The astronomy group is excited to receive applications from graduates with a strong enthusiasm for pursuing a PhD in research. We provide a friendly and inclusive environment where budding researchers can become part of a dedicated team of enthusiastic scientists and educators. Our commitment to mentorship, a passion for teaching, and our track record of award-winning research make us the perfect destination for individuals who want to study physics in the greatest laboratory of all. Join us at Nottingham: the down to earth place to study the Universe!

Applications are made using the online application form found here after registering a username and password. Further information on the admissions procedure is available from the postgraduate admissions tutor, Prof. Juan P. Garrahan. Once you have submitted your application, please also send a brief email with the subject line: "PhD Application" containing your application ID to the astronomy admissions coordinator, Dr. Emma Chapman, confirming that you have applied.

Interviews for our STFC and Leverhulme Trust funded positions (for UK and international students who meet the appropriate eligibility requirements) will be held during February. We therefore strongly encourage the submission of applications for this scheme before January 19th.

Overseas students may also be eligible for one of our international research scholarships, and should ensure their online application is submitted at least six weeks before the closing date for these schemes.

A guide to the PhD projects on offer by the astronomy group in 2024 can be found by following the 'research projects' link on the right of this page. However, this is just for you to get an idea of the breadth of topics you might study. We are fairly unique here at Nottingham, in that we offer candidates flexibility in the project they end up studying, and the possibility to spend four weeks sampling projects while you settle in. So all you need to worry about at the moment is whether you want to do a PhD, and if you want to do it at Nottingham. If both answers are yes, then you are in the right place. Please note, the application form is for all subjects across the university and you *do not* need to upload a research proposal or list a title other than 'PhD in astronomy'. For help completing the form, please see the FAQ button on the right of this page. Further details regarding postgraduate funding opportunities are available at the links listed below, and more general information about being a postgraduate in the School of Physics and Astronomy may be obtained on our postgraduate study page.

The following list of sample projects is just for you to get an idea of the breadth of topics you might study. We are fairly unique here at Nottingham, in that we offer candidates flexibility in the project they end up studying, and the possibility to spend four weeks sampling projects while you settle in. Please note, you *do not* need to upload a research proposal or list a title other than 'PhD in astronomy'.

1. Strong gravitational lensing

Simon Dye

Strong gravitational lensing by a foreground galaxy is a rare phenomenon in the Universe, but one which gives far-reaching and unique insight into our understanding of the structure and formation of galaxies at high redshift. When a foreground galaxy lenses a more distant one, we not only learn about the mass structure of the former but also, by virtue of lensing magnification, we can determine the physical characteristics of the latter in much more detail than would be possible were it not being lensed. Determining the structure of lensing galaxies is currently the only viable method of making a direct observation of dark matter substructure, one of the biggest puzzles in astronomy today. Similarly, using gravitational lenses to study high redshift galaxies in detail allows us to pin down the various physical processes at play whilst galaxies assemble in the early Universe.

Currently, there are around 150 known high-quality strong galaxy lens systems to enable this kind of science. This is not enough to provide useful constraints on theoretical models. The situation is imminently about to change with new higher redshift lens samples containing tens of thousands of lenses resulting from two forthcoming facilities: The Simonyi Survey Telescope at the new Rubin Observatory in Chile and the Euclid satellite due for launch in 2023. These will discover tens of thousands of new strong galaxy-galaxy lenses. With this comes a new set of problems, largely centering on developing new efficient analysis techniques to cope with the large data volume and exploring new areas of science that the data will open up. There are several opportunities for a PhD student to get involved in this work.

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2. Studying active galaxies with WEAVE and LOFAR

Steven Bamford, Nina Hatch

This project will bring together data from two cutting-edge facilities to study 'active' galaxies – those with significant ongoing star-formation and/or accretion onto a supermassive black hole (SMBH). One of these facilities is LOFAR, a continent-spanning radio telescope, which is performing an extremely deep, low-frequency radio survey in the Northern sky. The other is WEAVE, a 1000-fibre-fed multi-object spectrograph on the 4.2m William Herschel Telescope in La Palma, which will begin survey observations in 2023. The WEAVE-LOFAR project has been allocated over 1.5 million hours to obtain WEAVE optical spectra of active galaxies identified by LOFAR. This will provide statistically-powerful samples probing lower luminosities and higher redshifts than ever before.

In this PhD, you will make use of the combined WEAVE-LOFAR dataset to improve our knowledge of the population of active galaxies. Many galaxies are still actively forming stars today, but those that are not must necessarily have been through highly-active stages – bursts of star-formation and probably SMBH accretion – earlier in their lifetime. Understanding the cause and effect of these energetic phases is therefore essential for a complete picture of galaxy evolution.

One complication is that star-formation and SMBH accretion both occur in dense, dusty clouds, which absorb much of the informative optical light and re-emit it as a black-body spectrum, peaking in the infrared. Conveniently, the radio continuum emission associated with these processes is not attenuated by dust, but is produced by a poorly-understood mechanism. Each observational regime provides different parts of the puzzle, but the full solution requires their combination. Recently, there has been good progress using broadband photometry, but we are lacking crucial details about the regions in which star-formation and SMBH accretion occurs. You will add these latest pieces, using the WEAVE optical spectra to measure the properties of the nebular gas and dust, and contribute towards building a consistent model of active galaxies across cosmic time.

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3. Using observations of intracluster light to explore dark matter

Nina Hatch, Steven Bamford, Frazer Pearce

A quarter of the stars in galaxy clusters do not live within galaxies, but instead they lie between the galaxies. They produce a low-surface brightness glow that we call intracluster light (ICL). These intracluster stars act as collisionless tracers of the global dark matter distribution because they are governed by the cluster’s potential, rather than being bound to galaxies in subhaloes. Because of this, the ICL is a powerful probe of the physics of dark matter.

Currently there are both observational and simulation barriers that prevent us from using the ICL to study dark matter. On the observational side, the detection of the ICL requires deep, wide-field, high-resolution images that are too expensive on current facilities to allow large samples.

This observational barrier will be broken in a spectacular fashion by Euclid, an ESA satellite that was launched in July 2023. Euclid is the perfect ICL detecting machine: it is obtaining deep and wide high-resolution images with no bright atmospheric emission to deal with. This PhD project involves analyzing images of diffuse intracluster starlight within tens of thousands of galaxy clusters. By correlating the images with the weak-gravitational signal produced by the cluster's dark matter halo, we will obtain an empirical measurement of how well the intracluster stars trace dark matter.

Further information about the ICL group at Nottingham can be found at our NottICL group pages.

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4. Black hole outbursts and major mergers in galaxy clusters

Helen Russell

Galaxy clusters consist of hundreds of galaxies embedded in a massive dark matter halo and a hot, dilute atmosphere that emits X-rays. The hot gas atmosphere captures the energy from major evolutionary events in the lives of these clusters, such as jetted outbursts from their central supermassive black hole and massive mergers with neighboring clusters. This energy is dissipated through vast shocks, cold fronts, giant cavities, sound waves, and turbulent eddies, which are imprinted on the hot atmosphere. The subarcsecond spatial resolution of NASA's Chandra X-ray satellite can resolve the properties of these detailed structures, and even probe the gas gravitationally captured by the supermassive black hole in nearby galaxies. The ALMA sub-mm observatory then reveals the impact of these energetic events on galaxy growth by mapping the structure of star-forming cold gas clouds throughout the universe. In addition, in 2022, JAXA will launch the XRISM X-ray satellite to map the hot gas motions driven by jets and mergers and reveal the energy dissipation on large scales. This project will combine Chandra observations of black hole activity, XRISM observations of hot gas dynamics, and ALMA observations of cold gas flows in the host galaxies to understand how these mechanisms transform galaxies over cosmic time.

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5. The first stars and black holes

Emma Chapman

400 million years after the Big Bang, the Universe appeared dark and empty as it slowly expanded. Suddenly the first stars formed, lighting up the Universe and forming the galaxies we see today. We have few observations of this era and it makes up over a billion year gap in our knowledge. Theories show that this is the era when stars were born with up to a hundred times the mass of our Sun, and the first black holes began to appear. These first objects gave out heat and light, making bubbles in the surrounding hydrogen gas that we will observe for the first time using radio telescopes. How these bubbles are shaped and how they grow will tell us how those first stars and black holes were born, lived and died. Searching for this signal is challenging since we don’t know what it looks like and when we tune in to the radio waves, we also detect signals from everything from nearby exploding stars to mobile phones. This noise covers the first stars signal a 1000 times over, making the search for an unknown signal a true needle-in-a-haystack challenge. I have developed methods essential for removing that noise and finding that first star’s signal, even despite not knowing what it looks like. Using my work to design the SKA, an array of millions of antennas in Australia, we will make observations stretching back into the Dark Ages of our Universe, creating a movie of our Universe growing up over a billion years. This project will involve working with real data from an SKA pathfinder called LOFAR. We will use techniques to remove the overwhelming amount of noise on top of this tiny signal, and extract everything we can about the astrophysics, using machine learning and Bayesian statistics. This project is suitable for someone who wants to get straight into the data, while using what we learn to inform the next generation facility, which is hot on our heels.

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6. Understanding the quenching of star formation in the distant Universe

Omar Almaini, David Maltby

Around 10 billion years ago, the most massive galaxies underwent a dramatic transformation, switching off their star formation and also changing from disc-like galaxies to compact spheroidal systems. We still do not understand why this transformation occurs, or the key physical process responsible for quenching the star formation. The aim of this project is to use the latest observational data to shed light on this mystery and test competing theoretical models. We will use a two-pronged approach, focusing on the class of transition galaxies caught in the act of transformation. Very deep spectroscopy will provide the detailed properties of these galaxies during their transition phase (e.g. their metallicities, rates of star formation, outflow rates), while new infrared imaging from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will provide unprecedented data on the morphological transformation of these galaxies, in addition to identifying those containing hidden Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) from their characteristic hot dust emission.

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7.Modelling the transformation of galaxies

Omar Almaini, Frazer Pearce

In this project we will use theoretical models to simulate the evolution of galaxies in the distant Universe. These simulations will be used to investigate some of the major unsolved problems, e.g., why do many galaxies suddenly stop forming stars, and what role does the environment play in galaxy evolution at early times? There are growing indications that feedback from supermassive black holes may play a crucial role, but so far the observational evidence is indirect and circumstantial. A key aim of this project is to compare deep observational surveys of the distant Universe with the latest theoretical models, to determine which processes are likely to be dominant. Current models can include a wide range of quenching mechanisms (e.g., quasar heating, quasar winds, supernova-driven feedback, gas stripping), but these ideas are largely untested at high redshift. Theoretical predictions will be compared with a wide range of observed properties from the latest observational data (e.g., galaxy environments, sizes, morphologies, gas content, star-formation histories) to finally hone in on the key physical processes responsible for transforming galaxies in the distant Universe.

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8. Galaxy clusters: bridging theory and observation

Meghan Gray, Frazer Pearce

Most galaxies in the Universe live in groups or clusters, making such large-scale structure critical both for studies of cosmology and of galaxy evolution. This project builds on a successful research program working at the interface between simulations (Pearce) and observations (Gray) to understand the physical processes that influence these objects and the galaxies inhabiting them. Students will exploit state-of-the-art N-body and hydrodynamic simulations, galaxy evolution models, and large imaging and spectrographic surveys to study the properties of large-scale structure in both the real and mock universes. Comparison of both approaches allows us to simultaneously test the model physics, gain insight into the data, and understand the ultimate limitations of our measurements. Our goals include understanding group and cluster assembly (and implications for large cosmological surveys) as well as disentangling the interplay between galaxy properties and their environments.

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9. Understanding galaxy evolution in and around newly formed galaxy clusters

Yannick Bahé, Frazer Pearce

Galaxy clusters and the filaments surrounding them are the densest regions in the Universe. Galaxies living in these special environments are shaped by a multitude of unique physical processes that include gas stripping, suppression of star formation, and tidal stripping of stars into a diffuse halo of intra-cluster light that permeates the cluster. Finding out how these processes affect the observed properties of galaxies is critical not just for understanding the co-evolution of galaxies and the cosmic web around them, but also for using observations of galaxy clusters and their intra-cluster light to measure the growth of cosmic structures and constrain the nature of dark matter and dark energy.

In this project, we will use both high-resolution computer simulations of galaxy clusters and cutting-edge observational data to trace the evolution of galaxies in and around clusters at redshift 1-2 when the Universe was less than half of its current age. This is the time when galaxy clusters first assemble and begin to influence their galaxies: a key epoch that is now finally within reach of systematic exploration by surveys including Euclid and MOONS. To exploit this opportunity, we will make detailed comparisons between these new data and the latest generation of hydrodynamic simulations, use the simulations to trace how galaxies are changing as they come near a cluster, and find out what role gas and stars that are stripped from galaxies play in the formation of intra-cluster light.

You will not only solve an exciting science question and gain valuable expertise in both observations and simulations, but also have the opportunity to collaborate with researchers at other institutes, both in the UK and internationally.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the timeline for the application process?

We welcome applications all year by those students with external funding. In addition, every year, the group will offer several STFC-funded studentships. We may make one of which available for an overseas student. Applications for these positions are open between November and January. We will send interview requests on 9th February, to take place in the week beginning 19th February. Offers of a PhD place or notice of waitlisting will be made shortly after the interview, however, late offers to waitlisted candidates may be made up to the STFC deadline of 31st March. If unsuccessful, we will inform you as soon as possible so that you can seek a position elsewhere with clarity.

Do I have to apply to STFC for funding?

The STFC provides funding directly to the department and so you do not need to apply yourself. The number of positions available each year will vary according to this funding.

Can I study part-time?

Regarding part-time opportunities, the standard STFC-funded studentships can indeed be undertaken on a part-time basis, up to 50%. This flexibility allows you to balance your PhD with other commitments.

Can I self-fund my study?

If you are considering self-funding, this is a more complex area, as we are careful about not selecting against those who cannot afford to do so. While self-funded students must therefore meet the same requirements as those going through the standard STFC route and show they are of similar standing, we don't view this as an insurmountable barrier. We would simply suggest that you submit an application and, if you are invited for an interview and rank highly, we can discuss how you could take up any opportunity we might offer.

What course do I select when filling out the application form?

Note, we do not offer a PhD in ‘astronomy’, but we instead class it under ‘physics’. Select ‘Physics’ under the course option, then you should be able to select PhD. Select 42 months as the duration.

The application asks me for a title, topic description, and research proposal. What do I write?

Sadly, because the application form is centralised, it asks for a lot of information we just do not need, or expect you to know. You can simply state ‘astrophysics’ for all titles and descriptions required by the form. The forms are sent directly to us and so this will not weaken your application at all.

What will the first weeks of my PhD look like?

When offered a place, it may be for a specific project, but, more likely, you will have an offer to choose your project once here. You will have meetings with any of the supervisors you are interested in working with in the first week. We usually start by having a meeting with each student, and then the student decides if they want another meeting and so on. We do our best then to make sure everyone gets their preferred project, but we ask you to list a couple just in case.

I am applying as an international student. What do I need to know?

We welcome applications from students all over the world. However, we are very restricted in the funding we can offer. We usually get one STFC-funded slot for an international student every two years. We therefore strongly encourage you to explore any other funding options available to you. Further Information on: