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Programs Help on where to apply for a PhD (UK)

  1. Oct 2, 2011 #1
    So I have a 1st class honours degree in maths and physics from my undergrad university. I then went on to do the part iii course at cambridge where i did only theoretical physics courses. I got a merit for that.

    Currently I'm working abroad for a year in a non-maths related job (hopefully my inability to easily return to the uk for interviews and also the fact that i'm only managing to top up my physics in my spare time won't damage my application!)

    Anyway, I'm looking to apply for a PhD in theoretical physics in the UK for 2012 entry and I want to get started on applications asap.

    I have some questions:

    (i) Now, I've been told you don't need to specific an idea of a research proposal. I have decided that I want to work along the lines of GR and black holes with some quantum-y stuff thrown in. Does that perhaps lean towards string theory? Does this sound specific enough or are they looking for much more detail?

    (ii)The next step is to decide where to apply. I have decided Edinburgh and Glasgow are both getting an application as I'm from Scotland and haven't lived there in a good while.
    I thought about Cambridge but it's so pressured it might drive me crazy! Also, I'm fairly sure they require a distinction for entry onto a theoretical physics PhD.
    Even if I can't make Cambridge, I believe my academic background is sufficient that I should be looking for Russell Group Universities.
    I took a look at Oxford but their website on theoretical physics seems to suggest the department is limited to condensed matter and particle theory - is this true?
    Another big thing for me is having a reasonable quality of life - I want to live in a fairly interesting place - I was maybe thinking some of the London unis would be worth a shout. I really don't know enough about these other universities - can anyone suggest to me unis in good cities with strong research in my desired areas? I reckon I should probably aim to apply to about 4 places to have a reasonable chance of being accepted somewhere - does this seem reasonable?

    (iii) Am I right in thinking that the next step is then to email the departments in question? Who do I email? Academic staff or the secretary? And do I basically just say something along the lines of "Any chance of a PhD?" lol.

    The application process for this is quite different and I'm kind of struggling to get my head around it so thanks for any and all help!
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 2, 2011 #2
    The research project is provided by the leader of the group you work in, at least at the beginning. You are not expected to know current research well enough to provide own projects (and expect someone else to pay you for that :P), that only comes at later post-doc levels.

    I doesn't rule out string theory. But usually (outside the Internet :P) I would rather think of quantum field theory on curved spacetime (which is not exactly quantum gravity because the spacetime is treated as a classical background). In the more applied section, "GR and black holes" seems to cry for astrophysics, as you won't have them anywhere else.

    I think you should at least be able to verbalize why you find that interesting. Not only for not looking stupid, but also because people will have an easier time finding an appropriate project for you, then. One thing you should make up your mind about is to what extend you want to work analytically (the stuff you did in lectures), and to what extent you want to do programming (ranging from numerical solution of equations to computer experiments). Nowadays, there are a lot of PhD positions in theoretical physics departments that are very computer-intensive, and may not exactly match your ideas about theoretical physics.


    I don't know the UK application procedure, but it seems pretty pointless to me to mail a secretary. Write to the group leaders.

    I would add a few lines about yourself (I already added CV and copy of my degree in the first mail as an attachment, but I applied for announced positions) and why you are interested in this group. This part is of course a bit tricky. Don't be worried by the fact that you don't even really know what the group exactly does. As an ongoing PhD student you are not expected to know the current research in the field well. Just be honest in describing why the group looks interesting to you.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2017
  4. Oct 2, 2011 #3
    Thanks for a really great reply! A few additional questions that I have:

    So in an initial email I would just need to state that I am keen to work in this particular research group?

    OK. Perhaps I was a bit too brief here. I am a big fan of GR and black holes but also of QFT and would ideally like something where I get to work using a bit of both worlds. Astrophysics would involve virtually no QFT right? Whereas things like strings or ads/cft would involve both?

    Also, for my own interest, can you elaborate on the statement about quantum gravity being on a classical background? That doesn't make much sense to me!

    This is probably the most useful bit of advice but it is of course very tricky to get this right. And I am notoriously bad at phrasing this kind of stuff! Obviously you don't want to say "I want to study string theory because it is potentially one of the greatest landmarks in physics and will solve all the world's problems bla bla bla"!
    I find it hard to explain why I find it interesting. I guess having taken this year "out" from studying, it has made me realise how much I miss studying it and how enthusiastic I am when I am talking about/explaining it to other people. Is this the kind of thing they would be looking for?y

    And, importantly, is it ok to say in the email that i want a very mathematical project with as little computing (preferably none) as possible!

    Cheers. Yeah I managed to locate this eventually as well.

    What sort of things did you put as to why it looked interesting to you?
    Also, where do they advertise PhDs?
    And if you don't mind, where and what are you studying?

    Thanks and sorry to bombard you so much!
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2017
  5. Oct 3, 2011 #4
    Well, I can't really tell you what people are looking for. I can only tell you what makes the most sense to me. In my experience, group leaders want people who get the job done and produce useful results without needing too much supervision. A general interest in the topic certainly helps there, but enthusiasm is not required. In fact, I would be hesitant to hire a person whose goal it is to solve all the world's problems, when I only look for someone solving my particular detail problem at hand. But that is my personal attitude, and I am not in a position to hire people, anyways.
    Perhaps don't overestimate the importance of what I said about expressing an interest. The idea was mainly to somehow show that you have picked the group on purpose, and not merely sent a mail to all UK groups that have the word "string theory" in their research description. I would probably write something like I have seen that you are doing research in X. From my former experiences in the lectures Y and Z (and maybe some other reasons), that seems like an interesting topic that I would be interested to work on.

    The astrophysicists I have met all do QFT, but that is a biased view as I come from a particle physics background. I guess "galaxy formation" would rather not involve much quantum physics, "inflation" rather likely would.

    I doesn't make sense and it is not what I said. What I said is that you can do quantum field theory on a curved space background and get extra terms from the fields coupling to the geometry (if I understood that correctly). That's actually even part of some GR textbooks (at least the one that I own). What I said is that this would fulfill your "GR with some quantum stuff thrown in", but that it is not quantum gravity.

    Yes, except for the exclamation mark. I would in fact strongly recommend putting in such a statement (I like mathematics and enjoy to work analytically or something like that).

    To be honest, I am not really sure I actually did. It's been some time, so I don't remember. I have the advantage that I have a very strong computational background, which is quite a door opener for being invited to interviews (for computationally-intensive work). Since I radically switched fields after my master's, so there was not much to say about interests in the fields I applied to, I put the focus on techniques (computer skills). I certainly did look at the latest publications of the group to get an impression of what they were doing.

    There are a few sites on the Internet; I don't remember which. They should be easy to find (I vaguely remember the name TipTop, but the page seems to have changed a bit since my last visit). I would recommend not to restrict yourself to announced positions, though.

    That's none of Google's concern. I can send you that via private messaging.

    You are welcome. Just keep in mind that I, or most other people here, cannot give you definite advice. I merely have a bit more experience in the academic environment than you, but I am by no means a professor with tens of years of experience or a job counselor. One important piece of advice: I am not from the UK, so I have no experience with PhD applications there. All I say is under the assumption that in the UK you indeed directly apply to groups, and that the funding is provided by them. There are also other ways, like getting a grant in something like a graduate program (http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/maths/subsites/opalg/qsng.html") and getting funding from them, which will probably make finding a position in a group easier ("hey, can I work for you for free?"). But I have no experience with that.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2017
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