Paul Ruffle at Starry Night

How to Get a PhD Studentship

I completed my Open University physics degree on 16 October 2002 with the exam for S381 - The Energetic Universe, which was held in UMIST's Great Hall in the Sackville Street Building, Manchester. The very next day (and in the same building) I started a PPARC funded three year post graduate PhD studentship in astrophysics under the supervision of Tom Millar at UMIST.

This article, in its original form, was originally published in the OU Physics Society's Fusion Newsletter Autumn 2002.

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For many OU students, getting a degree in physics is a long drawn out process, especially if you stick to doing just one physics related course per year. However, there comes a time when you have only one or two courses to do, and it dawns on you that you can give some serious thought as to what to do after that very last exam. If, like I did, you find that the kids have grown up and left home, you may want to consider seeking a PhD research studentship in some aspect of physics that particularly interests you.

Now this all might sound a bit pie in the sky. It did to me, but back in November 2000 I attended the Young Physicists' Conference in Chester (organised by Nexus) and found out that doing a PhD was not as out of my reach as I had thought. Firstly, the funding from the research councils (PPARC and EPSRC) has gone up considerably over the last few years and currently (2006) stands at £12,000 per annum (tax free). Tuition fees are also paid on your behalf and expenses for attending conferences or travelling abroad to collect data are usually covered as well.

Secondly, the attitude of many Physics Departments in the UK is very positive to older, OU graduates. As a post doc in my group said to me shortly after I started my PhD, "Give me a choice between a regular student and an OU graduate and I'll pick the OU graduate every time - they have got their degree while working or bringing up a family and they did it because they really wanted to!" Not that every University has such an enlightened attitude. One or two that I contacted were decidedly 'sniffy' when it came to taking my application seriously.

So, how do you go about it, what are the requirements and what is involved? Well, it means working for three years (full-time) researching a specialist area of physics within a University department and producing a unique piece of work (your thesis), that contributes to the total body of scientific knowledge. In practice you spend the first year learning your subject and the 'tools of your trade' (computer analysis tools, laboratory equipment, etc.), the second year doing the real work and the last year writing up your thesis (well that's the theory - I spent the first six months of my forth year actually writing up - most PhD students take about three and a half years).

To start with you need a first or upper second honours degree to get research council funding. That means averaging grade two passes on your best 120 points at second and third level. Obviously your third level grades count for more, but you can afford to have one duff grade. The OU publish a detailed matrix of how honours classifications are arrived at.

Given the somewhat arbitrary nature of the way post graduate admissions are administered - i.e. totally differently at each University - you need to apply early and to as many relevant departments that you can identify. For example there are around 40 physics departments in the UK, but in my case I only identified 27 groups doing astrophysics. By early, I mean start trawling each University's Web site in December and get your applications sent off in January. I did not start doing this until February and missed out on being considered by at least six Universities. Interestingly, my offer came from a University that I had inadvertently missed from my original list - so be thorough!

As part of your application you will need two academic referees. Ideally you want OU tutors with academic standing that actually know you and have a feel for your academic potential beyond the bare numbers on your OU record. Let them know what you are planning and ask nicely so that they can draft your reference on their computer and then print it out numerous times for all those different applications you are going to make.

Seek advice and guidance from as many people as you can. You will be surprised at how helpful and encouraging people can be, as a result of an initial email enquiry. Write yourself a two page PhD application resume to include with your application. Give a little background about yourself and how you have got to this point in your life of wanting to do a PhD. Remember that younger applicants have not got your wealth of experience, so use that to sell yourself. In fact, in the first instance I emailed such a resume to everyone on my list.

If you cast your net wide, you should get several interviews. They will all be quite different, some very informal, others more formal (I had one that was more like a court martial). Beforehand, read up on what the group is researching (from their Web site) and show interest and enthusiasm in what they are doing. Usually you will be passed round the members of the group and each will tell you about their research interests. This way you can pick up a lot of useful background knowledge for your next interview!

If you can't move to a new location, you need to get to know your local University physics department so that you can get a 'foot in the door'. Attend any lectures or colloquia that you can and make a point of introducing yourself to the staff. Tell them of your plans and seek their advice. To show willing, volunteer for any unpaid lab work that might be on offer. You could also consider doing an MSc locally (part or full-time) and improve your chances of getting a subsequent PhD studentship.

Winning a funded studentship is a privilege (it will cost the taxpayer around £50,000 - but don't tell your friends) and a wonderful opportunity to be part of cutting edge physics research. If you really want to do it and are determined - you will!

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