Friday, March 4, 2016

My Advice for PhD Applicants

So you want to do a PhD in astronomy/astrophysics/cosmology? Here is some random advice from me (note these are my personal opinions, and not representative of any official policy anywhere I have worked, or currently work).

Preparatory work: 
  • Try to do one or more summer research projects to demonstrate your interests/abilities in research.
  • If you are on a 1 year taught Masters 
    • get to know your lecturer immediately so they can write a good reference. 
    • start your project early. If the course structure has the project late do a summer project, or start your project early (even if they say not to).

Application materials:
  • Write a cover letter, or a description of why you want to do a PhD, and what your subject interests are. This is your chance to show passion for your subject. Do some research on what is available at the department you are applying to first (e.g. don't write about how much you love exoplanets, if no-one in that department studies them....).
  • If you can remain somewhat open to the details of a project/supervisor (you'll be easier to place). Not all faculty will be recruiting PhD students every year, but you can still potentially work with them as a co-supervisor. 
  • Don't leave gaps in your CV. If you are currently working and want to come back to study do not hide it. This is often viewed positively - use your experience to hi-light the skills you have gained in the workplace which should place you above undergraduates still at University. 
  • Be very clear about your nationality - especially if you are British applying for PhDs in Britain. This shouldn't matter, but it seems to.

  • Dress up for the interview (at least a bit - you offend no-one by being over dressed, if you show up in tracksuit bottoms you may send a message that you don't care to some).
  • Show an interest in the department. Stay for lunch if invited. It's not really optional (even if presented as such). Ask the current graduate students if there are any evening plans you can tag along to.
  • Ask questions about the training, help given to find jobs etc. 
  • Talk to everyone - especially current students. If you think you're getting a sales pitch press harder for the real story.
  • Make extra sure you talk to current students of any faculty you think you might want to work with. Ask about their working style. Are they too hands off - are they too pushy - do they take credit for student's work - do they promote their students outside the University. 
  • Be careful you don't assume women you meet are admin staff - assume everyone you meet is a scientist and potentially a future supervisor. Do not address anyone as Miss or Ms or Mr (just in case). 
  • Be polite to everyone you meet. The interview panel might seek input from anyone in the department (including the admin staff).
There's loads of other good advice online about this already, so don't just read this. Astrobetter has a fantastic set of resources (sometimes with an American angle, but many things apply to any PhD programme).


  1. Hello Karen. Recently I found your answer to calculating the Earth's position relative to the Sun at Those formulas are exactly what I need for a current study I am conducting on solar and lunar gravity. ( Thank you so much for that. I'm wondering if you have knowledge of similar calculations for calculating the zenith point on Earth relative to the Moon's orbit for any given date?

  2. I apologize if this is bothersome, but I'm having difficulty with the formula you gave on the above website. My math is wrong somehow and I cant seem to figure it out. Can you help? This is the original formula

    r = a(1-e*e) / (1+e cos(θ))

    Where a = 149.6 million Kilometers - Semi Major Axis to the Sun
    e = .01672 or eccentricity of the Sun's orbit
    θ = (number of days since perihelion * (365.25/360))

    So my calculation is
    r=(149.6*(1- (.0672*.01672))) / 1+(.0672 cos(140*(365.25/360)))

    But this is not working out properly. Where am I wrong on this?