Institute of Astronomy

Postgraduate Student Handbook

New Arrivals

As the Director of the Institute of Astronomy, it gives me great pleasure to welcome you at the start of your graduate studies in astrophysics. The Institute is one of the leading centres of astrophysical research in the world and the staff, together with the almost constant stream of visitors, provides a fantastic scientific environment in which to work. Formal and informal occasions to foster communication and acquire a breadth of knowledge in astrophysics (morning coffee and afternoon tea, the seminar and colloquia series) are a key part of the Institute. Reaching outwards, the active Outreach programme, in which graduate students play a major role, connects us to the public (from eight to 80 years of age).

For many new Ph.D. students, even those with “astrophysics” degrees, the options for acquiring familiarity with the extensive range of research topics and type that exist within the subject have been limited. A significant difference in the Institute’s Ph.D. programme, compared to almost everywhere within the United Kingdom and Europe, gives you the opportunity to explore a broad range of research topics, working methodology and style/approach of Ph.D. supervisors.

The transition from undergraduate to research scientist is more significant than the one from school to undergraduate. Unsurprisingly, the challenges and effort required to make the transition are considerable but the rewards are also much greater. You have all achieved much as undergraduates and are now part of a highly selected group. It is hard to imagine a better environment than the Institute for you to flourish and there is a great deal of help and support available for you to access. Your research will naturally be a primary focus during your Ph.D. but a balance between work and the huge range of social and recreational opportunities available in Cambridge will be essential for your well-being.

Cohort after cohort of our graduate students have gone on to become enormously successful; many within astrophysics, others in a range of careers that can be genuinely hard to comprehend (doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, diplomats...). You have my personal support and that of everyone here at the Institute but, ultimately, the success of your time here depends on your own efforts and taking full advantage of what is on offer—it is, after all, your Ph.D.!

What can you expect?

Welcome to life as a graduate student at the Institute of Astronomy! The purpose of this section is to let you know what you can expect from your first few weeks in the department. When you arrive in Cambridge there will undoubtedly be many orientation activities prepared for you by your college to welcome you into college and university life. At the IoA, we have also planned a variety of events to introduce you to how the department works and to let you know what you can expect from your time here and what is expected of you as a student. The exact calendar of events will be announced when you arrive, but you can expect the first few weeks to be filled with meeting many new faces and talking to a great many people!

About the department

The IoA is a growing department---even a little stretched for space these days. The main building is the Hoyle building, where you will find the reception, administrative staff, lecture theatre, and many of the staff and students. Behind the Hoyle building are car parks, bike sheds, and the historic Northumberland and Thorrowgood telescopes. Finally, at the end of a tree-lined avenue, sits the grand Observatory building (fondly known as ``Obs'') which houses the library and more offices.

The most recent addition to the department itself is a University-funded building known as the ``Kavli'', hosting the Kavli Institute for Cosmology. This building is joined directly to the Hoyle via a link on the first floor of the Corfield Wing. It houses a mix of University staff, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and visitors from the IoA, the Cavendish Astrophysics Group, and the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP). Although Fred Kavli passed away recently, his foundation continues to support physics research institutes around the world. For example, here can be found the Cambridge Planck Analysis Centre, under the leadership of George Efstathiou. The Kavli Foundation donation has also enabled the University to establish four long-term University fellowships in a research programme targeting ``The High Redshift Universe''.

The past year has seen the addition of a new building, the Battcock Centre, to the south of the Kavli building. While not part of the IoA, the Battcock Centre provides a new home to the majority of the Cavendish Astrophysics Group, concentrating more of the astrophysics research at the University onto the one site. The Department of Earth Sciences Bullard Laboratories can also be found behind the IoA. The end result is that you will have the chance to interact with researchers from a number of different departments. For example, the Cavendish has its own PhD students who you will likely meet from time to time. This mish-mash can be a little confusing... but it also means more opportunities to attend talks, Christmas parties, and summer barbeques!

Arriving at the IoA

In terms of immediate practicalities, you will be assigned an office (usually one shared with other graduate students and the occasional postdoc) and a computer account. You can also expect a number of introductions to departmental procedures, introductory meetings with various people, and plenty of chances to meet your fellow students. You also have the option of attending any of the University lecture courses, which will begin shortly after your arrival, and might choose to do so to refresh your knowledge or explore a new topic while you're finding a supervisor...

Choosing a Project and Supervisor

The most pressing issue on the mind of every new arrival is finding a supervisor and getting to work on your ground-breaking research. The IoA works a little differently from most departments, in that you are given the freedom to shop around before committing yourself to a project. You will receive a list of members of staff who are potential supervisors along with their research interests and other members of staff who will make themselves known at an introductory session where those interested in taking on students will present their work. You are encouraged to spend your first few weeks talking with a wide range of people.

Even if you are convinced you know exactly what your chosen line of research is, don't be too hasty to rule out other options! It's been known to happen that even the most die-hard theorists suddenly become inspired by a purely observational project (and vice versa), so be sure to approach the issue with an open mind and find the project (and supervisor) most suited to you. Your fellow graduate students are a valuable source of information, and many members of staff will even allow you to embark on a short trial project and spend a month or two before you commit yourself. At any rate, by Christmas, you should have settled on a supervisor and have a clear idea what your project will involve.

Other Activities

Other activities within the first few weeks include the University Safety Course which is compulsory (the Head of the Department is written to if any new students do not attend!); tours of the telescopes, and the start of graduate lectures. These lectures happen over the first couple of terms, and are designed to give you an introduction to topics relevant to your research. They vary from year to year but generally include things like: computing, public speaking, statistics, a student pre-print discussion group, and the useful ``Astro Nuts and Bolts'' about miscellaneous astronomy topics. Finally, you mustn't forget the annual First Year Curry which will allow you to meet the members of the department on a more informal basis. Overseas students will soon learn that curry is the national dish of Britain!  Eat out at the IoA's expense! It certainly won't be the last time that they feed you.

Departmental Life

One of the first things that you will discover about the Institute of Astronomy is that on the whole it is a very relaxed and friendly place. There are many opportunities to meet up with the other members of the department to discuss your work perhaps over a cup of tea. The department rightly emphasises the importance of discussion and the sharing of ideas. Indeed, this is always in your own interest: whatever problems you face in your academic work, it is most likely that there is someone here who is an expert in that particular field and might just be able to point you quickly in the right direction (see section 12.2 for a list of experts).

Don’t feel that you are only allowed to talk to your supervisors about your work as you will soon discover that astronomers are a busy bunch who rarely seem to be able to stay in the same country for more than a few weeks at a time. If your supervisor is abroad and you have a particularly difficult problem with your work then it is always good to know to whom you can speak instead.

Academic work aside, there are also a number of occasions where you can get together with everyone from your fellow postgrads to the senior professors and just enjoy yourselves. In the following sections you can read about the most important events in your everyday life and how they are going to affect you.

4.1 Geographical Issues

The IoA is situated along Madingley Road, west of Cambridge city centre. It takes about 10 minutes by bicycle or 25 minutes on foot to get to the Institute from the city centre. You can also take the Universal (U) bus from Silver Street and alight (about 10 minutes later) on JJ Thomson Avenue. For those with a university card, each ride on this bus between West Cambridge and the city centre currently costs £1. You can check the bus route (which does change at times) and schedule online.

The Institute comprises several buildings scattered throughout a wooded site (see the site map on page 20), making for a very pleasant working environment. The main entrance and reception are at the Hoyle Building. This was originally a long, single-storey building. In 1999, a modern lecture theatre—the Raymond and Beverly Sackler lecture theatre—was added. A second storey (the Corfield wing) and an extended entrance area were later established.

South of the Hoyle Building is the refurbished APM building (so-called because it used to house the Automated Plate Measuring facility, used to digitise and process photographic plates) where the Cambridge Astronomical SurveyUnit (CASU)  is based.The University Observatory, built in 1823, now houses the library and more offices. Room numbers of the form H26 are in the Hoyle building, whereas numbers like O26 refer to the Observatory. To the East of the Hoyle building is the newer Kavli Institute for Cosmology, completed in 2009. The Kavli comprises a programme of research projects involving the IoA, the Cavendish Astrophysics group and the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP).  The construction of the Kavli building formed the first phase of a longer term plan to relocate the entire Cavendish Astrophysics group to the IoA site. The next phase was the recently completed construction of the Battcock Centre, which now houses the Cavendish experimental astrophysicists, to the South of the Kavli building forming a rough court with the Kavli and Hoyle buildings.

All members of the IoA are issued with an external door key that accesses all the buildings and telescopes, which will be made available to you in your first week. This is subject to a £10 deposit. You may come and go as you please at all hours of the day and night (you are very unlikely to ever find the IoA deserted!). The University Security Patrol makes regular rounds of the site but it is very difficult for the Patrols to effectively police the site if they cannot identify the legitimate members of the IoA. Please make sure you carry some form of identification (e.g. University card) at all times.

Although the University of Cambridge has no real centre and has buildings throughout much of central Cambridge, many of the science departments have, since the mid 70’s, been gradually relocating to new sites in the west of Cambridge, conveniently close to the IoA. The Cavendish Laboratories and the computer laboratory, for instance, are situated just across Madingley Road from the IoA. Also nearby, on Wilberforce Road, is the Centre for Mathematical Sciences (CMS), where weekly cosmology lunches are held. DAMTP now forms part of the CMS.

4.2 Postgraduate Lectures

A key aspect of the IoA is the breadth of research undertaken and the familiarity of individuals with astrophysical topics that extend well beyond their own specific research specialities. Maintaining a broad overview of astrophysics as a whole has been key to the success of the IoA and, for PhD students and young postdoctoral researchers, resisting the all too common move to over-specialise has tangible benefits for future careers.

The IoA, in collaboration with Cavendish Astrophysics, has a first-year programme of short, normally 8-lecture, courses designed to give IoA postgraduate students both a background knowledge of fundamental aspects of the subject and an introduction to a selection of highly topica lresearch areas in astrophysics. Attending lectures will also help you to make the most of the weekly seminars and colloquia at the Institute which you are expected to attend. You also have the option of taking some of the Part III Mathematics courses provided in DAMTP, a number of which are given by IoA Staff. These (typically) 24-lecture courses require a significant commitment in terms of both time and effort. However, particularly for students embarking on certain theoretical PhD topics, attendance at the right course can provide an excellent grounding, of direct relevance to their research.

You are expected to attend the IoA courses, as these will provide essential skills for your PhD studies and beyond. If you would like to attend other courses or have any questions, talk to Vasily Belokurov soon after you arrive.

The list of courses for Michaelmas 2016 is not finalised yet, but is likely to include:

Introduction to Computing, including Unix, Matlab, Python and IDL
Preprint Presentation Seminar Series
Cosmic Structure Formation on Supercomputers

The finalised and up-to-date schedule of lectures can be found on the IoA website at

4.3 Academic Events

The IoA attracts many distinguished speakers from around the world to talk about their particular areas of expertise. In addition there are a great many resident experts who are often all too happy to share their vast wealth of knowledge with the rest of us.

The main academic events in the week are the departmental colloquia and seminars. These are separate from the postgraduate lecture series, and are open to anyone who wants to listen. It is strongly recommended that students attend (in fact, you’ll be frowned upon if you don’t). One of the things of which you will constantly be reminded is that you should not just follow one narrow line of research, neglecting all other fields of study. This leads to a fairly naïve view of the subject as a whole, and will certainly put you in a very weak position when it comes to your viva exam and when applying for postdoctoral positions.

It is always worth checking what talks will be on that day by clicking the “talks” link on the IoA homepage.





Institute of Astronomy Seminars



Sackler Lecture Theatre, Hoyle Building

Institute of Astronomy Astrophysics Colloquia



Sackler Lecture Theatre, Hoyle Building

Cavendish Astrophysics Colloquia



Martin Ryle Seminar Room,
Kavli Building

Cavendish Astrophysics/DAMTP/ IoA Joint Cosmology Lunches



CTC meeting room (B1.19)

Wednesday Seminars

These consist of a couple of short (half-an-hour maximum) talks given by resident and visiting astronomers on their current research. They are accompanied by a bread and cheese lunch at 12:30 pm, which is a veritable feast for a reasonable price (£3.00). Highly recommended. Though the official starting time is 12:30, most of the food will be gone by then, so it is advised to turn up 2 or 3 minutes early and get into a queue!

During your time at the IoA, you will be required to give a Wednesday seminar about your work. It is expected that you will do this at some point during your second year, and again in your third year. You may also find it beneficial to present some results in your first year—this is good practice for conferences.

Figure 2: A talk in progress in the Sackler Lecture Theatre

Thursday Colloquia

On Thursday afternoons are the (more formal) astrophysics colloquia. The colloquium takes place in the Sackler lecture theatre at 4.00 pm. Afterwards there will be wine, port, fruit juice and a selection of nibbles (including cheese if you’re lucky)—this is a good opportunity to informally quiz the speaker on their talk, or indeed anything else you can think of. This time, first year students are still responsible for washing up afterwards, on a rota system that they are responsible for organising. Often, the visiting speaker is taken out to dinner at one of Cambridge’s restaurants in the evening, and you are encouraged to go along (and even bribed with a subsidy!) Thursday colloquia generally only run during Full Term (see section 7).

Cavendish Colloquia

The Cavendish Astrophysics group in the Cavendish Laboratories also run a series of colloquia. They are held at 2:00 pm every Tuesday afternoon during Full Term. These are usually held in the Martin Ryle Seminar Room, Kavli Building. They are mostly advertised through the departmental mailing list, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the display screen next to reception, which lists relevant talks throughout the university. Some Cavendish colloquia are held as joint colloquia with the IoA.

Cosmology Lunches

There is also a weekly cosmology lunch held down the road at the CMS (Centre for Mathematical Sciences) on Monday afternoons, which brings together cosmologists from the IoA, the Kavli Institute for Cosmology, the Cavendish Laboratories, and the Department of Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP) for lunch and a talk, usually by an external, invited speaker. Students are welcome, and food is provided. To be added to the mailing list for these talks contact Mustafa Amin (

Student Seminars

In addition to the large departmental talks, there are lots of smaller, less formal discussion groups and talks which are held at varying times during the week. One lunchtime a week (during Term) is usually set aside for student journal club, to which only the postgraduate students are invited. Part way through the year, first-year students give a brief presentation on their work to the existing students at journal club.

Journal clubs/Group Meetings

Depending on what area you find yourself working in, there are also other journal clubs and meetings focused on one particular area of astrophysics. Most of these are relatively informal meetings, often involving food of some kind to stimulate the discussion process, of which the best-known example is probably the X-ray group BunClub.

New meetings and journal clubs are always springing up and in general people are very welcome to attend these, although asking the meeting chairman first is always best! A selection of these are listed in Table 1. The locations tend to vary, so it may be best to check these with existing students before the meeting. Michael Parker and the other X-ray students are alternate contacts for the X-ray meetings (students are usually much easier to track down!).






Stars Group Meeting



Obs meeting room

Rob Izzard

Galaxies discussion




Ryle meeting room

Martin Haehnelt

Numerical Simulations




Ryle meeting room

Debora Sijacki & Martin Heahnelt

Streams Group




Obs meeting room

Vasily Belokurov

Exoplanet (Exo-Cam)



Ryle meeting room

Ed Gillen See:

Student Seminars/

Journal Club



Obs meeting room

Mike Curtis

X-ray Journal Club



Hoyle Commitee Room

Andy Fabian

Debris Disks (Mark Wyatt)




Ryle meeting room

Grant Kennedy

X-ray BunClub



Hoyle Commitee Room

Andy Fabian

Quasars Group




Hoyle Commitee Room

Manda Banerji, Claire Wethers & Cameron Lemmon


4.4 Not-so Academic Events

The IoA has an arrangement with nearby Churchill College whereby any member of the IoA can use their tennis courts by simply going up to the lodge and asking for the key. Croquet and Volleyball Equipment are available for use in the IoA grounds. In the summer there are occasional cut-throat games of rounders, croquet, 5-a-side football and volleyball. Regardless of your research topic, you will always find a lot to occupy yourself with during the average week at the IoA. In fact, you will often find far too much to do, and it becomes difficult fitting in any work at all between coffee, lunch,lectures and other social gatherings. Do make sure that you relax, and try to learn as much as you can about the wider world of Astronomy outside your chosen field of research. The IoA works very hard to build an active social atmosphere in the department, and you are strongly advised to make the best of it!

Tea and Coffee

A friendly, relaxed atmosphere is vital if you want to work efficiently, and it is under this dubious claim that we meet every (weekday!) morning at 11 o’clock for morning coffee and biscuits. This is normally held in the entrance to the Hoyle Building. It is well worth going to so that you can mix with your fellow students and get to know a bit about what they are doing, as well as steal some of their ideas. Most of the department will be there, so it is an ideal way to locate lost or well-concealed supervisors (and to show them that you’ve made it to work by 11 am). There is also an afternoon tea meeting at 3.30 pm (or at 4.00 pm if there is a talk scheduled for 4.30 pm), nearly identical to morning coffee.

The price for tea and coffee is £2 per month for students, to be paid to reception in instalments throughout the year (or in a lump sum if you prefer).  This is a much more civilised system than that run by some departments, where you have to pay for each cup! The cost covers not only the morning coffee and afternoon tea, but also the use of tea bags, sugar and milk in the kitchens.  Bring your own coffee if this is your thing or you can purchase coffee pods from the reception for the machine in the Hoyle kitchen at 35p per pod. There is also instant coffee, hot water and a coffee brewing machine on the lower floor of the Kavli building for use by those whose office is in the Kavli.


There isn’t a canteen at the IoA, but there are a number of other options around. The newest and nearest facility is in Greenwich House (behind the Observatory Building) and opens from 8.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. with inside and outside seating or you can take-away.  It produces a wide range of sandwiches, cakes and jacket potatoes. The William Gates Building (Computer Science) just across Madingley Road is very nearby and has a selection of sandwiches and other items. At the far end of JJ Thomson avenue is West Cafe in the Hauser Forum building, a relatively new cafe that has a wider range of choice (including Costa Coffee), albeit (slightly!) further away. There is also the Centre for Mathematical Sciences (CMS) on Wilberforce Road, quite handy if you are over there for a lecture or seminar already. Should you so desire there is also a cafeteria in the Cavendish Laboratory, the fare is relatively standard for a big institutional canteen, not amazing but not going to give you food poisoning. If you fancy a more substantial (i.e. liquid) lunch there are a couple of pubs on Huntingdon Road/Castle Street fairly close to the IoA, the Castle Inn being a particular department favourite, and of course the city centre is not that far away really.

 Every Tuesday and Thursday, a Nannamexico van comes to Clerk Maxwell Road (opposite the Obs building driveway) 12 noon to 2 p.m. They sell burritos, quesadillas, tacos and nachos (and it’s all fresh, you watch them prepare it all); prices are around £5. They have loyalty cards—with 10 stamps on your card, your next meal is free. They are quite popular and do sell out of things so you are advised to get there before 12:30. Panier Mignon parks outside the Computer Service, Roger Needham Building at 12 noon and in the front car park of the William Gates Building at 12.30 Monday to Friday offering various sandwiches and Italian cakes.

If you are in a nearby College you will be able to get lunch there if you want. Churchill College kitchens fairly recently underwent a complete refurbishment and the dining hall welcomes visitors from nearby university departments. A hot meal costs in the region of £4 to £5.5, but salads and sandwiches are also available. They are open 12:30–13:30 and 18:15–19:00. During Easter (Exam) Term they serve on-the-go pasta which is quite delicious.

The IoA itself has vending machines that sell snacks and drinks. Don’t forget Bread and Cheese Lunch every Wednesday during Term at 12.30 for just £3! There are also several small kitchens with a fridge and a microwave, so you can heat up your own food if you bring it. However, the kitchen near the Hoyle reception is only to be used by the catering staff for tea & coffee, and should not be used by students, except for cleaning up after the Thursday colloquium.


STFC states that “research students may, with the prior agreement of their supervisors, take up to eight weeks holiday in each year (pro rata for parts of a year), inclusive of public holidays. Leave should not normally be taken during the academic term.” However, this is quite a generous entitlement and students are asked to thinkcarefully about how it would affect their progress before taking extended periods breaks. In any case, you should always check with your supervisor before making arrangements to be away from the Institute.

Do inform Bev at Reception if you are away from the IoA for two days or less (this is mainly for fire safety etc). Please discuss longer holidays and absences from the Institute with Debbie Peterson before making any arrangements.

Outreach Activities

The IoA has a diverse and ambitious public outreach programme, led by our Public Astronomer, Carolin Crawford ( and Outreach Assistant Sonali Shukla ( All graduate students are strongly encouraged to join in with some of the outreach activities, as they provide excellent practice and experience at communicating your subject... which will serve you well when it comes to interviews, giving talks in your College, explaining what you study to your family, and of course when you give professional seminars. It’s also fun, and can prove strongly motivational for your own research.

Please get in touch with Carolin if you are interested in getting involved - there are all kinds of different opportunities: from giving talks to school pupils, astro-socs, and the general public, to running stargazing sessions for cubs and brownies. For more information on all activities, look at the Outreach page.

In order to be able to take part in Outreach activities, you must first fill in a Worker’s Agreement Form. This will be brought up during the (compulsory) Outreach training sessions at the start of the year but in case you missed it, talk to Sonali about it.

Public Open Evenings

The IoA holds public open evenings on Wednesdays 7–9pm, from the start of October to the end of March. These are incredibly popular: last year our average weekly attendance was over 200 people!

The evening begins with a 30-minute public talk, given by a post-doc or student from the IoA on any aspect of Astronomy at a very general level. This is followed by public observing or—in the more frequent case of cloudy weather—by tea.

Graduate students are expected to help staff the evenings, and there is a modest remuneration for helping out as front of house and with the observing. Open evening talks also provide a very friendly and supportive audience on which to practice your communication skills. The sign-up sheet to volunteer to help can be found online on the intranet (under the “outreach” tab). The IoA has a number of historicaltelescopes on site whichare available foruse,andyou will receive instruction on their use as part of your first year training. To find out more, talk to Carolin, Sonali or Sarah Bosman.

Cambridge Science Festival/Open Afternoon

Every March we hold an Open Afternoon for the general public as part of the annual Cambridge Science Festival. It's usually the second Saturday afternoon of the Science Festival.

The department is filled with displays and demonstrations, and everyone possible is expected to help out in some capacity. Over a thousand people attend from diverse backgrounds, and helping out on the day is always an interesting and entertaining experience. Afterwards there is pizza and beer for all volunteers.

Other Activities

This is only the tip of the iceberg, there’s much, much more going on. For example why not,


  • help host some of the many troops of brownies/cubs/scouts who visit us in the early evenings as part of their Astronomy badges? Again, modest remuneration is available for this activity. Talk to Carolin, Sonali or to Fernanda Ostrovski if you want to know more.
  • become one of the sages who answer some of the random questions that come in to the ‘Ask an Astronomer’ website? ‘Ask an Astronomer’ is currently on hiatus and being turned into a blog. Any help welcome! Talk to Prash Jethwa if you want to find out more.

Carolin is often asking for volunteers for various events—from visiting primary school careers fairs to hosting groups of sixth-formers who want to look round the department. And of course, if you have any great ideas for new posters,demonstrations,models,and outreach activities they’re always welcome. Just talk to Carolin. She can be found in H60, and if not, is always at the end of an email.


The Institute’s Science Cluster will most likely cater for your day-to-day computing needs during your time here. The cluster consists of computers ranging from individual desktops to shared servers and is unix based with most machines running Red Hat Linux. When you first arrive at the IoA there will be a ‘computer’ of some kind on your desk to get you started. In January new students and their supervisors will be surveyed to ensure that anyone with specific computing requirements for their research can get a machine that meets their needs. These machines should be deployed by the end of March.

Details of the computer system are available within the Computing section on the IoA Intranet  which is accessible through Raven (see Section 6.5). This is a pretty extensive resource detailing the machines and software available as well as computing policies. You may want to look at the FAQs, look at the User Guide which gives you step by step instructions for specific tasks on the cluster, or use the intranet search to find information.

The cluster offers many software packages ranging from standard web browsers, office suites and image editors to scientific packages (Mathematica, MATLAB, etc.), programming languages, and specialist astronomical software (including ds9, GAIA, IRAF, and the hilariously named Source EXtractor).

6.1 Shared Machines

While you will have your own desktop computer,you may wish to run jobs on shared servers which can offer higher performance in terms of CPU speed and memory. CPU time on these machines is a shared resource so you should nice all intensive jobs you run or you will rapidly make enemies!

6.2 Storage

Your account will give you “a reasonable amount” of home disk space (at the time of writing 2GB), available at /home/username. On request users with a high volume of email, software source code or documentation can increase their home disk space in chunks of 1GB. Requests, accompanied by a short, one sentence, justification should be sent to Helpdesk (see Section 6.10) There are other storage disks (usually called “data disks”) you can access for your GB/TBs of data (if you have them). If you need a reasonable amount of storage on the data disk e-mail Helpdesk (see Section 6.10) with your request, or ask your supervisor about unreasonable amounts.

Home directories are automatically backed up daily and backups are held for 60 days. The backups can be found in ~/.snapshot/ on hold1 or ~/.zfs/snapshot on casx022 & casx023. Use the command ‘df ~’ to see which home server you’re using. Anything at /data/vault is backed up daily at midnight and only stored for one day. Home disks are backed up weekly and kept for 5 weeks (see Backup Policy). If you are going to be a member of the X-Ray Group, things are a little different: Backups are done automatically every day for you.

In unix, the rm (delete) command is unforgiving and will delete the file immediately – at some point you will delete something important, so be prepared! It is usually safer to use ‘rm -i’ to confirm before you delete if you’re not sure. If you do have anything important, it is your responsibility to make sure it is backed up. CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray Discs and USB memory sticks may be obtained from Helpdesk for this.

6.3 E-mail

You will have a departmental e-mail address,, which is separate from your central University Hermes account. Correspondence from the department, e.g. newsletters, and other e-mails will be sent here as well as any information about your IoA Cluster account. You can access your e-mail through IMAP using software such as Thunderbird (see ) the webmail interface, or the terminal of any cluster machine (using alpine or mail).

If you want to forward your departmental e-mail to another address, create a file called .forward in your home directory containing the e-mail address you wish to forward to.

6.4 Personal Web Pages

If you make a folder called public_html in your home directory, you will be able to create your own personal web-pages using HTML, PHP and CSS, accessible at These pages are in addition to your main department website profile which you can find in the “People” section on the IoA website. To change your profile on the main website, scroll to the bottom of any page and click the “User Login” link in the footer. Your username will be the same as your main IoA account however as this is a separate system, the password is different and will need to be reset the first time you access it using the link on that page.

Although you are free to write whatever you like on both these sites, please remember they are IoA and University of Cambridge websites, so don’t write anything that might upset either! Violation of the rules will lead to the removal of your pages.

6.5 Raven

Your Raven ID (provided by the central university) is used to authenticate you onto a number of web based services around the University. It should automatically be added to allow you access remotely to the department intranet and room booking system, however if you have any problems, please e-mail Helpdesk.

As a graduate student, you should be given your Raven ID and password by your college.

6.6 Remote Access

A small group of machines may be accessed from outside the IoA (see Remote Access & Security), but only via secure shell (SSH), scp or sftp. NoMachine NX is also available which gives you a graphical interface to a remote machine rather than just a terminal (although you need to connect via the VPN service).

Free SSH clients are readily available for Windows (PuTTY) and most other operating systems and should come built in to Linux and Mac OS X. Linux and Mac clients allow X-forwarding (by using the -X option), while X-forwarding is possible on Windows clients using an X-server such as the freely available Xming. If you don’t understand all this unix terminology, then don’t worry, you will soon pick it up and there is more information on the intranet.

6.7 Laptops

We provide desktop machines for all students, but do not provide full specification laptops. The department can loan modest specification laptops to student for use as ‘screens’ to facilitate remote access to the Institute computer system. For further information, please contact Helpdesk.

Connecting Your Laptop

If you want to connect your own laptop to the IoA network with a wired connection you will need to complete a form available from Helpdesk. Once this is complete you should be able to your laptop into most of the network ports on site.  Note that not all the network ports are enabled. If you plug into one and nothing happens try another one or contact helpdesk to get that port enabled.

Wireless Networking

Wireless access is provided by the eduroam service which will allow you access WiFi in Cambridge, as well as worldwide at most universities. It can be difficult to set up when outside of Cambridge,so it would be a good idea to do it before you leave. eduroam will also work on mobile phones. Note that you need a special key to connect to eduroam which is different from your usual password. You can obtain this from the aforementioned website.

There is also the UniOfCam network which allows you to quickly connect to the internet alone whilst in Cambridge. Once you are connected to the network you will need to open a web browser and then log in using your Raven ID.

6.8 Printing

Printing using the department’s printers is free for research related work. You can find out which are the nearest printers to your office by either asking your office mates or looking it up on the intranet. If your laptop is connected into the department network or eduroam, you can also use that to print to printers in the department.

Quite often when you go to a conference you will end up presenting a poster summarising some of your recent work. You can find out more about getting these printed in Section 8.5.

6.9 When it all goes wrong...

The first thing you should do in the event of any computer problem is of course RTFM  (Read the Fine Manual!). You should also look at the Computing User Guide in the intranet even if you are familiar with computers. If this does not answer your question, try asking the people in your office or someone in the experts list in Section 12.2. If they are of no use, then the computer support Helpdesk (see below) should be able to help.

6.10 The Computing Group & Helpdesk

The IoA has a group of computer support staff (Andy Batey, Graham Bell, Roderick Johnstone, Sue Cowell and Neil Millar), who are in charge of the network and most of the software available on the IoA Cluster (the X-ray group has its own cluster managed by Roderick Johnstone).

The IoA Computing Group are best contacted via Helpdesk (,  which is both an actual office and an e-mail address. Helpdesk uses a support system called RT which generates tickets regarding incidents. It is monitored by the support team during normal working hours and the system keeps track of faults that haven’t been fixed, maintains records of what has been done already and provides historical notes for methods of fixing similar problems in future.

You can seek the advice of the Computing Group by popping round to H42 between 9:00am-12:30pm and 1:30-3:30pm (note that they are closed between 9:30-11:00am on Fridays)  Monday-Friday or by phone or e-mail (see below). However, you should always submit a request/report of any problem or question to the helpdesk e-mail account. An e-mail to Helpdesk ensures that i) your problem is formally logged, ii) a specific response will be forthcoming, iii) the knowledge about your problem reaches the appropriate group member rapidly, and iv) the Computer Group don’t end up fixing the same issue multiple times for different users who have not used the Helpdesk e-mail facility.

Please do contact helpdesk urgently with hardware problems e.g. if a machine has crashed or hung, and do not attempt any direct action of your own which could cause physical damage or data loss (a quick way to lose friends!). The other reason not to restart the system yourself unless absolutely necessary is that, although that may clear the fault, it is then much harder to find out what went wrong and hence prevent a repetition of the problem. Please do not e-mail individual Computer Group members as mail directed to Helpdesk is much more effective and helps everyone.

The standard Helpdesk number is 66666. A mobile phone number (dial internally on 50339) is available for use either when the Helpdesk operator is away from the office, or as a single phone contact for out of office hours computer support. Please be sparing with the use of this facility! Basically, if the building is in danger of exploding or your machine has become demonically possessed and is breathing fire, then you can probably think about dialling the mobile. Remember, usually the best way to resolve a problem is to e-mail Helpdesk, even out of hours as system managers will occasionally log in. This not only allows a written record of the problem, but logs it in the database so that it can’t get lost.

Contact: Helpdesk H42 66666

If you do have any general comments or concerns you want to raise about computing in the IoA, the best way to do this is through the Student Reps on the Computer Users Committee (CUC). This year, this is Scott Thomas ( who is more than happy to be contacted about any issues.


7.1 Library

The IoA Library, located on the ground floor of the Observatory building, holds about 35,000 books and 250 current periodical titles including electronic publications. Apart from a few special collections all material is available on open shelves. Books may be borrowed for up to three months. A printed/online guide to using the Library is available. The Library home page brings together a range of astronomical and general Library resources.

Newton, the Library’s web catalogue, contains records for all material held in the Library. Newton is shared with other departments and faculties A–E, but by using the ‘Set Limits’ function it can be set to search only the IoA Library. A list of new acquisitions is circulated monthly and suggestions for new titles are very welcome. A display of new books can be found in the small library area by the directors offices in the Hoyle Building. Monthly listings of new books can be found on the Library website.

Databases and e-journal services are available via the IP address. In practice, this means the IoA or the University has taken out a subscription to a given journal, and you should be able to access the contents without needing a password from any IoA or University computer. Sometimes the system is confused by the web proxy server and will prompt you for a password rather than allowing automatic access. In this case, try bypassing the proxy (e.g. select “direct connection to the Internet” in your browser preferences). Remember to turn proxying back on afterwards! Any access problems should be reported to the Library. In addition, the Library can provide help on searching online information services (including U.L. Catalogue, ADS). The IoA Publications database is managed and updated by the Library.

The Rayleigh Library is just across the road in the Cavendish Labs, and may occasionally have something that the IoA does not. Failing that, there is also the Betty and Gordon Moore Library, which covers sciences, in the Centre for Mathematical Sciences on Wilberforce Road and the mighty University Library (UL), which has every book ever published anywhere by anyone, or something like that. Individual Colleges have their own, less-specialised, libraries, which can be useful if you just want to consult a standard textbook.

Feel free to contact Mark Hurn ( if you have any questions about the library, or if you have suggestions for new books.

Illustration from Sir Robert Ball's "Great Astronomers" (1895) (page 365)

The astronomy library actually has a very nice collection of scanned images of pictures and photographs. This is one dating back to 1823 when the Obs building was first constructed!

7.2 Post and Telephones

Mail trays are located in each of the main buildings, both for standard (Royal Mail) post and the University Messenger Service (UMS). The latter is a free service that delivers letters and small parcels between university departments and colleges every weekday.

You can use the IoA mail trays for work-related post and already stamped personal items. Stamps for personal post can be purchased at reception,at the usual rates. The deadline for outgoing post is 4:00 pm each weekday. Special deals are available for overseas mail (especially handy at Christmas time!)—please ask Reception at the time. If you need to arrange for Recorded/Special Delivery of important documents, such as job applications, contact reception.

Incoming mail (addressed to you at The Institute of Astronomy, Madingley Road, Cambridge, CB3 0HA) will be delivered to your departmental pigeonhole each weekday morning after tea break. There are sets of pigeonholes in each of the main buildings—yours will be in the building containing your office. UMS mail is collected and delivered to the Hoyle building at 11am each weekday and will be distributed with the post.

Each office has a telephone, shared between all the people in that office. Incoming calls can be made direct to your office number. As with the mail, there are two types of telephone networks, the University has an internal network of 5-digit numbers (which start with either 3 or 6) and calls between numbers on this network are free. If the 5-digit number begins with a 3, add an extra 3 at the beginning to dial it from outside the network, if it begins with a 6 you should add a leading 7.

Personal and business telephone calls can be made from the telephone in your office, although again any personal calls must be paid for and will be added to your bill. For calls outside the University network (UK landlines and mobiles), dial 9 first to get an outside line. You will need to dial reception (37548) to make international calls from your office phone.

7.3 Office Equipment and use of Printers/Photocopiers

There are photocopiers and fax machines at various points throughout the IoA. You should pay for any personal use at reception, photocopies are 3p per side of A4 and other prices can be found on the list there. Printers can be found all over the site, see the User’s Guide (see section 6) to find out where they are. Personal use is allowed within reason, although if this is abused the IoA will be quick to change this. Also, remember that colour printing is VERY expensive, use the colour printers only when completely necessary.

Stationery cupboards with files, pens, paper etc. are also there for you to use, located in both the Hoyle, Kavli and Observatory buildings. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, please let reception know. If you require any special arrangements to be made for your office setup (new office chair, non-fluorescent lamp, keyboard, etc.) please see Joy McSharry.

7.4 Cambridge Terminology

This is complicated. There are so many things to know about the University. The most important things that will likely be related to your experience are the following:


  • There are 3 Cambridge Terms called MICHAELMAS (beginning October to the end of November), LENT (mid-January to mid-March), and EASTER (mid-April to mid-June) These are busier times of the year, when pesky undergraduates take over the town. It is also a busier time at the department, with colloquia and graduate courses and more people around. Try to avoid taking holiday during these times
  • You are a member of a Cambridge College. Make sure you know this and matriculate at the start of term (early October). Why point out something “so obvious”? Without mentioning names, one of your peers forgot to matriculate some years ago, leading to excessive headaches when trying to submit his first year report.


  •  As a member of the University you have an email under the domain, which is different from your account. Your RAVEN login is also your cambridge user ID (, and is needed to access a number of Departmental and University services.

Who's Who

One of the most important things for any new arrival to know is who to turn to with specific queries or problems. If these concerns are of an academic nature, then the first person for you to seek out is Vasily Belokurov (, who is responsible for postgraduate academic matters, or your College tutor. We are a friendly bunch at the IoA—you will find everyone happy to talk to you about any aspect of your studies (but don’t approach them when they’re up against a grant or funding deadline!). If, however, you do feel the need to talk to someone who is independent of the Institute’s system of student oversight, then Cathie Clarke should be your first port of call.

There are several daily issues that you may come up against that are of a more practical nature, such as where to go to stock up your supply of pencils, how to use the Library, or (perhaps most importantly) who is in charge of the tea bill!

Here, we aim to outline briefly some of the key (non-academic) staff at the IoA and what they can do for you...

8.1 Reception

Reception is located at the main entrance to the Hoyle Building. The receptionist handles the ebb and flow of the postal system, the switchboard, can scan documents (or set up your email to do so), send faxes and handles personal bills for the photocopiers, telephones, tea and post. Reception can order stationery if you can’t find what you are looking for in the open stationery cupboards in each building. They will be glad to try and help out with any problem you might have in general day-to-day life in the IoA. Let Reception know if you will be away from the IoA for more than a few days (e.g. while observing or on holiday).

Contact: Bev Woolston Hoyle Entrance (3)37548 fax (3)37523

8.2 The Admin Team

Mary Howe is the Department Administrator.  David Savidge is Deputy Administrator with particular responsibility  for Finance and Margaret Harding is Deputy Administrator with responsibility for Buildings and Grounds and is also the Safety Officer. Mary is responsible for overall administration of the IoA including finance, personnel, and welfare. David is in charge of Grants and Finance. Margaret oversees any activities relating to Buildings and Grounds and also deputises for Debbie Peterson, the Graduate Student Administrator, in her absence. David is Mary's deputy when she is absent or not available.

Debbie is the Graduate Student Administrator. She co-ordinates all aspect of Graduate Student administration from pre-admission enquiries, interviews, admissions, current student assessment processes, right through to the production of your PhD dissertation and examination. Debbie can advise on funding for Conferences, Observing trips etc., will arrange flights and can help you with the form-filling and sometimes complex University paperwork.

If you encounter any problems or have concerns of a non-scientific nature during your time at the IoA you should talk to Debbie in the first instance. She will often be able to help and, if not, she will certainly be able to point you to the most appropriate person. If you have any problems interacting with specific academic staff or have problems in your relationship with your supervisor you should also inform Debbie or Vasily Belokurov at an early stage. Any issues regarding your office, furniture or other facilities should be discussed with Debbie.

Joy McSharry is the HR Administrator and has particular responsibility for personnel and training issues, including immigration and room allocation issues. She coordinates the researcher development training provision for graduate students and others.

Susan Leatherbarrow (Mon-Fri, 8:00-13:45) is the Accounts Clerk. She assists David in the Finance Office with the processing of accounts and financial management.

Each autumn, Paul Hewett organises a Seminar on “How to get an astro job”. Drawing on the experience of recently appointed postdocs and staff who themselves conduct interviews, he will cover: where to apply; producing a CV; completing job applications; interview techniques; etc. This is for all students and not just those in their final year as it is never too early to acquire these important skills.


Mary Howe Department Administrator H05 mhowe (3)37522
David Savidge Deputy Administrator - Grants & Finance H04 dsavidge (7)66644
Joy McSharry HR Administrator H04 jpm (7)61537
Susan Leatherbarrow Accounts Clerk H04 sl (3)39088
Debbie Peterson Graduate Student Administration H06 dlp (7)66643
Margaret Harding Deputy Administrator - Facilities H06 meh (3)37552


8.3 The Secretaries

The secretaries around the IoA are: Adeline Nicol (P.A. to Head of School), Judith Moss (P.A to Prof M.J. Rees, Prof A.C. Fabian and looks after undergraduate teaching and visitors), Sandra Burner (P.A. to Prof. G.P. Efstathiou and administrative assistant), and Gudrun Pebody (P.A. to Prof. G.F. Gilmore and Opticon Secretary), all of whom will help you to track down academic staff and are a rich source of knowledge about the Institute.


Sandra Berner K12 (3)37516
Judith Moss H48 (7)37521
Adelin Nicol H04 (3)37538
Gudrun Pebody H46 (7)66097


8.4 Library Resources

The Library has a professional librarian, Mark Hurn, available to help with enquiries between 9–5 Monday–Friday. The Library’s role is to support the academic work of the IoA by the provision of appropriate information and services, and the staff are always keen to help you to make the most of the resources. During the postgraduate induction week there will be a tour of the Library and an introduction to the services offered. See section 7.1 for more information.

Mark is always very helpful and more than happy to conduct a search for difficult-to-find material and provide an Inter-Library Loan facility for items which are not available in Cambridge.


Library office Observatory E (3)37537
Mark Hurn Departmental Librarian  


8.5 Graphics Officer

Amanda Smith is the Graphics Officer at the IoA. In other words, she can make pictures, posters (including very large ones!), diagrams etc. look as good as possible for presentation, publication etc. Amanda works mainly on Macs using Photoshop, Illustrator and Acrobat. She can acquire images in any format,from the web,via ftp from IoA researchers orwherever,as well as from theirflat-bed, slide and transparency scanners, and combine, edit and output as required. Output can be as flat copy, up to and including A1 poster, overhead transparency, 35mm slides or in any suitable file format for the web, for insertion into LaTeX, Powerpoint presentation etc.

Should you find that you need something that the IoA cannot provide internally (for example posters at sizes larger than A1) there is the University Photographic & Illustration Service, PandIS (, tel. 34889, whom Amanda is usually happy to liaise with for you. They will need a PostScript or PDF file of the image/poster and can print it for you on a variety of sizes and types of paper such as A0 or custom sizes. There is also the option to have the finished item encapsulated (i.e. encased in a thin layer of clear plastic) to protect it. For an A1 poster the cost is from about £35, depending on ink coverage, plus £25 for encapsulation. It is sometimes recommended that you get an A3 proof to look at first, which costs about £5. The IoA should pay, but check first—they may not feel encapsulation is necessary, for example for a single-use poster. The time scale for printing is usually a minimum of a couple of working days, a little longer for encapsulation as this is only done on Wednesdays and Fridays, so do not leave it until the last minute.

There are also several graphics packages that students can play around with themselves for basic figures, but when high quality, complex graphics are required, or editing and tweaking of existing stuff, the best call is the experts! Should you have any questions concerning your poster from the production, graphic or layout point of view, please get in touch.


Amanda Smith Graphics Officer O3 (3)37545

8.6 Public Astronomer

Carolin Crawford runs the public outreach programme at the IoA, so she’s who to contact if you are interested in getting involved. There are plenty of opportunities: from helping with the popular weekly open evenings, hosting visits from brownie/cub/guide troops doing their astronomy badges, to giving talks to school pupils of all ages. You might have some bright ideas for new things we can do.
Carolin can also help with writing a public/astro-soc level talk, or with your communication skills; or with press releases for you ramazingly exciting results (when they happen), and how to handle the  resulting press interest. But think ahead: Carolin spends a lot of time working out of the IoA—either at her Emmanuel office or out visiting schools, so isn’t always available at short notice.


Carolin Crawford Public Astronomer H22



All new Ph.D. students at the University of Cambridge are formally registered for a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) degree only at the end of their first year, subject to satisfactory performance—thus the first year is to be regarded as a probationary period.

All of us, that is the University of Cambridge, the IoA, your supervisors and yourself, share a common goal: that you complete your thesis work and obtain your Ph.D. within the period of your funding. The majority of Ph.D. students, including those with funding via STFC, will be aiming to submit their theses within three-years. Only the occasional student with funding from overseas,that extends to four years, will be aiming for a somewhat longer timescale (but very definitely within four years). Finishing within the allotted time will also be viewed favourably by potential employers. This is not an easy task and will require dedication and hard work on the part of every one concerned. The aim of the first year assessment is to ensure that you are well on your way to achieving this goal. Thus the formal registration process is an important threshold in your studentship, second only to your Ph.D. examination itself.

A more formal description of you and your supervisors’ responsibilities in terms of assessment and feedback can be found in the Code of Practice for Research Students  which it is recommended you read.

9.1 The Route to Your PhD

During the first Term you will consider the range of work undertaken at the IoA and discuss possible topics with potential supervisors. A suitable topic for research and supervisor should normally be identified before the end of the first Term.

Graduate Lecture Courses

The Institute has a long-standing policy of ensuring that Ph.D. students are given the opportunity to gain knowledge ofa broadrange ofastrophysics,extending beyondthe specific area oftheirPh.D. research. In collaboration with Cavendish Astrophysics, the IoA offers a suite of graduate lecture courses, which complement the longer and more formal astrophysics lectures offered as part of Part III of the Mathematics Tripos. First-year students are expected to attend 40 lectures during the year.


Before writing anything at all your attention is drawn to the University regulations concerning plagiarism. Plagiarism is defined as submitting as one’s own work, irrespective of intent to deceive, that which derives in part or in its entirety from the work of others without due acknowledgement. It is both poor scholarship and a breach of academic integrity. You should familiarise yourself with the University’s plagiarism policy.

First Year Assessment Exercise

Formal registration for the Ph.D. degree occurs only after satisfactory completion of the first year assessment exercise, which involves the completion of an approximately 10,000 word report, to be submitted by a deadline usually in mid-July in the first year of study. Full details of format, word limit etc will be provided. The precise deadline will be confirmed nearer the time along with instructions for the submission process.

The report will always contain a proposal for the research to be undertaken during the remaining period of study for Ph.D. but the content of the bulk of the report is not closely defined. Students will agree the title and outline content of their report with their primary Supervisor during March-April of the first year of study. Examples of the basis forthe content of the report include: i) a complete,or almost complete, research project, ii) a submitted journal paper, or iii) an extensive critical literature review related to the proposed Ph.D. topic.

First Year Assessment Interview

Following appointment, two members of staff will each make a brief independent report to the Degree Committee on the evidence provided by the progress report and then hold an interview with the student to discuss the content of the report and the plan for future research. The assessors will then submit a joint report and recommendation to the Degree Committee, covering the quality of the report and the student’s registration, including any feedback they wish to provide for the student and Supervisor.

Assessors’ and Supervisor’s reports

The student’s Principal Supervisor will comment on progress in the light of the assessors’ feedback and make his/her recommendation using the CamSIS supervision reporting system.The Department will then consider the assessors’ reports together with the Supervisor’s recommendation and, on the strength of these, recommend the outcome to the Degree Committee, who will then send a recommendation to the Student Registry.

The student will see the assessors’ report and the Supervisor’s report when the assessment has been completed.

Monitoring Progress After the First Year

To help the student monitor progress towards completion of their Ph.D. thesis, a progress report is also requested in the second year. Finally, a final thesis-plan is requested six to nine months ahead of the planned thesis submission date. In each case the report will be read by two members of staff and an interview with the student will be held to discuss the report. Written feedback to the student and supervisors is then provided.

The Ph.D. Submission and Viva

Finally, the most important assessment of them all, your Ph.D. oral examination! The degree of Ph.D. is awarded primarily on the quality of a dissertation of not more than 60,000 words constituting a substantial contribution to original research. The thesis is assessed critically by two examiners who then conduct an oral examination upon the subject of the thesis and the general field within which it falls. One of the examiners will be a member of staff of the IoA (but not your supervisor) and the other will be from another institution. Most Ph.D. orals last between two and four hours. Normally you will be told whether the examiners are going to recommend the award of the Ph.D. or would like you to make some corrections to your thesis before making such a recommendation.

The administration of registrations, submission and examination are handled by the Board of Graduate Studies and by the Degree Committee of the Faculty of Physics and Chemistry. The Faculty consists of the departments of Chemistry, Materials Science, Physics and Astronomy. The Degree Committee webpage provides details of the Ph.D. submission process and should be the first port of call if there are any queries regarding procedures.

9.2 Recording Progress

While the ultimate result of your time at the IoA should be an impressive bound dissertation, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the Research Councils and the University now expect an on-going record of achievement, progress and development throughout your period of study. All IoA Ph.D. students are required to keep a Progress Log, covering activity relating to their Ph.D. research and a record of astronomy-related courses and presentations (both attended and given). The relevant paperwork and further information will be handed out in October and collected at the end of the academic year. Students are also required to complete a Transferable Skills log which will be collected towards the end of May each year.

Travel and Money issue (for PhD students)

10.1 Travel Funds

All applications for Institute funding whether for Conferences, Workshops, Meetings, Observing or Collaborative visits, will be assessed on merit. Our budget is finite and priority will be given to attendance at events which are considered as essential to your PhD training/project. Whilst we will do our best to help you take advantage of a wide range of opportunities, full funding may not always be available for trips classed as 'desirable' rather than 'essential'.

Conferences, Workshops and Meetings

This is applicable to all students, Home and Overseas, unless your sponsor (e.g. Gates Cambridge) specifically provides direct funding.

STFC and some other sponsors provide the Department with a grant to support your research (note that some sponsors will require you to make a specific application before each trip and will reimburse you directly). These funds are intended to cover all the resources, facilities and travel you will require. The IoA pools these grants and dedicates the resultant funds primarily to student travel, thus you do not have a personal travel budget.

Conferences, Meetings and Workshops should normally be chosen to be relevant to your area of research and you will likely be participating, either by giving a talk or presenting a poster. Firstly, you should discuss any opportunities with your Supervisor. Consideration should be given to the relevance to your thesis topic; timing i.e. would you be better to wait until you have some results and is it a suitable time of year in relation to our assessment exercises?  If they are supportive, you should complete the appropriate Travel Application Form (in holder on wall outside H06) and return it to Debbie (or, in her absence, to Margaret Harding).  You will need to work out roughly how much the trip will cost, including flights, travel to the airport, accommodation, food, etc., and registration fees for conferences (these can often be paid up-front by the IoA). Each trip will be assessed on its individual merit. You should not make any arrangements before obtaining permission.

While there is not a hard limit to the total cost of such trips over the course of your studies, our budget is finite. We try to be very flexible but you should also take advantage of other sources of funding or potential contributions from your College, from the organisers of conferences and from other possible sources. If another institution has promised to reimburse part or all of your expenditure it is generally possible to arrange for the IoA to pay the full cost up front and for you to reimburse the Institute when you receive the money.

10.2 Arranging Travel

Do not make any arrangements or commitments before discussing the trip with your Supervisor and securing the necessary funding using the process outlined above.

Make sure you check your passport and any visa requirements.

Flights should be booked with Key Travel, the University's preferred travel agent, whenever possible. Consult Debbie Peterson (or Margaret Harding in her absence) before making any arrangements and she will advise and provide the necessary purchase order.

Travel insurance must be obtained through the University. University travel insurance is available free of charge to all staff and graduate students travelling on University business. To obtain travel insurance, enter your travel plans on the online travel insurance registration system (select ‘Application Process for Graduate Students registered with the University of Cambridge by The Board of Graduate Studies’). Full details of the policy are available on this page and holiday can be included on the policy so long as it counts for less than half of the period you are away. After arranging travel insurance, you should forward the confirmation e-mail to Debbie (

You should generally book your accommodation yourself and claim this back on expenses. If you need any guidance while arranging travel, speak to Debbie who will be happy to advise.

10.3 Observing Trips

As part of your course, you may be required to visit overseas observatories to collect data and learn to use the facilities. For Home/EU students on STFC funding, STFC will generally pay for at least two nearby (La Palma) or one long-haul (Chile or Hawaii) observing trip.

If you are not a STFC student then funding for observing trips can be more problematic but not impossible. Some other sponsors can be persuaded to contribute but if there is no prospect of other sources of funding, and you have been admitted specifically for an observational project, the IoA will pay for two nearby (La Palma) or one long-haul (Chile or Hawaii) observing trips per student.

If your supervisor suggests you go observing, your first port of call, regardless of who is funding the trip, should be Debbie Peterson and/or Margaret Harding who will guide you through the practicalities.

Please note that students cannot go observing unaccompanied but are required to work with experienced (non-student) observers.

10.4 Collaborative Visits

Collaborative visits are less common than observing trips but occasionally, as part of your course, it may be desirable for you to work for a period of time at another institution. This might happen if your Supervisor is spending time working away from the Institute with a colleague at another institution or if another organisation provides specialised training in data handling or other techniques.  If your supervisor suggests you make a collaborative visit, please consult Debbie.

Non-STFC-funded students will need to ascertain whether their funding body is willing to cover the cost of collaborative visits to other institutions.

For Observing Trips and Collaborative Visits,you will be asked to complete a brief application form (available from the holder on the wall beside H06) outlining purpose of visit and costs.

10.5 Claiming Expenses

To claim back your expenses, fill in an expense form available from the holder hanging on the wall outside the Finance Office (H04) , attach all relevant receipts and return to Debbie Peterson for approval. You will generally receive the reimbursement within a couple of weeks.

If you do not have enough money to cover the expenses yourself before travelling you may apply for an advance.  Talk to David or Sue in the Finance Office (H04)  but make sure you apply in good time (i.e. three weeks before you need it).

10.6 Other Sources of Funding

There are few supplementary sources for travel or maintenance support, but it is a good idea to join the Cambridge Philosophical Society ( which organises seminars and meetings and provides travel grants and translation grants. These grants are only available if you have been a member for more than 12 months. You may also want to consider joining the Royal Astronomical Society, who have grants for situations not covered by other funding agencies. Membership is just £1 for the first year for students. The IoA does not provide funding for a continuation of your maintenance grant beyond the duration of your agreed period of studentship and there are very few other sources so this time-limit really should be your target. In certain circumstances the IoA may be able to help with maintenance costs for a few months after the submission of your thesis if there is a specific research project to which you will be contributing before moving on. Most Colleges provide some travel and/or book grants, as does the Institute of Physics if you’re a member. Remember, it never hurts to ask!

Undergraduate Teaching

A common way for graduate students to earn extra money is through the teaching of undergraduates. There are essentially two ways you can do this; supervising and demonstrating.

11.1 Supervising

Supervising is often known as tutoring at other universities and at Cambridge, supervisions typically take place in small groups of two or three students. Supervisions are a key part of the Cambridge undergraduate teaching system and provide an opportunity for students to go through material covered in lectures and discuss the problem sets (that will typically be set by the lecturers) and past exam questions, as well as discussing extended concepts related to the course material.

Astronomy PhD students would usually supervise students studying the Natural Sciences Tripos (the Cambridge degree that includes all science-based subjects), most often in Physics or Maths.

Usually, each College arranges supervisions for its undergraduates in Parts IA and IB (first and second years). The person in charge of this is the Director of Studies for the subject in question. The Director of Studies in your College is probably the first port of call if you are interested in supervising Part 1A or 1B. You should be able to get their e-mail address from your College website (if you are at a predominately all-graduate College such as Wolfson, Hughes Hall, Darwin or Lucy Cavendish, this will be more difficult but see below about supervising in the Department).

The IoA also runs an undergraduate astronomy course in the third year, in Part II of the Natural Sciences Tripos, for which they require supervisors. Contact Cathie Clarke ( at the IoA if you are interested. The Physics Department in the Cavendish Laboratory also need supervisors for their Part II (3rd year) and III (4th year) courses which range from core physics (including relativity and thermodynamics) to more specialised astrophysics courses. If you are interested in supervising for the Physics Department, contact the Teaching Office (

Supervising advanced courses such as Part III (Honours year) Astrophysics can be very challenging, and if you do decide to do this be aware that you could be spending a substantial amount of time trying to complete course problem sets and dealing with tricky questions from your students. It is always a good idea to find somebody who has supervised the course in previous years if you need some help.

It is a requirement that any one supervising for Astronomy takes the formal training course for supervisors available through the Staff Development Programme. The formal training courses still with vacancies will occur on 17 Oct. 2016 at 16:00 and 31 Oct. 2016 at 14:00, with an additional session on the19 Jan 2017 at 16:00.  More information on and how to sign up for these formal training courses can be found at ‚Äč  If you have already supervised for your Cambridge College, you may be exempt from this requirement. If you are supervising for other departments eg. Maths, you will most likely be required to attend Department-specific training which supersedes the university-wide sessions described above. Please contact Cathie Clarke ( to discuss. We strongly advise that you take the course if you are supervising in other subjects or if you are considering supervising in the future.

Any graduate student intending to supervise must obtain the permission of her/his supervisor (at the IoA) to give supervisions.  It is also Institute Policy that our students do not undertake more than 6 hours of supervision per week and anyone considering doing more than 4 hours must discuss it with Debbie Peterson before committing, You should provide details of which courses and how many supervisions you wish to undertake to your supervisor at the beginning of the academic year.

It is normally easier for those who were Cambridge undergraduates to get involved with supervising, simply because they already know the system and the people involved. Supervisions are usually organised before the University Term begins, so if you leave it until you arrive it may be too late. You are under no obligation to do anysupervising,but it can be a rewarding experience,and a good introduction to teaching from the other side of the desk. You can expect to earn about £25 per hour, which seems like a lot, but remember all the preparation you will have to put in beforehand. Bear in mind that you should not spend too much time supervising—anything more than four hours a week will probably be too much. Cambridge undergraduate terms are eight weeks long, so your minimum commitment will be a couple of hours a week for eight weeks, though for many courses you would be expected to supervise for all three terms, including revision supervisions before the examinations. Also, remember that you will be taking on an obligation to your students, and that you will have to make sure that you understand the course!

Another, more informal, way to get involved with Part II and Part III students is through a new presentation skills club.The goal of the club, which will likely run 3–5 times per term, is to allow Part II/III students to practice their presentation skill by either giving a presentation on an astrophysical topic they are learning about or discuss a peer-reviewed astronomy paper. The role of the graduate student at is to moderate presentations/questions, be a mentor/offer advice to the students, set up A/V, and setup and cleanup refreshments and wine provided by the department. While this is still in the planning stages, monetary compensation is likely. For more information contact Cathie Clarke (

11.2 Demonstrating

Demonstrating does not refer to political agitation, but rather to helping out in the undergraduate experimental classes, almost always in Physics. During their first and second years as undergraduates, physics students undertake a fairly lengthy (a half or whole day) experiment every week or so. Each student writes a report on the experimen tas they do it, to be handed in at the end of the experiment. The demonstrator’s job is to be on hand to provide advice and assistance as needed during the course of the experiment, and to grade the reports of a set of students after the experiment is finished. You would obviously have to perform the experiment yourself beforehand to make sure you understand the important issues. Unless you have done the exact experiment before, expect this to take you the same amount of time as the undergraduates. This can make demonstrating for your first year very time consuming if a new experiment has to be learned every week. Make sure you know the amount of time required before committing yourself. The plus side is the pay, you can earn as much as £700 in a term, and if you do the same labs the following year you get paid the same and don’t have to do the preparation.

Physics teaching is organised by the Cavendish Laboratory. If you are interested in demonstrating, contact the Teaching Office ( at the Cavendish. They will be very happy to hear from you, as demonstrators are always in short supply! 

Other Resources

12.1 Library and Journals

The Library catalogue is now searchable online via the Newton form and is also accessible from the terminals located in the Library.

NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS) is the first place to search for online journals, many of which are now accessible electronically. Paper is so 20th century, you know.

The astro-ph preprint archive is the first place you will see most new results, so make it your habit, first thing every morning, to check the new listings. You can subscribe to get daily e-mails with the abstracts—your officemates will be able to tell you how.

The International Astronomy Meetings list is, err, a list of international astronomy meetings! Worth checking now and again so you don’t miss something you would benefit from attending.

12.2 List of Experts

An important skill to develop as a research student is how to use your time wisely. There is no point spending a week trying to figure out how to do a task if the person in the next office could show you how to do it in an hour. However, it takes time for new students to find out who to ask, so we’ve created a list of useful people to get to know in the department and their areas of expertise. The list is not comprehensive (and the names are not in any order!) but it’s a good start. We have italicised the names of your fellow students.


N-body/SPH Sverre Aarseth, Chris Tout
HST Imaging Rob Kennicutt, Matt Auger
SDSS Paul Hewett, Vasily Belokurov
UKIDSS/WFCAM Richard McMahon, Marco Riello, Eduardo Gonzales Solares
Databases/SQL Marco Riello
Astrogrid/Virtual Observatory Nic Walton, Eduardo Gonzales Solares, Guy Rixon
Statistics Mike Irwin
Astronometry Vasily Belokurov, Jim Lewis, Wyn Evans
Photometric Systems Paul Hewett, Mike Irwin, Derek Jones
Spectral Classification Mike Irwin, Vasily Belokurov, Paul Hewett
Lightcurve Analysis Vasily Belokurov
Data-mining Vasily Belokurov, Mike Irwin, Richard McMahon, Paul Hewett
ALMA Mark Wyatt, Manda Banerji, Roberto Maiolino
JCMT Mark Wyatt
La Palma telescopes (ING, TNG, NOT) Nic Walton
Chandra/XMM Andy Fabian, X-ray Group members
Gaia Guy Rixon
Gemini Richard McMahon, Rob Kennicutt, Roderick Johnstone
VLA Cavendish staff
Echelle Spectroscopy Bob Carswell, Max Pettini
Integral Field Spectroscopy Ian Parry, Richard McMahon, Rob Kennicutt, Manda Banerji
JWST Roberto Maiolino
LSST Richard McMahon, Vasily Belokurov, Paul Hewett
Multi-fibre Spectroscopy Ian Parrry, Simon Hodgkin, Paul Hewett
Wide Field Imaging Jim Lewis, Simon Hodgkin, Mike Irwin, Richard McMahon
Instrumentation/Detectors Craig Mackay, Dave King
High Resolution Optical Imaging/Optical Interferometry Craig Mackay, Dave King
Spitzer Eduardo Gonzalez Solares, Richard McMahon, Rob Kennicutt
VLT+ESO Gerry Gilmore, Paul Hewett, Richard McMahon, Rob Kennicutt, Roderick Johnstone, Bob Carswell
Herschel Rob Kennicutt
Planck Anthony Challinor
AIPS AP staff in the KAVLI
CLOUDY Roderick Johnstone, Bob Carswell
IRAF Jim Lewis, Rob Kennicutt, Roderick Johnstone
SExtractor Richard McMahon
C Jim Lewis, Frank Suess, Marco Riello
C++ Frank Suess
Fortran Mike Irwin, Roderick Johnstone
IDL Vasily Belokurov, Mark Wyatt
Matlab Manda Banerji
Perl Jim Lewis
Python Matt Auger, Eduardo Gonzalez Solares, Marco Riello, Sergey Koposov
Java Francesca De Angeli, Marci Riello, Guy Rixon
Numerical Analysis Chris Tout
LATEX Ask your office mates or see
Presentations/posters Amanda Smith (Graphics Officer)
Public talks/press releases/outreach activities Carolin Crawford
Publishing papers (MNRAS etc) Bob Carswell
Historical telescopes Mark Hurn, Bob Argyle, Roderick Willstrop, Derek Jones


12.3 The University Perspective

The Graduate Union exists to represent the interests of graduate students in official University matters, and to dispense advice on legal, financial, academic and welfare matters. Particularly useful is the Graduate Union Handbook and Alternative Prospectus.

The Degree Committee of the Faculty of Physics and Chemistry website contains all you need to know to prepare your PhD probationary report and PhD thesis and links to the Board of Graduate Studies website.

The Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU) represents both undergraduate and graduate populations in Cambridge. They produce a substantial number of publications, which should be available either through your College MCR or JCR, or from CUSU at: 1Old Examination Hall, Free School Lane, Cambridge CB2 3RF; telephone 01223 333313. Of particular use is their Freshers’ Guide.

Cambridge University Reporter is the University’s official journal. It carries notices of official University business, announcements for events, and, in October, the full year’s Lecture List.

Researcher Development

13.1 What is researcher development?

Researcher development provides you with generic skills that can assist you with a broad range of study,researchor employment situations.Examples include verbal and written communication, team working, time management, computing skills and evaluation skills. Over the past year students from the Institute of Astronomy have taken part in a number of activities such as language programmes, public outreach and specific skills development seminars.

13.2 Why do I need it?

Researcher development enhances the subject and research specific skills that you acquire during your course, which will help you to manage your own research programme and career path more effectively. Good researcher development training will also enhance your ability to communicate your passion to other astronomers and a much wider lay audience. As astronomers we are often funded by public bodies so it is important to communicate our work to the general public. In addition many of you will also find yourselves working with larger teams of collaborators. Being able to function effectively within such a team is an important skill to develop.

Many astronomy PhD students go on to find employment in the academic research environment but there are those who diversify into related fields utilising their specialist analytical skills. Examples include oceanographers, software developers, meteorologists, teachers, general practitioners, solicitors, and hedge fund analysts. Researcher development training helps expand the opportunities available to you by giving you the confidence and vision to see how your specialist skills can be adapted and expanded.

13.3 What is the University’s policy?

It is now a requirement that all PhD students funded by the UK Research Councils, including STFC, participate in 10 days per annum of training in researcher development. The University has since decided that such training should be available for all PhD students irrespective of their source of funding. For IoA students this is funded by the University and by the School of Physical Sciences. Researcher development should be developed alongside your subject/research specific skills and should be monitored using log sheets provided by the department.

13.4 How do I fill in my log sheet and what should I do with it?

You are asked to keep a researcher development log sheet each year and submit this before the end of the Easter term to Joy McSharry. In practice it is probable that you would prefer to use up to 15 days training provision in your first year,10 for the second and 5 for the third or similar. You should take personal responsibility for ensuring that you undertake the required amount of training during the course of your PhD. In practice, fulfilling the required number of days is not difficult as any talks you may give at student seminars, group meetings, attendance of seminars etc count towards them. The completed sheets are then returned to the Office of the School of Physical Sciences to monitor the Researcher Development Development Programme and the information used to help determine future funding.

13.5 What training is available?

Internal training.

The Institute of Astronomy, being a relatively small department, relies on obtaining the majority of its researcher development training courses from the School of Physical Science and from other courses run by the University. There are, however, some ways of obtaining researcher development skills through the department.

The Induction Programme forfirstyearstudents incorporates some researcher development training (University Safety Induction Course, Library Tour, Computing courses). Mark Hurn is able to give further bibliographic training if requested. Involvement in outreach activities such as the Institute’s OpenDayand public observing evenings is encouraged, and there is a communications skills course held each year by Carolin Crawford in collaboration with LisaJ ardine-Wright (Educational Outreach Officer for Physics Department).

You will also have the opportunity of becoming a postgraduate supervisor, for which formal training will be organised by the IoA (See section on Teaching). Joy McSharry is the Institute’s Researcher Development co-ordinator and is happy to help with any questions, requests or information you seek (

Internal resources

University of Cambridge - Skills Portal. For information on what is available for postgraduate students from the university.

13.5 What training is available?

University of Cambridge Student Registry, Language Centre, the Computing Service, Staff Development, the Health and Safety Division and the Disability Resource Centre. It is worth noting that Staff Development run specific programmes for Contract Research Staff and Graduate Students.
School of the Physical Sciences supports postgraduates and postdoctoral researchers to develop their skills during their time at Cambridge. Please see what the other departments within the School offer by accessing their individual websites.

Cambridge University External Affairs and Communications. If you wish to get involved in the local community volunteering or public engagement, visit the Public Engagement site. “Rising Stars" was set up in early 2007 and is intended for those wishing to pursue an academic career, and wanting to hone their communication skills in order to integrate public engagement with their academic discipline.

CareersAdvice: The University’s Careers Service isavailable for you at any time to help with career planning. Please see the comprehensive facilities available. You can arrange to have a one-to-one discussion with a careers advisor.

External training

The Institute of Astronomy has in the past approved external training courses ranging from Counselling, First-Aid, Scientific Writing for Astronomers (three day course in Belgium), the “Voice of young Science workshop” held in London, the “She is an Astronomer” conference (as part of IYA 2009) and has purchased the equipment for the IoA podcast. If you wish to attend an external course, please email Joy first to see if funding is available.

External resources

Vitae is an excellent resource. Each year the National and Regional “hubs” run residential courses (GRADschools) of between three and four days. Visit their website to learn how constructive and enjoyable these courses are for postgrads. The main objective of the GRADschools is to encourage you to identify the skills you have and how best to market them. UK GRAD also has a section just for postgraduate researchers where you can access tips on how to manage your PhD effectively.

The British Science Association is a registered charity which exists to advance public understanding, accessibility and accountability of sciences and engineering.

Sense About Science is an independent charitable trust whose programme helps research scientists in the early stages of their career to get actively involved in public debates about science. Please visit the STFC and Royal Society websites (depending on your source of funding) to see what courses they have on offer.

13.6 Who can I contact?

Joy McSharry - Researcher Development Co-ordinator - Tel: 61537

Researcher Development Facilitator (School of Physical Sciences and Technology) - SonjaTomaskovic

Careers advisor for Physical Science  - Susan Gatell

For more information and support, see Personal and Professional Development Information for Graduate Students.

Survival Tips for Living and Working in Cambridge

14.1 Surviving your PhD

Each person’s experience of a PhD is different, but sooner or later everyone encounters a difficult patch and wonders “why am I doing this?” It is a long road, but there are many steps you can take to make life easier for yourself. For some excellent perspectives on how to handle graduate student issues such as managing your time, staying motivated, writing a thesis, and publishing papers, see:

• Estelle M. Phillips and D. S. Pugh, “How to get a Ph.D.”, IoA Library.

• Marie des Jardins, "How to be a Good Graduate Student"

• Stephen Stearns, “Modest Advice for Graduate Students” (a rather pessimistic view!).

• Raymod Huey, “Some Acynical Advice for Graduate Students” (a counterbalancing optimistic view).

Remember if it was easy, someone would have done it already. For a more light-hearted look into the life of a post-graduate student, check out Piled Higher and Deeper comics. Try not to spend all your time reading comics though.

14.2 Problems

Sometimes the problems you face may turn out to be more serious than the regular bumps in the long thesis road. If you do find the pressures of a PhD are getting to you the most important thing is to seek assistance when you need it. This can come in lots of forms depending on the problem and how you would feel most comfortable. Within the department your supervisor or co-supervisor is a good port of call, particularly if it is a work related problem. Vasily Belokurov is also a good contact as he oversees all the PhD students. Some matters are also helped by going to see the support staff—particular for issues with money, Debbie Peterson and Margeret Harding are often good points of contact.

For pastoral care the best contact point will be your college tutor. If you’re having any issues that you don’t feel you want to voice to the department, a college tutor can often be very helpful. They will normally be very receptive if you drop them an email to arrange a meeting. The best thing to do is not to stay quiet! If you’re having problems, no matter what they are, most people in the department are very approachable and you can turn to anyone who you feel comfortable with.

14.3 Healthcare

Register with a doctor (Note for Overseas students: called general practitioners (GPs) who work within surgeries, probably known to you as medical practice offices or clinics. ) and a dentist (University Dental Service: 3 Trumpington Street, 01223 332 860). If you live in College they should help you register by suggesting a GP when you arrive. It’s pretty straightforward; overseas students should make sure to bring a passport along with their university ID card to the surgery, then they will ask you to fill out a few forms about your medical history. Although it’s easy, don’t forget to do it since you could run into trouble if you’re not registered and have an emergency. Your GP should be your first point of contact in most circumstances. If you find yourself sick out of surgery hours, there is a national NHS hotline number that you can call to get advice about your medical condition, routed through a local number called Cam-Doc (01223 464 242). If necessary they might even make a housecall. If you find yourself unwell and unhappy with your GP, don’t forget that switching surgery may be helpful. For those of you living near the IoA, the Huntingdon Road Surgery is highly recommended although in town there are a variety of surgeries.

A good source of general information is NHS 111, this is worth consulting in many situations. Remember that NHS healthcare in Britain is free at the point of care and nearly perfectly reliable (compared to many other countries). The only thing you’ll normally have to pay for is prescription medications, at £8.40 each. Some types of prescriptions are free, like birth control—for a list of who receives free prescriptions and what is free, visit the NHS Prescription Costs webpage. If you find yourself needing more than 4 prescriptions in 3 months then buying an NHS pre-payment certificate could save you money. It’ll cost about £29.10 up front, but then you won’t have to pay for any prescriptions that you need in the 3 month period when your certificate is valid. 12 month certificates also exist, but only offer modest savings compared to buying four 3 month certificates.

Some colleges in Cambridge also have college nurses for common ailments and health issues. The information is kept in confidence. Check with your college porters or on your college website to see if there is a college nurse and what hours they keep.

The local NHS hospital for Cambridge is Addenbrooke’s, which can be reached from the IoA on the Universal (U)  bus line or from town on the Citi 1, 2, 7, 13a, or Milton/Babraham Park and Ride bus. Addenbrooke’s Accident and Emergency (A & E) is the nearest emergency room, should you need to be seen urgently.

In case of a serious crisis, the emergency services number EU-wide is 112 or, in the UK, 999. This will connect you to a operator who will ask you about the emergency. Stay calm and explain where you are and what’s happened. It is possible to contact the police, the fire service or ambulance service through this number. You can also contact less common services like the coastguard and rescue services. 111 is a new phone number in the UK that can be used for medical help where it is not a severe emergency. Calling this is also useful if you don’t know whether to go to A & E and they will recommend a place for you to go for treatment.

14.4 Long-distance travel

For going abroad, remember to apply for a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), even if you’re an overseas student. So long as you have NHS benefits, you can apply for an EHIC, which will help with health care costs when elsewhere in the EU. While not a substitute for travel insurance, it’s definitely useful to have, especially for holidays and conferences. If not an EU resident, you’ll have to get a paper application from the Post Office and attach a copy of your passport’s picture page and visa page, to your application.

If you are experiencing stress, depression, or anxiety, or particularly want to talk about mental health, you can speak to a nurse or a GP for more information. You can also see the University Counselling Services which is available to both students and staff for free. They offer short sessions of counselling, usually for 6 weeks, and can discuss any mental issues. They also offer group counselling and certain types of training. They are located on Lensfield Road, off Trumpington Street towards the south-east of Cambridge. Their waiting list can be as short as a week but does get a little longer during term time when they are more over-subscribed. Their website has more information on their service and how to apply for an appointment. The NHS also has mental health services and there are several groups in Cambridge for young people, (e.g. Centre 33) which can offer similar services for free but you may find the waiting lists are longer.

14.4 Long-distance travel

If you need to escape from the Cambridge bubble from time to time, remember that London is only an hour away by train, and Stansted airport is even closer! Remember that if your travel is related to the Institute or your course you can speak with the Admin Department about whether you should put in a claim on expenses.


If you are under 25, get a Young Persons Railcard. This saves you 1/3 on all rail tickets and pays for itself if you go to London more than twice in a year. It costs £30 and is available at the Cambridge station service desk or online through National Rail (you will need a passport-sized photograph). Look for coupon codes and other discounts before you purchase, as it is usually possible to save 10% or more. You can also buy a Railcard if you are over 25, but you’ll need proof of your status as a full-time student.

The National Rail website also serves as a good journey planner and will send you to the rail operator’s site to buy tickets. You don’t need to worry about picking the right rail operator, as you can buy any ticket on any website. Occasionally there will be a deal that is only available through the train operator you will be travelling with, but this is the exception rather than the rule. A good tip is to think about getting a PlusBus upgrade to your ticket, giving you free bus travel within your destination city (except London) on the day of arrival. It is often significantly cheaper than a regular day ticket.

A note on travel costs—always check all the options carefully. Return and advance tickets are your great friend, as they generally reduce the price significantly. Open return tickets allow the return journey to be any time up to a month after the outward trip, which allows you to save money even if your return leg is not fully arranged. Be aware of off-peak returns as these allow you to travel back on any train for up to a month after your outward trip, but only on certain trains that are outside of peak times. These tend to be week days 8-10ish and evenings 4:30-6:30ish but it can depend. If you get caught out and end up on a peak-time train with an off-peak ticket you are normally forced into buying a peak ticket so it’s best to look ahead to see which times are available to you. Train pricing works in mysterious ways; a day return ticket can sometimes be cheaper than a single fare. What’s even more bizzare, once in a blue moon the first class ticket may be cheaper than standard.

Trains are extremely convenient for travelling to London. An express connection to London King’s Cross operates at high frequency. There is also a marginally cheaper though rather slower connection to London Liverpool Street. The biggest drawback of train travel is that the station is outrageously far away from the city centre—by Cambridge standards that is. Think about 20 minutes walking distance from the city centre (quite a bit further from the IoA). There are also very frequent buses between the train station and the city centre, even quite late in the evening.

If you are planning on travelling around London regularly, it is worth investing in an Oyster card, which makes paying for public transport in London both cheaper and easier. These are used on buses, the underground, and the overground trains in London. It is very like other metro systems in cities around the world. Your Oyster card can be topped up and then swiped on public transport to pay for a ticket. This is cheaper and easier than paying by cash. It records your journey and will take the cheapest fare possible—just make sure to swipe off at the end of your journey to avoid paying a penalty.


Coaches are often a cheaper alternative to trains and can sometimes be more convenient. The main carrier is National Express. If you plan to use coaches regularly, get the Young Person’s Coach Card for discounted fares. It costs £10, and you can buy it online or at any coach station (Drummer Street in Cambridge). The long distance coach connections depart from and arrive to the east side of Parker’s Piece, which is within a comfortable walking distance from the city centre. There is also the infamous (and painfully slow) X5 line operated by Stagecoach, providing you with the cheapest way of getting to the Other Place (Oxford!). Note that despite being rather more expensive, and involving a fairly long connection on the Underground to get from King’s Cross to Paddington, the train is in fact still faster by at least 30 mins.

Air travel

The natural thing to do when flying is to use the London airports.

• Stansted (30 minutes train ride for about £7 with a railcard).

• Luton (1hr coach ride, £12).

• London City Airport (tiny airport actually in London, 2hr train and Tube journey £15 with railcard).

• Heathrow (major international hub, 2hr train and Tube journey £16 with railcard or 2.5hr coach trip £20).

• Gatwick (the furthest of the London airports, 2.5hr train journey £19 with railcard).

For cheap flights within Europe, check out Ryanair, Easyjet, Wizzair, BMI and LastMinute. Ryanair, despite charging you extra for pretty much everything, has the advantage of flying from Stansted. A good website that will give you flexible dates and good travel ideas (as well as quotes from all cheap European airlines) is Skyscanner. Finally, one crucial hint for flying with “cheap” airlines— don’t go over the luggage weight limit as you will soon realize that British Airways would have been cheaper. Makes sure your hand luggage also meets their requirements, these can change even between different budget airlines.

Car rental

Most people consider keeping a car in Cambridge hardly worth the effort, as getting around the city is practically impossible with one. If you want to rent one occasionally, Cambridge offers the standard range of big name companies. If you are between 23 and 25, Cambridge Car and Van Rental is one of the few places that will not charge you a young driver surcharge. Also, you get a free day on every 5th rental and a 10% discount for University members.


The main taxi company in Cambridge seems to be Panther Taxis. They are fairly reliable and you can book a taxi on 01223715715. The department also has an account with Panther Taxis so if you are on university business with the IoA speak with Debbie Peterson or Reception about booking a taxi through the Institute’s account.

14.5 Getting around the town

Many people walk or take the bus in order to get to the IoA. As of the time of writing, The Universal (U) bus (and Citi4 where its route overlaps with the U) going past the department are a pound per ride if you show your university ID.

Still, the Cambridge way to get around is cycling. Some colleges have bike sales at the beginning of the year. These are substantially cheaper than local shops and worth getting to before the undergraduates come back. For a cheap new bike, check out Station Cycles (next to the Grand Arcade car park entrance, in the street behind the Material Sciences department) or the cycle workshop in the narrow alleyway between the Anchor and the Mill (both pubs, if you’re wondering). You can also check out the adverts list on the University forums113 where people post things they want to sell. Don’t forget when you get your bike to get a good helmet and a good lock. If you live in College housing, you should also register your bike with them so they know not to throw your bike away when you’re gone on holiday! You can also register your bike with Immobilise which is a UK wide property register in case your bike is stolen.

If you decide to ride at night, note that you are legally required to have lights: one white light in the front and a red light for the back. You will be fined if you’re caught without them. It is also illegal to ride a bicycle on the pavement except where signs permit it. Otherwise, cycle on the left of the road. In Cambridge there are several roads with designated cycle paths. Note also that bicycles are bound by the rules of the road and must obey all the stop signs and traffic lights just as other vehicles would. That won’t stop many of the cyclists you see around town, but one day they will be caught and ticketed in front of your law-abiding self, and you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you did The Right Thing.


About This Document

This handbook was originally conceived in the spring of 2000 by the following group of postgraduate students at the Institute of Astronomy: Meghan Gray, Sara Ellison, Colin Frayn, Robert Priddey, Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz. Since then more than 50 students have helped update and revise the handbook!

This year, Debbie Peterson, the Graduate Student Administrator, has co-ordinated production and any suggestions or amendments should be sent to her at


About the cover

The image of the Observatory Building, Institute of Astronomy is by Joseph Caruana

Page last updated: 6 October 2016 at 07:52

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