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?

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

  • Do I need to identify a supervisor before I apply?

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

  • 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?

  • Ph.D. application statistics – Overseas-fee students

  • Ph.D. application statistics – Home-fee students

  • When will the results of applications for scholarships be available?

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

  • How much does it cost to undertake a PhD?

  • What has changed now that the United Kingdom has left the European Union?

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

 

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 to masters-level 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,

or,

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. http://www.graduate.study.cam.ac.uk/courses/directory/pcaspdpay/requirem... 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.

Do I need to identify a supervisor before I apply?

While it is not necessary to identify a supervisor or provide a project description in your application, it is helpful if applicants indicate any general area(s) of interest if known, e.g. "primarily theoretical", "observational", "extragalactic", "planet or star formation", etc. If there are particular academic researchers, expected to be offering PhD projects, with whom you might be interested in working please also include their names in Reasons for Applying section of the University application form.

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 the University of Cambridge) 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 the University can make an offer of admission. Applications from students in each subject area, including the research-essay, will be assessed by the Institute's Postgraduate Admissions Committee and potential supervisors. Shortlisted candidates will be contacted in January by potential supervisor(s) with a view to formulating a viable Ph.D. research proposal. Following engagement with a supervisor and an interview with the Admissions Committee, offers of admission will be made to the strongest applicants.

For the majority of 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.

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 be expected 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.

Ph.D. application statistics – Overseas-fee students

We receive some 40-50 applications for Ph.D. studentships from students with Overseas-fee status. Most such students will have made applications to a number of leading universities in the world, e.g. Oxford, leading schools in the USA, Leiden, Heidelberg, Garching (including Max Planck institutes),…

The vast majority of applicants will need a scholarship award to cover the £170,000 cost [of fees and maintenance] of a Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. The deadline for nominations for the scholarship competitions is early February. Applications from students in each subject area, including the research-essay, will be assessed by the Institute's Postgraduate Admissions Committee and potential supervisors. Shortlisted candidates will be contacted in January by potential supervisor(s) with a view to formulating a viable Ph.D. research proposal. Following engagement with a supervisor and an interview with the Admissions Committee, offers of admission will be made to the strongest applicants.

Our Ph.D. programme is short, only three, up to a maximum of four, years. Applicants must be expected to complete a masters-level qualification, normally in astrophysics, before beginning the Ph.D. Competition for the limited number of Ph.D. places with our faculty members is such that applicants also need to be performing at a very high academic level in their masters course. Academic performance measures differ from country to country but successful applicants will normally need to be performing at the level of 3.9 [out of 4.0] on a GPA scheme, in excess of 9.0 [out of 10.0] in many European schemes or obtaining marks of 85 or more [out of a 100] in UK universities, or their equivalent.

Each year we have to reject a number of applications from students whose academic record is not of the very highest quality.

Typically we interview around half of applicants with Overseas-fee status. Approximately half of those interviewed will be made an academic offer of admission. Regrettably, the competition for funding for those students made an offer of admission, is separate and, in nearly all cases, involves University-wide competition for students in all fields of research. The Institute of Astronomy will nominate very strong applicants for funding but the decisions about scholarships are taken by the University/Cambridge Trust/Gates Cambridge. Only applicants scoring 29 or 30 in the University scoring metric will have a realistic possibility of securing such a scholarship. We expect to have one or two STFC DTP studentships for Overseas-fee students, and hope that a few applicants will be successful in the University, Cambridge Trust, Gates Cambridge funding competitions. In total, about five students should be offered funding to undertake a Ph.D.

Ph.D. application statistics – Home-fee students

In a normal year we receive 40-50 applications for full-time Ph.D. studentships from students with Home-fee status. Nearly all the students will have made applications to a number of universities in the United Kingdom all of which are working to the same assessment and interview timescale. For the reasons explained here funding for Ph.D. students with Home-fee status is, in practice, nearly always via the allocation of an STFC Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) or Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) studentship. The STFC DTP and CDT Ph.D. studentships cover all University fees and provide a maintenance award for three and a half or four years rsepectively. .

Unless individuals have experienced special circumstances, to be competitive for the award of an STFC DTP or CDT studentship, applicants should be predicted to obtain a strong first-class four-year (integrated masters) degree.

Students also need to have a clear interest in the range of research undertaken at the Institute of Astronomy. Our research range is broad but there are areas where we do not have active research programmes, e.g. the Sun, space physics, astrobiology. Applicants can assess the number of potential supervisors in different research fields, see potential supervisors but students should be aware that the opportunities for Ph.D. research in theoretical cosmology are limited.

In recent years we have had around six STFC DTP/CDT studentships to allocate to Home-fee applicants. Some students may choose to accept the offer of an STFC-studentship at another university but the ratio of applications to Ph.D. studentships remains about eight to one.

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 Cambridge Scholarships. The outcome of the Gates Cambridge selection process for US applicants will be known close to the end of January 2023.

All other students with Overseas-fee status will be informed in early February whether they have been nominated by the Institute of Astronomy for University, Cambridge Trust and Gates Cambridge Scholarships. The outcome of the Gates Cambridge selection process will be known from late March 2023. Initial offers for University and Cambridge Trust Scholarships will be made from early March 2023.

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 before the USA university Ph.D. acceptance deadline of 15 April.

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

For Home-fee students within the United Kingdom, 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 three 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-fee students is approximately £90,000, while for Overseas-fee students it is approximately £170,000.

What has changed now that the United Kingdom has left the European Union?

Following the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union (EU) students from the EU are liable to pay Overseas fees. 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?

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.

For students wanting to study part-time who will require a visa it is essential that you read the information on the International Students Website carefully before making an application.

 

 

 

Page last updated: 27 September 2022 at 12:11