Going on to do a PhD

by Umar Burhanudin, who graduated from Lancaster University in 2018, and is now doing a PhD at the University of Sheffield

The Hicks Building, home to the University of Sheffield’s department of Physics and Astronomy, and where I now work.

There is one question that is always asked by everyone nearing the end of their degree: “What am I going to do next?” I kept asking myself this towards the end of my third year, and for a while I couldn’t settle on an answer. Since school, I had always found astrophysics interesting (Space is cool!), but I hadn’t given any serious thought about a career in research. I found out about a summer internship with one of my lecturers at Lancaster University, David Sobral, where I could have the chance to work on some real astrophysics research. So I applied, and eventually got a place as a research intern for six weeks during my summer holiday.

Working as an intern allowed me to see the ‘business end’ of astrophysics. It was so different to learning by sitting in a lecture theatre and copying down equations from a presentation slide. I got to do some science with computer simulations of stellar populations and real data from the Hubble Space Telescope! Although it was challenging at times, it was definitely exciting – I was actually trying to learn more about some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe. Alongside the research, I had the chance to work with other researchers and take part in science meetings. At the end of my internship I presented my work along with the other interns at a mini-conference to the astrophysics research group. The internship really threw me into an immersive experience, showing me what working as a researcher would be like, while also helping me to develop skills in data analysis, report writing, and public speaking. I also had fun working with the other interns on our little astrophysics projects that summer. At the end of the internship, I remember thinking “If I had all this cool science stuff as job – reading papers, writing some code, trying to get some useful results, writing up and presenting my work, and maybe actually discover something new – I would really like that job!” So I decided to pursue a PhD in astrophysics.

I realised that I didn’t know a lot about applying for a PhD or even where to start, so I spent the first few weeks of my fourth asking my lecturers for advice. They would be the ones who decide which applicant gets a PhD position, so I thought it was worth asking what they thought made a candidate stand out. Isobel Hook, my Master’s project supervisor, said that a PhD takes a lot of time and effort, and supervisors want a student who will be willing to persevere when things get tough. John Stott, who taught me astrophysics in third year said that I should highlight my research skills in my application, and also kindly provided me with a list of universities as a starting point to look for PhD positions. David mentioned that it was worth looking up supervisors that you want to work with to find out their research interests, and see how that fits in with my own. As part of the application process, a lot of universities ask you to provide a CV and a personal statement or some sort of research motivation. Having done the internship, I was able to talk about the research I did and skills that I picked up. I also had great help from David who looked through my CV and written statements, and provided feedback on how to make my application stronger. Once I was happy with my applications, I sent them off, and hoped for the best.

By the end of January, I had five interviews scheduled at universities all over the country, from Edinburgh to Nottingham. On one of my busiest weeks, I had to travel to three different cities in three days. I was nervous but also excited for my interviews, and I looked forward to travelling across the country to meet with my potential supervisors. I had imagined my interviews to be a tough and strenuous process, but I found my interviews to be more like informal chats about what projects people had on offer, what I had done, and what I was interested in. Being able to talk about my internship experience as well as my Master’s project made for some very fruitful and entertaining conversations with my interviewers. After my interviews I asked why I was chosen over other candidates, and I was told that there were a few key things that people consider in PhD applications; grades, references, and research experience. Every single person applying for a PhD will have good grades, so I realised that it would be the references and research experience that sets applicants apart. Having done the internship definitely helped me make it through the selection process.

The deadline for choosing a PhD position was the end of March, and by then I had two offers to choose from. I was going to work on one big project with the same supervisor for three to four years, so I wanted to choose the project that I found the most interesting, with a supervisor who I felt I could get along with. In the end, I decided to accept the offer from the University of Sheffield, where I would be working on transient surveys with Justyn Maund. A lot of work had gone into securing a PhD position, and I was happy to finally know where I was headed next after Lancaster.

Before I started in Sheffield, I was sent to an astronomy summer school in Belfast for an introductory course in astronomy research. On the final evening of the summer school, there was a formal dinner event held and I remember speaking to another new PhD student who said something has stuck with me. He said “There are so many different people here from all over the world. But we’re all here for the same reason. We just really want to know more about the Universe, and we’re passionate enough to make that happen and be here.” It was great to see science bring people together, and to know that there are still people who want to find what nobody has found before.

Is it a blob or a supernova? As a starter project at the beginning of my PhD I am looking at a newly discovered supernova, SN2018gep, with the pt5m telescope in La Palma. The pt5m is operated jointly by the Universities of Durham and Sheffield. Shown above is a negative greyscale image of SN2018gep.

I have been a PhD student at Sheffield for four weeks now, and despite the steep learning curve, dealing with papers that are hard to understand, and code that doesn’t like to work, I am enjoying it. The astrophysics research group at Sheffield have made me feel welcome, and I am looking forward to doing some great work with them. I’m grateful for all the help I had along the way, from my lecturers, friends, and loved ones. Without their help I wouldn’t be where I am now.

For anyone thinking of doing a PhD, here is some general advice I would give:

  • Talk to your lecturers and PhD students, they are great source of information. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!
  • Develop an interest in your subject outside of what you are taught in lectures, and try to get some research experience.
  • A PhD is hard, and will require a lot of work. But nothing worth having comes easy. Have the drive to push yourself and don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone!