My academic training is not in astrophysics, can I apply to become a Ph.D. student in astrophysics at the Institute of Astronomy?
Our short, three-year, research only, Ph.D. course is not well suited to someone who has not had undergraduate training in astrophysics or physics with a component of astrophysics. There simply isn't time available to acquire the necessary background in astrophysics while also completing enough research for a ph.D. As a consequence, students whose initial training is in another discipline, such as electrical or aerospace engineering, computing, pure mathematics,... normally need to acquire a masters level qualification with a substantial astrophysics/physics-based element.
If you really intend to undertake a Ph.D. in astrophysics then, generally, the three-year Ph.D.s offered by most universities within the UK are not what you need. Instead, you should explore options such as
i) a five-year "Ph.D." in the USA with the initial two-year masters-level course-work element providing the necessary background in astrophysics,
ii) a two-year astrophysics masters-level course provided by a number of institutions in Europe. Examples include courses offered by the universities of Manchester and Sussex in the UK and Leiden in the Netherlands.
Is it possible to identify a specific project and supervisor for a Ph.D. without having made a formal application for admission?
Competition for offers of admission to the Ph.D. programme is considerable and the same is also true for funding awards (associated with Cambridge University) to allow students to take up an offer of admission. Ensuring that suitable projects and supervisors are identified is a prerequisite for any student who is made an offer of admission. However, there are a finite number of Ph.D. projects available in any particular research field. It is thus not possible to give a definitive answer concerning the availability of specific supervisors or projects, without a formal application being received and assessed together with all the other Ph.D. applications to commence in October 2014.
I have an undergraduate degree from the United States of America and a strong GPA score, can I apply to undertake a Ph.D. at the Institute of Astronomy?
Undergraduates educated in the United Kingdom (UK) embarking on our Ph.D. Programme will have completed a four-year programme of study consisting almost exclusively of physics/astrophysics and mathematics courses. The students are thus far less broad educationally then their counterparts in the USA but their knowledge in physics and mathematics is significantly more advanced. The difference in the undergraduate programmes explains the very different format and timescale for the respective Ph.D. programmes in the two countries. Ph.D. programmes in the USA typically involve a two-year period with a considerable course-work element, followed by a three-year period devoted exclusively to thesis research. At the Institute of Astronomy (and most universities in the UK) the length of the Ph.D. is just three years and the thesis research element commences right at the start. As a result, we are rarely in a position to offer admission to our Ph.D. programme to someone straight from an undergraduate training in the USA. For students wishing to research in predominantly theoretical areas, including cosmology and the cosmic microwave background, admission to the Institute's Ph.D. programme is simply not possible. If a student is interested in projects with a more observational/data-analysis bias admission can be a possibility, in which case see the requirements outlined below.
For an application to be viable, a student will expect to complete a four-year undergraduate degree in the USA, with a strong emphasis on physics and mathematics courses, including several at postgraduate level. A GPA score of at least 3.8 (on system with a maximum of 4.0) is desirable and you should also have undertaken at least one research internship or research-project in the field of astrophysics. When making an application it is not necessary to describe a specific Ph.D. project but you should indicate the type of research in which you are interested, with some indication of subject area(s) and relevant faculty member(s) [who might act as supervisor for a Ph.D.].