Astronomy Graduation

Published on March 10th, 2012 | by Carl Mundy


A Guide to Applying for Postgraduate Study in Astronomy

Today, we introduce our guide to applying for a postgraduate degree in astronomy and take you through the steps of the application process. Hints, tips and suggestions are here to help you demystify the sometimes complex process of continuing your education…

A Guide to Applying for Postgraduate Study in Astronomy & Astrophysics

Note: Although the processes for funded positions are mostly coming to an end for entry in 2012, this process is unfortunately unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. We here at Carl Talks Physics hopes this guide helps those applying in the next few years. We urge you to begin reading this guide and thinking about your future now.

We produced a summer internship and work placement guide for physicists because we had been through that process and knew how hard it could be. It seemed to be particularly hard to find somewhere you really wanted to work. Our own experiences and the feedback we received showed us that the main hurdles in finding and applying for a summer internship were universal:

  • Finding the right opportunities
  • Keeping track of application deadlines
  • Selling yourself in an essay
  • Stressing out over thousands of applications

We hope that the number of applications you made didn’t quite reach into the thousands, but you most likely came up against several of the issues listed above. When you come to the end of your degree, you have to make one more really big decision. Do you want to continue onto academic research or apply for a job elsewhere.

In this handy little guide, we take you through our own experiences in continuing your education into the field of astronomy, providing handy hints, tips and suggestions along the way. We highlight some important items for your consideration in bold italic.

What is a PhD?

The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.

PhD is the common abbreviation for the title of Doctor of Philosophy. This name is used because of the Greek origin of our word ‘philosophy’ which meant the ‘love of wisdom’. A fitting use because those undertaking a PhD must have this love of wisdom, of knowledge, to undertake up to four years of research and development. Not only within their field of interest but also within themselves.

A brilliant illustrated guide, ‘The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.’, produced by Matt Might answers this question better than any words could.

Decision Making

The decision between continuing your education or using your hard earned degree to apply for a job with an acceptably gracious salary can be tough. You should really start thinking about this as soon as you begin your final year. A post-graduate degree, commonly referred to as a PhD, should be considered a serious investment of your time, money and mind. It should also be considered an investment in yourself and your future with many companies, academic positions and educational courses requiring or preferring candidates to hold a PhD.

An important question you should ask yourself is why do you want to undertake a PhD?; why do you want to carry out original research for the next (usually) four years of your life? If your answer doesn’t include the fact you’re interested in the the topics you want to research or that you want to learn new and exciting things then you should seriously consider other career paths.

Researching where you want to go to perform your research is an important question you should ask yourself early. This will enable you to go visit these places, either on open days or in your own time, and decide whether the location suits you. Have a chat with your academic tutor, project supervisors and people in your university physics department to get an idea of the groups around the UK that have a good reputation for the area you wish to go into.

Money Matters

As was mentioned earlier, undertaking a postgraduate research degree costs money. For home students starting in 2012, the basic tuition fee for such a course at a UK university is expected to be around £3,800 although the exact amount will vary from institution to institution. This cost is expected to rise around 5% for each successive year – thank you global recession.  You then have to account for living costs which you should have a reasonable idea of after your journey from first to final year undergraduate. Fees for international students can be more than 4 times the home fee rate, so count yourself lucky indeed.

Credit: Community Friend

Working out where this money will come from can seem daunting at first. Not many people have all, or even any of, the money they need to cover the cost of a postgraduate research degree. This isn’t as big a problem as it may first appear. There are several helpful organisations out there that provide many types of financial aid and incentives to candidates that wish to undertake a PhD. Indeed, each individual institution may have their own scholarships, bursaries and prizes on offer for chosen candidates that can be a financial lifeline.

The first hurdle is often finding out about these awards in the first place. The problem can then be understanding how these different awards are granted and the processes in applying for them. Some make it very easy to apply, but some don’t.

Applying for Funding

Most physics and astronomy departments around the UK are given a quota of fully-funded studentships from research councils such as the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The exact number varies between groups. These awards cover the cost of the course tuition fees and also provide you a stipend to cover the costs of living. Usually, this is around £12,000 although it varies from council to council. You must meet certain conditions to be eligible for such awards, which are available to consult on their websites (STFC here).

Applying for these types of funding is usually a simple case of applying to a university (that is offering them) through the normal channels and specifying you wish to apply for funded positions/projects. If there’s any doubt, contact the department and ask; they’re more than happy to talk with you about the projects and funding opportunities. If the university offer other funding awards that you wish to apply for, the same process usually applies – there should be a section in the application for you to specify if you want to apply for them. Do remember to research these awards in detail to ensure you are eligible and provide all the documents needed to apply for funding.

There are multiple sources of funding out there for you to take advantage of. Some require a completely separate application from your university application to be completed. One example is the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (SUPA) which provides fully-funded studentships for postgraduate students wishing to study many areas of physics, including astronomy, at 8 Scottish Universities. Applying to SUPA involves both an application to one of the participating universities as well as a separate application through SUPA. These may have different deadlines so it’s important to have done your research and manage your time effectively.

The Interview

Most universities have one round of interviews, others have more. Realising you have to prepare for an interview that may be the first one you’ve had since applying for your undergraduate degree can seem pretty daunting. The purpose of the interview at this level is threefold: they want to see how you think, how you interact and where your interests lay. They do this because they need to know that, firstly, you’ll get on with potential PhD supervisors and that you have the ability to think in the right ways to undertake four years of research.

If you are asked for an interview, either in person, over the phone or indeed over Skype, you have already made it past the first round. They’re interested in you.

Credit: Rafael Schmall

It can be done in several different and quite clever ways. Half the interview usually involves discussing with two or more project supervisors about your recent research projects, the reasons behind choosing that university and what you expect to gain from undertaking a PhD. The other half is usually spent asking you questions whereby the way in which you think can be observed.

A typical question would be to explain a physical phenomena they put in front of you, like the halo around the Moon seen in the photo on the right. When answering their question, it’s best to think out loud so they can observe your thinking process. Talk about all the steps in the image that you see. In this example, you would say light is reflected from the Moon, travels to Earth and makes its way through the atmosphere which contains ice crystals which refract the moonlight and produce the observed halo.

Another common interview question is some sort of quantitative physics. For example, you may be asked to determine how the flux measured at a detector depends on the number of  galaxies you can see. More abstract questions may be asked such as whether or not you think a kettle thrown from the top of the troposphere will break the sound barrier. There’s a variety of food-for-thought they can throw at you.

Other tasks they may give you may be to look at a graph they have drawn on a blackboard and explain it to them. In another, they may ask you to think about the derivation of some physical phenomena. Whatever task they give you, you must remember that it is the process you use to get to an answer that they’re interested in, whether or not the answer is wrong or right.


After your interviews, which are usually held in the period January-March of the year you are wishing to start, the universities will either give you an offer, put you on a reserve list or decline your application. Usually, they will let you know their decision towards the end of March. If the position you are applying for is STFC funded, they cannot force you to make a decision before 31st March of that year. This gives you time to visit and receive offers from (hopefully) all of the places you applied.

The departments know that the decision they are asking you to make is hard. If you’re lucky, you may know where you want to go. If that’s the case, contact the other places that have also given you offers and decline them, so they can reach out to other students and offer them a place. If you have trouble making the decision of which offer to accept, contact the staff in the departments and speak to academics and your personal tutor – they’re always willing to help guide you through to the next level of your career. Indeed, they have most likely been in your position.

So, What Next?

We hope this guide will help you in your journey to become a professional physicist. All of us at Carl Talks Physics wish you the best of luck in your applications and your future career.

Header image courtesy James Almond.

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About the Author

Astronomy PhD student from the UK with a passion for astronomy and science outreach projects. Involved with weekly science-based radio programme The Science Show on University Radio Nottingham (URN).

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