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Programs Going straight from a BSc to PhD in astrophysics

  1. Jun 5, 2010 #1
    Hi all

    I have recently completed my BSc (Hons) in physics (got first-class honours) and am considering my options. I would like to go on and study for a PhD on a topic relating to exoplanets, and can't decide whether to do an MSc first or whether to go straight for a PhD.

    Reasons for going straight to a PhD:

    1) I know the area I want to research, so why waste time doing an MSc?

    2) My grades are good enough for entry to a PhD program here in the UK.

    3) MSc's aren't funded, so I'd have to fork out the cash for the course and a year's living expenses.

    4) I have worked full-time for 12 years, so have picked up lots of beneficial skills and am more mature in my studying than I was at school.

    5) I will be 30 this November, and don't want to waste any more time than is necessary! By the time I've completed a couple of post-docs, I'll already be in my 40s!

    Reasons for not going straight to a PhD, and doing an MSc first:

    1) I studied from home part-time for my BSc (with the Open University in the UK), so haven't had the experience of a traditional University.

    2) Doing an MSc would give me a more rounded knowledge of different topics in astrophysics.

    3) Would I be taken seriously when looking for research positions in the future? Most people seem to go BSc, MSc, PhD. If I just have a BSc and PhD, and the BSc was completed via home study, would I stand a chance against others when looking for postdoc positions?

    Alternatively, have I already left it too late to seriously think about leaving work and starting a PhD? If I start a 3 year PhD this October, I'll be just shy of 33 when I complete it. Would I be better off using my BSc to get a better paid job, and forging a career in business/industry instead?

    As you can see, I've got lots of thoughts running through my head! Any comments will be much appreciated. :smile:
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 5, 2010 #2
    You may get a lot of replies from those in the US system saying that an MSc is absolutely essential. In the UK, I disagree. If you find a university that will take and fund you with the BSc then great, I would go for it.

    With a Ph.D, it won't matter much. Proving yourself at research is the key - getting yourself a good supervisor and writing a good PhD are the things to do to help yourself be 'taken seriously', not the institution in which you completed your undergraduate.

    You certainly haven't left it too late, the later part there is up to you. Do you want to go and work in industry? You can look at graduate programmes from companies like EADS Astrium and SELEX Galileo if you're interested in space work with physics - you won't find any exoplanets work, though. Consider that, either way, you're going to have 30-40 years of work left. What do you want to spend the majority of that time doing?

    Other than the above, the only things I have to add are:

    you are very late in the year to apply for research funding in the UK - the research councils have all come to their decisions by now and, in my experience, the number of people applying for PhD positions in physics has risen recently - perhaps because of a shortfall in jobs and people wish to have the financial security for 3-4 years of a PhD. The only way to find out if universities have funding left is to contact them and ask. Some universities will have departmental funding that they might have free from the budget to add an extra student, or they may look at putting you on a waiting list. These are, of course, if you are accepted for a position. Otherwise, for an MSc you are a still late in applying but because you would need to pay your own way for most of this it is more likely that positions are available. You could look at this and apply for a PhD starting in 2011. Don't let your age become a factor in this decision.
  4. Jun 9, 2010 #3
    Thanks for the reply fasterthanjoao. That really helped a lot.

    I know I am late in applying but I have found three universities that still have PhD places left (Open University, Central Lancashire and St Andrews). I've got an interview at the OU tomorrow, and am still waiting to hear from the others. I have also been accepted for a research MSc at Bristol, Warwick and Durham, should I decide to go that route (i.e. if none of the PhDs are successful!)

    One other question I meant to ask is how much computer/programming knowledge is required for an MSc/PhD? The only thing I am capable of at the minute is getting a computer to say 'Hello World'. Are students expected to be proficient in programming skills when they start, or do universities account for the fact that not everyone's had the chance to learn them? (I will be teaching myself C programming between now and October)

    Thanks once again! :biggrin:
  5. Jun 9, 2010 #4


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    Er.. you may not.

    In the US, the M.Sc degree is often not required to apply for a Ph.D. In fact, many apply directly for a Ph.D upon completion of a B.Sc degree. What usually occurs is that they get their M.Sc degree along the way. But I've seen many instances where a student didn't even bother declaring for the M.Sc degree on the way to a Ph.D.

    Academically, you are going to learn almost the same thing anyway, at least, in US universities. So what you have to learn as part of a M.Sc is also required for a Ph.D. So getting a M.Sc degree is NOT essential here in the US if you are pursuing your Ph.D.

    I've explained this in greater detail in my "So You Want To Be A Physicist" essay.

  6. Jun 9, 2010 #5
    I'm going straight for a PhD in astrophysics with just a BS in physics. Most people here are doing the same thing. Actually I don't think I even know anyone with an astrophysics MS.

    Not sure if things are different in the UK though.
  7. Jun 10, 2010 #6
    Maybe I'm not overly qualified to answer your question, but I'll try my best :) I think a certain degree of knowledge would be expected, as I've seen that some universities (University of Sheffield, for example) make it mandatory you take a class in C programming. With the said university, the course is listed as optional, but when I went to check out the details, it said you must choose in year 2 two options, one of which must be the programming course. I'm not sure how it is with other universities, though from those I have checked all have at least an optional module of said course. Though perhaps I'm giving this too much weight and in the end, the course being offered notwithstanding, it doesn't matter whether you take it or not.
  8. Jun 10, 2010 #7
    At my undergrad school it wasn't required, but we had an experimental physics class where we learned about things like error analysis, electronics, data acquisition, and yes, C programming. All the professors at my graduate school say that you don't need to know anything when you start, since physicists are good at picking up new skills. But truthfully, I personally wish that I had more programming experience coming in.
  9. Jun 10, 2010 #8

    I'm a little worried that everyone is talking about C programming, I have been taught to program in Fortran 90, is this going to be a disadvantage to me?


  10. Jun 11, 2010 #9
    Thanks for the replies everyone.

    I had an interview for a PhD at the Open University yesterday (well, two; one was 30mins and one was 1:30!) Most of it seemed to go okay, and they were impressed with my undergrad subjects. The only mishap came when they asked me what astrophysics discovery in the last few months really interested me - my mind went blank! :bugeye: Hopefully they will look past this!

    Also, they said that computer programming skills are not expected, but that I should be willing to learn them while there.

    So, all in all it seemed to go well. I just need to wait for their decision now. :grumpy:
  11. Jun 11, 2010 #10

    Vanadium 50

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    Maybe, but this was about the worst possible answer to what might have been the most important question. The answer they were hoping for would have shown that you were interested enough to be paying attention to developments in the field. If you get another interview, you would be well-served to be sure to nail this part.
  12. Jun 11, 2010 #11
    I know! And the annoying thing was that on the train journey back home I could think of loads of things. For some reason, I just couldn't remember anything in the interview. :mad:

    Not to worry though. I'll be honest and say that even if I was offered the place, I'm not sure I'd take it. The projects sounded interesting, but I'm not sure if I could imagine myself living in the area for 3 years, and to me the surroundings play an important role.

    I've got another interview next week, and possibly another the week after, so at least I know what to expect now.
  13. Jun 18, 2010 #12
    Well, I've just got an email today to say they would like to offer me a PhD studentship modelling the atmosphere of Mars!

    The quandry I'm in is that the project sounds fascinating, and I'll receive no other PhD offers this year, but I'm not sure about living in Milton Keynes. Aargh! Decisions, decisions. I'll have to pop down next week and look at the area in a bit more detail. To be honest, I wasn't expecting getting a place!
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