge than for other people), I might not have the ability to do it at all.

    • The answer depends on what you want the doctoral degree for. It physics is difficult now, then even with a degree you can forget a career in research. A degree might still be useful for getting a job elsewhere, though if physics is already difficult, presumably you could get a job only where someone likes the title “Dr.” and cares little about what your abilities are. Do you really want to work there? Of course, if it is for your own edification, then why not?

    • I only scraped a first, whilst most of my contemporaries got one more easily (from what I can tell). It didn’t stop me from getting a PhD (or even make it especially difficult to do so), so I don’t think its a barrier.

      Also bear in mind a PhD is nothing like a first degree because its 100% research projects (except at the start when you may take some lecture courses for background knowledge), so maybe also think about how easy you found your final year research projects.
      I think in my case I did not find them hard, but it was more it just took more work for me to understand some new (to me) piece of physics than people with sharper minds than me. So as long as I was prepared to work hard, I could understand everything someone else could, though I was not as good at solving the problems in exams as the very top students.

      Finally its only 3-4 years, so even if you decide its not for you then you would still be able to go and do something else (most of the PhD students in the group I work in do not go onto postdoctoral roles, and instead take jobs in industry in all kinds of areas which use their physics, statistics and programming skills).

  2. Cesar Uliana Says:

    Hi Peter,

    if I could suggest one addition that many seem to omit, while a PhD is a prerequisite for an academical career, it is a simple numerical fact that most PhD holders will eventually leave for the private sector, and it is important that undergraduates understand that there is a chance that once they get their PhD there will be no available further positions, specially in the current political climate. And that even if post-doc positions are available that would probably entail moving from country to country a couple of times, which might be a challenge for partners and family, although many seem to do fine.

    Summarizing, probably the PhD will be the end of it inside academia, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as a matter of fact many could find the post-doc lifestyle not to be worthwhile. But since a career in the private sector is a distinct possibility maybe they should take this in consideration when choosing areas. If I were to counsel anyone entering today I’ll suggest something that does a least a bit of programming and/or statistical analysis. Hopefully we all love physics as a whole and can find a subject we like where this skills will be used, although some areas do have a better PR department than others.

    Sorry for the long comment

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