Institute of Astronomy

Ph.D. Programme

Graduate Applications 2018/19


We are no longer accepting applications for entry in 2018.  The Applicant Portal will re-open on 1st September 2018 for admission in 2019. 



The Institute offers the opportunity to study for the Ph.D degree, for which the normal duration of study is expected to be three years. The format is almost exclusively research based, although students attend a number of short courses during their first two years covering research related skills given by members of the Institute and Cavendish Astrophysics.

Ph.D. projects may be exclusively theoretical or observational but many combine aspects of both. It is normal for students to attend at least one relevant international conference during their three years of study, and most students working on observational research projects will undertake a number of observing trips (depending on the requirements of their project) to telescopes overseas.

The typical Ph.D. student intake each year is between 10 and 13, a significant number of which are funded via STFC Quota awards for which qualifying UK and EU residents will be considered automatically. STFC awards cover all University and College fees, but living expenses are included only for UK and certain EU residents. A number of overseas Ph.D. students are also admitted each year financed from other sources, including funding bodies in their own country and scholarships available to University of Cambridge applicants.

Following satisfactory completion of the assessment process at the end of the first year, students are registered formally for the Ph.D. degree, backdated to their start date. The assessment consists of an approximately 10,000 word written submission which includes a description of work undertaken during the first year and a research plan for the remainder of the Ph.D.

Projects & Supervisors

Each year some 25-28 supervisors will offer a total of well over 50 Ph.D. projects. With typically 10-13 students starting their Ph.D. each year, there are many more projects than students. Experience over many years shows that offering students the opportunity to investigate and assess a number of projects once they have arrived has many advantages for both students and supervisors and represents one of the key attractions of choosing to undertake a Ph.D. at the Institute. The choice of Ph.D. project, normally decided within the first three months, is reached after discussion between the student and a number of potential supervisors.

As a consequence, the Institute does not provide a list of specific projects on offer for the coming academic year. Insight into the current research interests of potential supervisors can be found at Research at the IoA and by looking at their recent papers using NASA/SAO ADS or the preprint arXiv (astro-ph).

An idea of the range of topics available to Ph.D. students can be gained from the following titles of projects which have recently been completed or are currently being undertaken (see list of titles below).

Titles of Recent Ph.D. theses:

  • Galactic Dynamics: Multiple Tracers and Gravitational Lensing
  • Debris in planetary systems
  • X-Ray observations of the outskirts of galaxy clusters
  • Probes of cosmology beyond the standard model
  • The origin and evolution of the galactic globular cluster system
  • The spectroscopic variability in FU Orionis
  • The structure of common-envelope remnants
  • Exploring the Cosmos with gravitational waves
  • Stellar variability and planet finding 
  • Two dimensional stellar evolution 
  • The satellite galaxies of the local group 
  • Three-body interactions of supermassive black holes in merging galaxies 
  • Black holes in high-energy astrophysics: Active galactic nuclei and gamma-ray bursts 
  • Theoretical studies of galaxy and structure formation 
  • Near-field cosmology - resolved stellar kinematics of local group galaxies 
  • CaII quasar absorbers and their host galaxies 
  • Lyman-alpha emission and the epoch of reionization 
  • Modelling origin of hot dust around sun-like stars 
  • Star formation thresholds in local face-on spiral galaxies and extra-galactic star formation 
  • Gravitational lensing  
  • The structure of the Milky Way halo and the thick disk 
  • Chemical abundances and chemical evolution of nearby galaxies 
  • A study of cool core galaxy clusters 
  • High redshift dust obscured galaxies 
  • The evolution of stellar mass and the implied star formation history 
  • Large spectroscopic surveys in extragalactic astronomy 
  • Star formation at high redshift 
  • The Monitor project: A search for low mass eclipsing binaries in the young open cluster M50 
  • Demographics of gas and star formation in galaxies 
  • The formation and evolution of ultraluminous galaxies at z~2  
  • Resolved stellar populations in the M31 subgroup 
  • The high energy universe: Cosmic rays, active galactic nuclei, and galaxy clusters 
  • CMB lensing with Planck 
  • Modelling the gravitational wave emission in extreme mass ratio inspirals 
  • On the evolution of debris disks stirred by planets 
  • High redshift galaxies 
  • Cosmic evolution of active galactic nuclei 
  • The measurement of black hole spin from x-ray spectra  
  • X-ray spectra of narrow-line Seyfert I galaxies

* For entry in October 2018 there is one interdisciplinary Ph.D. opportunity, involving the evolution of planetary nebulae and oncological imaging, supervised by Dr. Nic Walton. The project has full-funding for a UK or EU student and more details can be found here.

* Applications are also invited from UK and EU students for two Royal Society funded Studentships to work on the following project:

The Geology of Rocky Exoplanets with Dr. Amy Bonsor, more details can be found here.


You may also be interested in postgraduate research opportunities at the Department of Physics (Cavendish Astrophysics Group) and the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics.  For consideration by these departments, separate applications will need to be made through the Graduate Admissions website.

Requirements for Admission to Postgraduate Study

The Faculty's minimum academic requirement for admission as a Ph.D. student is the equivalent of a UK upper second class four-year undergraduate honours degree (five-year from Scottish universities). However, competition for Ph.D. places at the Institute is such that offers of admission are made almost exclusively to students who hold, or are expected to receive a first class honours degree, or equivalent, in a relevant subject. If you are studying for a degree overseas and are unsure of its UK equivalent, please contact for advice.

Please see our  Academic Requirements FAQ for further useful information about first degree requirements and some specific information for applicants educated in the USA.

Overseas and EU students must also provide evidence of proficiency in written and spoken English.

Our Ph.D. degree involves three years of study and is almost exclusively by research. However, in the first two years students attend a range of courses designed to provide key research skills and knowledge of current research in astrophysics. The structure of the Ph.D. degree in the United Kingdom contrasts with that available in the United States of America and elsewhere, where one or two additional years of study, involving a substantial course-based component, is completed before the exclusively research-based element begins. As a consequence, students embarking on the Ph.D. at the Institute of Astronomy will normally have completed training in a physics-based degree to masters level.

In the United Kingdom and Australia, students will have completed a four-year undergraduate degree leading to a master of science, or similar qualification. In other countries, including the majority of Europe and India, a three-year undergraduate degree followed by a one- or two-year masters degree is necessary. A number of factors are considered when assessing applications, including relevant research experience and the subject area of the undergraduate degree (nearly always physics, astrophysics or mathematics based). The Faculty's minimum academic requirement for students graduating on a North American-related "GPA scheme" is a GPA of 3.5/4.0, although the majority of successful applicants have a higher grade of at least 3.8.

Students whose initial training is in another discipline, such as mathematics, usually need to acquire a masters level qualification with a substantial physics-based element. For applicants interested in more theoretical research areas, the one-year MASt in Mathematics or our  MASt in Astrophysics are options for acquiring the necessary background in astrophysics prior to commencing study for the Ph.D. Typically, each year, several students completing these courses are offered admission for a Ph.D. at the Institute of Astronomy.

Page last updated: 12 December 2017 at 14:25