Archive for graduate studies

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

Posted in Education with tags , , on December 11, 2017 by telescoper

Back in Cardiff at the start of Week 11, the last week of teaching before Christmas, I realise that some final-year undergraduate and Masters students will be using the forthcoming vacation to think about applying for PhD places. As I have done for a few years now, I thought I’d use this opportunity  to pass on some, hopefully useful,  information about how to go about applying for PhDs  in Physics  and Astronomy. 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, including the Irish Republic…

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 £14553 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 £4284) 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…

Research in Modelling Ocean Systems

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 26, 2014 by telescoper

Time to do a favour for an old friend of mine (who was in fact a graduate student at Sussex at the same time as me, back in the 80s, and is an occasional commenter on this blog), Adrian Burd. Adrian moved to the US of A some time ago and now works on Oceanography (that’s Wave Mechanics, I guess..). Anyway, he now has an opportunity for a PhD student which is suitable for a candidate with a background in Mathematics or Physics. Since I’m Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, I thought I’d put the advertisement up on here and see if there are any takers. Looks like an interesting one to me!

GradFlyer

You can download a pdf of the flyer here.

Please direct any queries to Adrian!

Physics and other things that make life worth living…

Posted in Biographical, Education, Jazz, Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on November 24, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday we hosted a seminar by João Magueijo from Imperial College. It was a really interesting talk but the visit also a number of staff and students, including myself, the chance to chat to João about various things. In my case that primarily meant catching up on one another’s news, since we haven’t talked since early summer and a lot has happened since then. Then we had drinks, more drinks, dinner, drinks and then cocktails, finishing about 2am. A fairly standard night out with João, actually.

Among the topics discussed in the course of an increasingly drunken conversation was the fact that physicist Stephon Alexander had recently moved to Dartmouth College, a prestigious Ivy League institution in New Hampshire. I don’t know Stephon very well at all as I don’t really work in the same area as him. In fact, we’ve only ever met once – at a Cosmology School in Morocco (in 1996 or thereabouts); he was a graduate student and I was giving some lectures. On the left you can see a snap of him I took at that time. Can that really have been so long ago?

Anyway, I’ll resist the temptation to bemoan the passage of time and all that and get back to the point which is the connection that formed in my head between Stephon, yesterday’s post about the trials and tribulations facing prospective PhD students, and an older post of mine about  the importance of not forgetting to live a life while you do a PhD.

The point is that although there are many things that may deter or prevent an undergraduate from taking the plunge into graduate studies, one thing shouldn’t put you off and that is the belief that doing a PhD is like joining a monastery in that it requires you to give up a lot of other things and retreat from the outside world. Frankly, that’s bollocks. If I’m permitted to quote myself:

I had plenty of outside interests (including music, sport and nightlife)  and took time out regularly to indulge them. I didn’t – and still don’t – feel any guilt about doing that. I’m not a robot. And neither are you.

In other words, doing a PhD does not require you to give up the things that make life worth living. Actually, if you’re doing a physics PhD then physics itself should be one of the things that make life worth living for you, so I should rephrase that as “giving up any of the other things that make life worth living”.

Having a wide range of experiences and interests to draw on can even help with your research:

In fact, I can think of many times during my graduate studies when I was completely stuck on a problem – to the extent that it was seriously bothering me. On such occasions I learned to take a break. I often found that going for a walk, doing a crossword, or just trying to think about something else for a while, allowed me to return to the problem fresher and with new ideas. I think the brain gets into a rut if you try to make it work in one mode all the time.

I’d say that to be a good research student by no means requires you to be a monomaniac. And this is where Stephon comes in. As well as being a Professor of Theoretical Physics, Stephon is an extremely talented Jazz musician. He’s even had saxophone lessons from the great Ornette Coleman. I have to admit he has a few technical problems with his instrument in this clip, but I’m using him as an example here because I also love Jazz and, although I have a negligible amount of talent as a musician, have rudimentary knowledge of how to play the saxophone. In fact, I remember chatting to him in a bar in Casablanca way back in ’96 and music was the sole topic of conversation.

Anyway, in the following clip Stephon talks about how music actually helped him solve a research problem. It’s basically an extended riff on the opening notes of the John Coltrane classic Giant Steps which, incidentally, I posted about here.