skip to content

Q. My academic training is not in astrophysics, can I apply to become a PhD student in astrophysics at the IoA?

Our short, three-year, research only, PhD 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 PhD. As a consequence, students whose initial training is in another discipline, such as electrical or aerospace engineering, computing or pure mathematics usually need to acquire a masters level qualification with a substantial astrophysics- or 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 PhD. Typically, each year, several students completing these courses are offered admission for a PhD at the IoA.

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

i) a five-year "PhD" 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.

Q. My undergraduate degree is from the USA, what is the academic requirement for entry to the PhD course?

Undergraduates educated in the UK embarking on our PhD 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 PhD programmes in the two countries. PhD 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 PhD 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 PhD 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 PhD 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 a 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.

Q. My undergraduate degree is not from the UK, what is the academic requirement for entry to the PhD course?

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.

Please visit the Graduate Admissions webpage for further information regarding International Qualifications.

Q. 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.

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

For students with Overseas-fee status, competition for offers of admission to the PhD 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 a Statement of Interest, 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 PhD 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 PhD 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.

Q. 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 2025.

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 2025. Initial offers for University and Cambridge Trust Scholarships will be made from early March 2025.

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 PhD acceptance deadline of 15 April.

Q. 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 PhD 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.

Q. 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.

Q. 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 Ireland for whom the fee liability is at the lower Home rate.

Q. Can I undertake a PhD 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 PhD 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 PhD, 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 PhD. 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 PhD 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.

Q. English is not my first language, do I need to take an English Language test before I apply?

No. If you are made a conditional offer and have not already met the University's English language requirements, one of the conditions of your offer will be that you pass a test at the required level.

Please note that test results are only valid for two years. A list of language tests accepted by the University and a link to the scores required for our course can be found here.