Institute of Astronomy

Academic Requirements and other Frequently Asked Questions

My academic training is not in astrophysics, can I apply to become a Ph.D.  student in astrophysics at the Institute of Astronomy?

Our short, three-year, research only, Ph.D.  course is not well suited to someone who has not had undergraduate training in astrophysics or physics with a component of astrophysics. There simply isn't time available to acquire the necessary background in astrophysics while also completing enough research for a Ph.D.  As a consequence, students whose initial training is in another discipline, such as electrical or aerospace engineering, computing, pure mathematics,... normally need, first, to acquire a masters level qualification with a substantial astrophysics/physics-based element.

If you really intend to undertake a Ph.D. in astrophysics then, generally, the three-year Ph.D.s offered by most universities within the UK are not what you need. Instead, you should explore options such as

i) a five-year "Ph.D." in the USA with the initial two-year masters-level course-work element providing the necessary background in astrophysics,


ii) a two-year astrophysics masters-level course provided by a number of institutions in Europe. Examples include courses offered by the universities of Manchester and Sussex in the UK and Leiden in the Netherlands.

My undergraduate degree is not from the UK, what is the Academic Requirement for entry to the PhD course?

Please visit the Graduate Admissions webpage for further information regarding International Qualifications. although the minimum entry requirement for the University of Cambridge is equivalent to a good 2.1 in a four year integrated Masters degree we would expect the equivalent of a strong First Class Degree from most Overseas applicants.

I have an undergraduate degree from the United States of America and a strong GPA score, can I apply to undertake a Ph.D. at the Institute of Astronomy?

Undergraduates educated in the United Kingdom (UK) embarking on our Ph.D.  Programme will have completed a four-year programme of study consisting almost exclusively of physics/astrophysics and mathematics courses.  The students are thus far less broad educationally then their counterparts in the USA but their knowledge in physics and mathematics is significantly more advanced. The difference in the undergraduate programmes explains the very different format and timescale for the respective Ph.D.  programmes in the two countries. Ph.D. programmes in the USA typically involve a two-year period with a considerable course-work element, followed by a three-year period devoted exclusively to thesis research. At the Institute of Astronomy (and most universities in the UK) the length of the Ph.D. is just three years and the thesis research element commences right at the start. As a result, we are rarely in a position to offer admission to our Ph.D. programme to someone straight from an undergraduate training in the USA. For students wishing to research in predominantly theoretical areas, including cosmology and the cosmic microwave background, admission to the Institute's Ph.D. programme is simply not possible.  If a student is interested in projects with a more observational/data-analysis bias admission can be a possibility, in which case see the requirements outlined below.

For an application to be viable, a student will expect to complete a four-year undergraduate degree in the USA, with a strong emphasis on physics and mathematics courses, including several at postgraduate level.

A GPA score of at least 3.8 (on system with a maximum of 4.0) is desirable and you should also have undertaken at least one research internship or research-project in the field of astrophysics. Most applicants offered admission will possess a GPA of 3.9 or higher.

Is it possible to identify a specific project and supervisor for a Ph.D. without having made a formal application for admission?

For students with Overseas fee status, competition for offers of admission to the Ph.D. programme is considerable and the same is also true for funding awards (associated with Cambridge University) to allow students to take up an offer of admission. Ensuring that a suitable project and supervisor are identified is a prerequisite for any student before they make a formal application (see the "Funding" page for more information). Applications from students in each subject area will be assessed by the Institute's Postgraduate Admission Committee and offers of admission made to the strongest applicants.

For students with Home fee status, applicants will be interviewed in late February and a discussion about the availability of projects in particular subject areas will form part of the interview and "visit".  There are a finite number of Ph.D. projects available in any particular research field and it is thus not possible to give a definitive answer concerning the availability of specific supervisors or projects until the interviews are complete.

When will the results of applications for scholarships be available?

Students who are USA nationals applying from the USA will be informed in November whether they have been nominated by the Institute of Astronomy for a Gates Scholarships. The outcome of the Gates Scholarship selection process for US applicants will be known on 28 January 2021.

All other students from the EU and Overseas will be informed in early February whether they have been nominated by the Institute of Astronomy for University, Cambridge Trust and Gates Scholarships. The outcome of the Gates Scholarship selection process will be known from late March 2021. Initial offers for University and Cambridge Trust Scholarships will be made from early March 2021.

Further awards to candidates on the Cambridge Trust Scholarship reserve list are made in subsequent weeks. The intention is to allow the strongest applicants to be in possession of scholarship offers well before the USA University Ph.D. acceptance deadline of 15 April.

What happens if I am called for interview and a visit?

Applicants are encouraged to spend at least half a day with us. Before and after the interview, members of staff will be available to talk to applicants on an individual basis about the availability of Ph.D. topics in particular areas. The opportunity to meet current postgraduate students is also an important part of the visit.

The interview with the four members of the Postgraduate Admissions Committee will last about 30 minutes. The Committee will discuss aspects of your undergraduate courses, masters research project and your potential research interests.  You will also be given the opportunity to ask questions of your own.

The Institute will cover reasonable travel expenses.

How much does it cost to undertake a PhD?

Nearly all of our students are in receipt of scholarships that cover all fees and living costs.  For students considering funding a PhD themselves the combined cost of fees and living expenses for Home students is approximately £80,000, while for Overseas students it is approximately £150,000.

What has happened now the UK has left the EU?

Following the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union (EU) students from the EU are liable to pay Overseas fees from October 2021. The only exception is for students from the Republic of Ireland for whom the fee liability is at the lower Home rate.

Can I undertake a Ph.D. as a part-time student?

For students with Overseas University fee status a part-time study option is not possible under any circumstances.

For students with Home University fee status the University has now made a part-time study option a possibility in principle for all subjects. There are, however, significant differences in the viability of part-time study for the Ph.D. due to the nature of, and timescales for, research in each field. In astrophysics the timescales for the majority of projects are significantly shorter than the length of the part-time Ph.D., which is scheduled to take between five and seven years. Applications for observational resources and supercomputer time are made every six months to a year. The proprietary period associated with such awards, when the researchers have preferential access to the data acquired, are typically one year. Grant proposals, that fund many of the research projects are often only of three years duration and key postdoctoral researchers, associated with projects, are thus available for limited periods.

As a consequence, the majority of forefront research programmes undertaken by Institute of Astronomy faculty do not match the timescales associated with part-time study for the Ph.D. Research projects suitable for students studying part-time thus often need to be crafted specifically. Before making an application, students interested in part-time study for the Ph.D. should make contact with potential supervisors  and establish that an appropriate research project can be formulated. Potential applicants should be aware that for a number of potential supervisors it may not be viable to identify a project suitable for part-time study.



Page last updated: 22 April 2021 at 16:05