Graduate perspective: What it’s like to be a PhD student in Astrophysics

Guest blog written by Camille Yasmina Lorfing (MPhys Physics with Astrophysics, 2020)

Camille graduated from The University of Manchester in 2020. She is currently working towards a PhD in Solar and Plasma Physics at UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Surrey.

“We often say that a degree in physics is a degree in problem solving, and that really is what it’s about.”

Each summer during my undergrad I wanted to get some experience in my field that might give me an insight into the world of research. I worked at CERN for the CRIS Nuclear Physics experiment in 2017 and interned at the Astroparticule & Cosmologie Lab at the Université Paris-Diderot in Paris on Gravitational Waves for the LIGO/Virgo experiments in 2018. But I wasn’t sure research was for me, or perhaps I hadn’t found a topic I was genuinely passionate about… So in 2019 I applied to be a Summer Analyst in Market Risk at JP Morgan and spent two months in the financial sector. This experience showed me what the corporate life was about, and that it really was not for me. I missed solving problems, equations, discovering new things, having a free timetable. Then the MPhys research project came to confirm my desire to embrace the career of a researcher. I worked on writing a software for the characterisation of radio pulsars at the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics… while applying for jobs and PhDs.

Now all I can say is that although radically different from undergrad life, the PhD life is thrilling, fun, full of surprises, and very rewarding.

  • Misconceptions

When you apply for a PhD position, there are certain requirements like for any vacancy. They look for skills, and grades. You might think you are not fit for the job or that there are people who have better academic records and will get in your way during the recruitment process – but that’s not true. The most important skills are the ones you gained through extra-curricular activities. Being a team player, having done outreach or volunteering, keeping up hobbies, learning languages, tutoring, internships, volunteering… any experience helps!

  • What it’s really like

You are independent. Every day is different, and you’re not just doing science all day. It’s a constant vertical learning curve where you have to learn on the go. Your day will be split between reading papers, attending meetings and talks, doing outreach, working on your code or research. You also get to make your own timetable and plan your time as you wish. It becomes exciting because you choose how you want to go about your day, and how you want to make your PhD life suit your needs and work around your hobbies. Most importantly, you’re working on solving problems and getting paid for it.

  • Starting a PhD remotely

Starting a PhD is not easy, let alone remotely – you don’t know people at your lab and have to interact with them entirely virtually. It can be difficult to reach out to people you don’t know when you have questions. But don’t worry! PhD students from higher years or others in your group have been in your position before and know the struggles of starting your research career. Don’t hesitate to message them, ask questions, the chances are that they have encountered a similar issue you are facing and will help you sort it out. This way you also get to interact more with people in your lab and start making friends before you actually move back in person.

It’s nevertheless important to take breaks, keep hobbies up, go out for a walk, and set up a good work environment with a comfortable seat and proper table. Your lab might provide you with a monitor, a computer, a keyboard… it’s always good to ask and see what you are eligible for.

  • Tips and tricks

Look for the right supervisor:

Your supervisor will be your main point of contact. For the first part of the PhD you will be in touch with them nearly daily, and want to be comfortable with them. You also want them to be available to you and be able to ask them questions, even the ones you think are simple or unnecessary. Getting in touch with the supervisor before or during the application process is a great way to see if you click and if you see yourself working under their supervision for nearly 4 years.

Choose the right topic:

A PhD is 3.5 years on average of working on a specific topic only. Of course you will read about a wider range of things in your field, but by the end of the postgraduate experience you will be an expert on a very niche topic. You want to make sure this topic is something you are passionate and very interested about.

You should also remember that physics can be theoretical, experimental, or a mix of both. When picking your topic, ask yourself what side of the research you want to be on and how much you can reorientate the project down the line if you want to investigate specific phenomenon more in the end. If you have future life plans, you might want to work on a topic that leads you to achieve the career goal you have set yourself for after.

Choose the lab or uni for you:

The lab or Uni you pick is where you will be living for the next 3.5 years. Are you a city person or more of a country side person? Does your PhD salary and savings allow you to buy a car and pay for its insurance? You want to ask yourself these questions before even applying for a PhD position. The Mullard Space Science Laboratory I work at is very isolated and only accessible by car, but it’s a choice I made because I loved the supervisor, the topic, the people, and I thought I would be a great experience to work there.

You also want to think of the lab in terms of collaboration prospects, outreach opportunities, accessibility and funding. Doing a PhD is not just about the research you do, but about all the stuff you do outside that make your life balanced.

It’s all about making the position suit you rather than trying to suit the position.

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