Information for incoming PhD students

Welcome to the Astrophysics and Space Research Group. We hope you will have a productive and enjoyable time here while doing your research for your Ph.D. programme. These pages are designed to be a useful resource for postgraduate students in the Astrophysics and Space Research Group, containing helpful advice (collected from current and previous students) as well as information about the various aspects of your training as a Ph.D. student.

This document provides information which will be useful to you throughout your time as a Ph.D. student. Note that this is an evolving document, and if you think of things you wish you had known on arrival or spot any errors then please let the Graduate tutor know.

Checklist of Things to do on Arrival

  • See the Graduate Students' tutor or Jo Cox(Group Secretary, Room 237, West Building) to find out which office you will be in.
  • See Ms Jan Hutchins (Head of School's office, Room B14 Physics West) for various introductory documents and forms. The important forms that you would need right away are for keys, and to get a pass to allow you to use buildings outside "normal" hours. She will also check whether the various registration forms have been completed.
  • Go to the Main Stores (Physics West) to get keys to your office. The Jo will tell you the codes for the combination locks for the external doors, and the door to your office. (Check with the other postgraduates in your room to find out which keys are needed). Please ensure that these codes are not given to people who are not authorized to enter the building.
  • Contact David Stops (Group Computer Manager, Room 222 West) to obtain an account on the ASR computer network.
  • Check that you can send and receive electronic mail.
  • Register as a Graduate user of the Main Library
  • If you have any questions see the Graduate Students' tutor.

Training as a Postgraduate in the ASR Group

A Ph.D should not just be about learning a set of very specific skills and a very limited range of knowledge related to your specific research topic. It should be about training to be an independent research scientist. Consequently, during your Ph.D we would like to help you develop a range of skills, both generic, but hopefully useful in completing your Ph.D. If you find life as a Ph.D. student is hard, take occasional looks at PhD comics to re-assure yourself that this is pretty Universal.

Research is very much a full-time occupation and will involve a lot of hard work (but which is ultimately very satisfying), including at times evenings and weekends. You should reckon on taking no more than 4-5 weeks annually. Many Ph.D students have the opportunity to earn some extra money doing some laboratory demonstrating or marking. While the money will be useful, be sure to keep in mind that your future career prospects depend on the quality of your research and not your marking skills (which is not to say that you should do shoddy work). PGTAs obviously have more teaching responsibilities and more time to complete their Ph.D.

The hours you will work are flexible, though this will also depend somewhat on what you can agree with your supervisor. Your working hours should never be such as to restrict communication with other members of staff and your supervisor.

Things to keep in mind

  • All students should meet their supervisor on a weekly basis (particularly in the first year).
  • All students are expected to attend the Astrophysics Seminars. These mostly happen on Wednesday afternoon. They should also attend the School Colloquia, also held on Wednesdays.
  • Students should also attend group meetings, which typically happen every other week on Wednesdays at noon.
  • Absences for holidays should be agreed with your supervisor, and when you are away for this or other resasons (such as illness) please notify Jo Cox in the Group office too.
  • It is very important to get experience of presenting talks at subgroup meetings, and at conferences and workshops.

The Postgraduate Training programme

All first-year postgraduate students participate in our postgraduate training programme in their first year, organised under the auspices of the Midlands Physics Alliance Graduate School (Birmingham, Nottingham and Warwick). This involves reading, lectures, workshops, and a variety of hands-on exercises, covering subjects ranging from Computing skills to various research areas in astrophysics. This wiki page gives details of the training programme and the methods of evaluation.

Progress and Monitoring of Your Ph.D

The School and the University operate a number of procedures to monitor your progress during your PhD studies. The main aims of these are (i) to encourage you to reflect on your progress and plans, and (ii) to identify any problems in time to nip them in the bud. The main elements are as follows:
  • Biannual progress reviews - In March and September each year, you and your supervisor will complete a progress review form which involves commenting on progress and any problems. You should take the opportunity to reflect on how things are going and on future plans, bearing in mind the timescale for completion of your thesis.
  • Monthly progress monitoring - This is a requirement from the University, and involves making a brief note each month on a standard form to demonstrate that regular supervision meetings are taking place.
  • Mid-course assessment - This is the major staging post en-route to your PhD, and is described in more detail below. It involves a report and a viva.
  • Thesis planning - the September progress review at the end of your third year is replaced by a thesis planning meeting. The idea here is to ensure that a credible plan is in place which will get you finished successfully and on time. A modified version of the normal progress review form is filled in, and the meeting to discuss it will involve not only your supervisor, but also the external staff member who conducted your midterm review.
  • Development needs analysis - The University offers a number of skills courses which may be of value to you, and to identify which ones may be of interest to you there is an annual DNA form which they ask you to complete.

The Midterm

The Mid-course Assessment (or "midterm") occurs at the end of your first year. For students joining in October, the process typically takes places between October and November the following year.

For the midterm you have to prepare a report detailing your work, and then a viva is held with your supervisor and a senior member of staff from another research group within the School. The midterm report can be of one or two sorts - either a self contained report of roughly 25 pages in length or a more introductory report (10 - 15 pages) plus a paper ready for submission.

The deadline for submission of the midterm is late-September, and the viva takes place a month or so after this, at a convenient time for all concerned.

Postgraduate Travel funds

We encourage all postgraduate students to travel to meetings and conferences within the UK and abroad. We have limited funds available within the group for such travel, and there are several sources of external funding. Wherever possible, external funding should be sought wherever possible. Some meetings and workshops offer financial help to students, and the School also provides some support via the Moreton travel awards.

Writing your thesis

We strongly encourage you to write up as you go whenever possible. In particular publishing papers along the way makes the final thesis writing a lot easier and provides publications to go on your CV (which should help you in getting a postdoc position). Writing up a thesis can easily take 3 to 6 (rather unenjoyable) months. Guidelines for the format of the thesis can be found in the University's 'Notes for Guidance of Candidates'. In particular, the thesis "may consist entirely of published (or publishable) papers, prefaced by an introduction, and literature survey followed by general discussion". The thesis can be written in the style of a selected journal. It should not exceed 50,000 words or 250 pages. A few months before submitting your thesis you must notify the registry on a form. This will lead to the nomination of a senior scientist from outside the university and a member of the group being nominated as external and internal thesis examiner.

Students should be prepared for questions relating to other areas of astronomy (and possibly physics). The sort of questions you get will strongly depend on the examiners, some stick to the topics covered in the thesis, some range more widely. The regulations states that "an oral exam on the subject of the thesis and on the general field to which the candidates subject belongs is normally obligatory."

Ph.D Thesis Style Files

Example files for generating a Ph.D thesis can be found at the links below. The files include thesis.tex (the actual thesis), two style files (thesis_good.cls and reporteld.cls), which need to be in the same directory as thesis.tex, an acknowledgments page and a Bibtex file. A helpful introduction to latex can be found in the The not-so-short guide to latex.

PhD Chronology

1st Year

September: Training for teaching (if relevant)

October: MPAGS programme starts

September (end of first year): Midterm thesis due

2nd Year

November: Midterm viva (ATFC students)

March-June: 2nd Year Seminar (on a Friday)

3rd Year

Plan to attend international conference

September: Apply to change of status to write -up; submit intention of submission

4th Year

March- June: Submission of Final Thesis

Life during and after being a postgraduate student

Take a look at these pages for general pearls of wisdom about what is expected of you while you are a postgraduate student, and how to plan for an academic life after your PhD.

(Maintained by Somak Raychaudhury)