Some questions answered by our 1st year PhD students

If you’re considering applying for a PhD at MSSL and want to know more about what it’s really like, we’ve asked some of our new students about how they are finding life as a research student here at the lab. Denis, Jennifer and Ellis joined the Astrophysics group in the autumn.

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Student Profiles

Ellis

From: Leicester, UK; Studied: Undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences at University of Cambridge, and Masters in Astrophysics at UCL; Funding: STFC (UK Research Council); Project: Epoch of Reionization; Supervisor: Kinwah Wu

Denis

From: Santiago, Chile; Studied: Undergraduate degree in Astronomy and Masters in Astrophysics at Universidad Católica de Chile; Funding: Becas-Chile (Chilean Government); Project: Thermal Emission from Magnetars; Supervisor: Silvia Zane

Jennifer

From: Hong Kong, China; Studied: Undergraduate degree in Physics at Oxford University and Masters in Astrophysics at UCL; Funding: UCL Graduate Research Scholarship and UCL Overseas Research Scholarship; Project: Epoch of Reionization; Supervisor: Jason McEwen

What three words would you use to describe your MSSL experience so far…?

Ellis: Involved, supported, included

Denis: Comfortable, optimistic, happy

Jennifer: Happy, enjoyable, friendly

What’s it like to live & work in rural Surrey (“the middle of nowhere…”)?

Ellis: “MSSL isn’t exactly in the middle of things, and is quite a world away from the urban campuses you might find many other Astrophysics groups in. I was pretty uncertain about applying to the lab at first, being worried about how I would find working in such a remote location, potentially being cut off from civilization and unable to visit friends in London and elsewhere easily… Anyway, I decided to take the risk and accepted my MSSL offer – and I don’t regret it at all! True, MSSL is in the middle of the Surrey hills and is kind of ‘off the beaten track’, but that’s really no problem. I decided to live in the nearby town of Woking rather than in the student accommodation at the lab (Guildford is also about as close), so getting into London is no problem (takes about 25 mins on the train), while my commute to the lab in the morning only takes about 20 minutes (in the opposite direction to all of the traffic). Being able to drive makes life easier but really isn’t a necessity, even if you don’t want to live at the lab – there are plenty of people who can give lifts from most of the nearby villages and towns, so there are lots of options. Rent is also slightly cheaper than you’d find in some of the more metropolitan areas of south-east England, which is a plus!”

Denis: “For the last few years I lived in Santiago, Chile – a big, fast, stressful city – so, for me it was quite a big change to move to Surrey (but also a positive one). The location of the lab, surrounded by nature, is really beautiful and peaceful and helps me to focus completely on my research.

Currently, I am living in Ariel House, the student flat at the lab. The house is nice and comfortable and it has everything I need to live there during the first year of my PhD. I can say that my first three months here have been a really gratifying experience. I’ve met students from different countries and different interests. Living with them has made my adaptation to the new culture and language easier. The students are friendly and I learn a lot about other world views, languages, music, food, etc.– It’s easy to spend hours and hours talking to them!

Living far from cities can be difficult for the students. However, in the lab we have a driver who can take us to places nearby for shopping or anything else. Also, the University gives us financial support for transport if we need to travel to London.  As the cost of living in UK can be very high, this kind of support makes things easier and has allowed me to save money to visit some friends in Germany.”

Jennifer: “For work, you can easily find a quiet environment to refresh your mind, which helps to keep your brain fit to do research.  It’s also easy go for a hill walk, going to the top of Holmbury Hill, which helps you to stay healthy to do more work. In the lab, you can easily drop by the office of your supervisors and other staff members to discuss science or ask questions, which helps you with your work and stimulates you to do better research.

In terms of living here, I live in the on-site student accommodation at MSSL and I count myself very lucky to have a room on the top floor with a spectacular country view of South-East England. Although the location of MSSL seems to be quite remote on Google maps, you are rewarded with the amazing environment here. On the down-side, it is not convenient to go shopping/ to the cinema if you don’t have a car. However, I live quite happily with online grocery orders and delivery. It is also easy to get a lift with people from the lab, by our driver Nick on weekdays or, at weekends, by other students in the flat who have a car.”

What surprised you when you arrived MSSL? 

Ellis: The approachability of the staff – no matter how senior. As a new student, the fact that everyone is happy to make time for you and that people are actually quite keen to be asked for advice really helps with all those questions you have when you are making the transition to PhD level research. From a science point of view, the chance to ask for guidance and input from experienced researchers (lots of whom are leading experts across all key areas of astrophysics) as and when you need it is really important – and conveniently, all these people are within a 30 second walk of my desk!“

Denis: “Before arriving at MSSL, I was expecting a difficult start to my PhD: I would have to be communicating in a new language and adapting to a new culture. However, I was surprised from the moment I arrived by how warm and friendly the staff are here – they are happy to help with any problems I have while starting my PhD. My supervisor and the professors here are very close and help me through any confusion or problems in my work. Of course, they expect you to give your best during the PhD, but people really care about you and make you feel comfortable. There are regular social activities that allow us to meet each other and give a feel of a big family environment.

On that note, I also have to mention the people of the Astro group. They introduced me gently to the academic activities, and they have been very kind in spite of my initial language difficulties. The students and researchers of the group are very enthusiastic in their work, which creates a good working environment for research. 

In academic terms, I already know about the quality of the professors and that the people of the lab are involved in important international space and astronomy projects. However, I was still surprised by all the scientific networks and new projects that people are involved in, in the group.  From the moment I started my PhD, I was in touch with scientists from across the world, working on astronomy proposals and sharing and discussing the preliminary results of my research with them. In the beginning, it was not easy – but now I can say that I am enjoying this.”

Jennifer:  “My first visit to MSSL was in the summer between my 2nd and 3rd year of undergrad. I had the opportunity to do an eight-week summer project (on determining the applicability of the commonly used random walk model in large-scale magnetic fields) with Prof Kinwah Wu. I knew then that I liked the lab. It was those 8 weeks of research experience that got me to start thinking seriously about a career in scientific research and academia. When I went on to do my Masters degree in Astrophysics (Physics and Astronomy Department, UCL), I got to know more of the MSSL staff (half of my lecturers were from the lab) as well as some of the PhD students. The supervision, scientific dialogue and academic advice I’ve had here have been really valuable. So my whole experience of being a PhD student at MSSL, while new and exciting to me, continued my association with the lab. That said, the rigour of scientific studies and the excellent support I get here still surprises me.

I’m impressed by how supportive and friendly the community here is, so I can say that “I’m surprised by how fast I settled into life at MSSL”- everyone here is very friendly, and no issue is too small for the administrative staff, the postgraduate tutor (Dr Daisuke Kawata) and the postgraduate administrator (Ms Jane Salton) to help with – from student flat issues to arranging academic panels, ordering equipment, etc.

On the research side, how flexible the PhD project is to a student’s interests and strengths – and how carefully your supervisor listens to you and considers your interests and preferred direction for the project – surprises me. For instance, my project on cosmic reionisation was not specifically defined on the list of projects on the application website when I applied, and I am very thankful that my supervisor Dr Jason McEwen has always given me room to discuss science ideas with him. Also, there are always opportunities to get guidance, inspiration and scientific input from all the Astro-group staff and members, as well as from researchers from different institutes – On a weekly basis, we have either an astrophysics or cosmology journal club, and group seminars (where a speaker is invited from another astro group to give a talk on their work, and involves a pub lunch with the speaker beforehand plus a student discussion session with them afterwards). On a monthly basis, we have a group meeting where we hear all the updates about space missions and projects that people are involved in, as well as science and departmental news, and short presentations about newly published research papers by the authors. Any student issues can also be raised in these meetings.

There are sometimes courses offered on-site (such as a two day Python programming course) and often there are talks from different groups at MSSL that cover the imaging and instrumental side of space missions. The collaborative work that MSSL is involved in (including some as a part of the wider UCL community) is diverse and global. As a student here, I get the benefit of a continuous stream of science news, as well as the involvement and impact the lab (and UCL as a whole) brings to various key research areas. Transport to UCL or London to attend graduate courses, workshops or discussion meetings at the Royal Astronomical Society are funded by the University – this was one of the pleasant surprises to me when I started my PhD. There are also various additional funding sources that students can apply to for travel to international conferences.”

Anything else you want to add?

Jennifer: “We have catering service on site, and lunch is served at a subsidised cost (£3 for a hot lunch; £1.60 for a big plate of salad). Our chef, Sue, also makes lovely bread  and cakes (not to mention a birthday cake for GAIA). Also free afternoon refreshments (with tea, coffee and some biscuits) are served at the common room or kitchen from 15:00-15:30 every weekday during term time.

We have a rocket and real satellite debris in the main building, and some space instruments currently being built and tested in the clean room. The lab has a strong history in space science – the number of space projects MSSL have been involved in and contributed to over the years stands at more than 270. We also have our very own swimming pool on site!

Good news for new students is that the new student flat (Ariel House) is now in use. All the furniture in the rooms is very good (and new), and the rooms are quite big. We have kitchens and washrooms to share, as well as a lovely common room containing a smart TV and a big round table.  As for applying for a room in Ariel House, there is no formal procedure but you may want to contact our postgraduate administrator (Jane Salton) as soon as you receive your PhD offer, as there are only seven rooms available.”

Denis: “There is an agreement between the lab and University of Surrey that allows us to take courses at their campus in the nearby town of Guildford (which is much closer to lab than the many of the courses offered by UCL in central London) – and students don’t have to pay to attend these.  Over the last few months, I have been taking an English course there, and I’m planning to take other courses in the future.”

Ellis: “One good point from the funding side is that UK PhD students are paid at the London rate (despite the lab being outside of London), which is a bit more than the standard UK PhD stipend. This makes things slightly easier financially, helped also by paid student jobs around the lab sometimes available (cleaning the ‘clean room’ or marking work, for example).

Overall, I think MSSL is a great place to consider for a PhD. You can learn a lot here, and it’s a good place to start off in research. There is a good record for PhD graduates getting jobs in many different areas – including a number who stay on in research.”

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