A View from the Lab: Life as a 1st Year PhD Student

You may be considering applying for a PhD at MSSL and want to know more about what it’s really like here. Some of our new students answer questions about how they are finding life as a research student here at the lab. Anurag, Choong Ling, and Nabil joined the Astrophysics group in this September.

Student Profiles

Anurag

  • From: London, England
  • Studied: Masters degree in Physics at Imperial College London
  • Funding: Royal Society
  • Project: Precision Dark Energy Measurements using Gravitational Lensing
  • Supervisor: Tom Kitching

Choong Ling

  • From: Hertfordshire, England
  • Studied: Undergrad & masters degree in Natural Sciences at University of Cambridge (Astrophysics for 3rd & 4th year)
  • Funding: STFC (UK Research Council)
  • Project:Impact of Cosmic Rays on the Circumgalactic Medium
  • Supervisor: Kinwah Wu

Nabil

  • From: Swansea, Wales
  • Studied: Undergrad Mathematics at Cambridge and Masters in Astrophysics from UCL
  • Funding: STFC (UK Research Council)
  • Project: Study of Magnetars
  • Supervisor: Silvia Zane

MSSL1

An aerial view of Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

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

Anurag: Close-knit, friendly, peaceful.

Choong Ling: Quiet, inclusive, friendly.

Nabil: Community, Optimism, Tea

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

Anurag: I’ve been a city boy for all of my life, so working and living in out here has been a fair change of pace. Alongside working at the lab, I’m also living at Ariel House on campus. The house itself is wonderful, and helps foster a real sense of community between first years across departments. Living in Ariel House can be especially isolating, since it sits on its own, so having a car definitely helps. In fact, the nearby town of Guildford is only 30 mins away, and from there it’s another 30 mins to central London. Even if you don’t drive, usually multiple people in Ariel House will, and are happy to give lifts. There is also the MSSL driver on-hand to give lifts when possible.

The environment that MSSL is embedded in is breath-taking. Since it sits at the top of a hill, there is a spectacular view from the lab of the south of England. I’m told on a clear day you can see to the coast. It offers a serene and stimulating environment to work in, and keeps things calm and relax. There’s also the privilege of relatively clean air, which you’d be hard-pressed to find in most city-based departments.

Choong Ling: I’m living in Ariel House, which is a small building about 30 seconds away from the main building. There are 2 kitchens, 2 bathrooms and 7 bedrooms, which are occupied by first year PhD students, so it is a good way of meeting fellow students from across all groups in MSSL. My room is south facing so I get a lot of sun, and I have a beautiful view out over the countryside. Ariel House is very convenient since it is so close to the lab, and it meant that I didn’t have to look for a house in an area I didn’t know well. If you are living on site it is very useful to have a car to help you get around (or befriend someone else who can drive) since there aren’t shops within an easily walkable distance. However, all of the supermarkets deliver food to Ariel House and the delivery is very cheap if everyone in the house shares the delivery cost – this year we paid £4 each for a year’s worth of deliveries.

The hills and woods around the site are very pretty; there are lots of hiking trails around, so I would recommend bringing a good pair of walking boots to do some exploring. The astro group tends to go for a walk around the site at lunchtimes when it is sunny, which is a good chance to enjoy the landscape and take a break. I also go to a badminton club in a village a couple of miles away which is fun and everyone there is very welcoming, despite being a proper adult with a job.

The nearest large town to here is Guildford, which is about 30 minutes drive away. This is where a lot of people who work in MSSL live. Guildford hosts the University of Surrey, so there are plenty of student events, pubs & clubs if that is something that appeals to you. This is also the most convenient train station to get to London (Waterloo) which takes about 35 minutes, so it is easy to get back to “civilisation” if that is something you are missing.

Nabil: Being around nature helps to bring up my mood and relax a little while working at the lab. It’s in a remote location but living in one of the nearby towns – I’m in Guildford right now – provides the best of both worlds. I get to participate in any big events near London when I want and also go home to somewhere a little bit more relaxed.

A big difference to being part of UCL main campus and MSSL has been how I interact with people. MSSL is large enough that I think it’s easy to get on well with a number of people there but also small enough that nobody ever feels like a stranger. That’s nice and I think really helps in building a feeling of community. It’s remote but not isolated.

MSSL3

A view onto some of the MSSL grounds.

What surprised you when you arrived MSSL? 

Anurag: The regality of the interior of the lab was very surprising on my first visit. The lab occupies an old stately English house. It’s quite the oxymoron; cutting-edge research in an stately manor. In fact, the sprawling grounds themselves, and how well maintained they are was quite impressive.

Choong Ling: The roads around here can be a bit scary if you are used to driving through towns and on trunk roads. The lab is on a fairly steep hill with narrow roads that take some getting used to. It’s also surprising how many people fit in the lab, there are about 200 people working on site.

All of the staff and students have been very welcoming here; I was the first person in my year to arrive at MSSL by a week, and all of the other Astro PhDs introduced themselves and were helpful and kept me company. The staff were also very friendly, especially Daisuke who found me on my first day in the lab and made sure I had settled in well.

Nabil: The number of important international collaborations the staff are involved in was something I hadn’t expected. It’s a first time experience for me in getting to know how these missions are planned – from the engineering considerations to the data processing – and it’s been fun to learn about it directly from people who are directly participating. MSSL is also actually a lab, so there’s smaller bits of equipment being built and tested on site.

Anything else you want to add?

Anurag: MSSL has a wonderful, socially active community that is very welcoming. Already, I feel like long-standing member of the group. The Astro group in particular is very inclusive. The multi-disciplinary nature of work carried out at MSSL also means it’s a unique place to do a PhD. You can interact with the engineers and instrument groups, to have a more holistic picture of the research you’re doing. There’s also a very active MSSL social club, that runs all events that appeal to everybody; from pub quizzes to murder mystery nights.

Choong Ling: There is an on-site canteen which serves breakfast and lunch every weekday. A meal in the canteen is subsidised, so it costs £3.20 or £2.40 for a roll.

Since MSSL is part of UCL, you are paid the London wage by STFC (which is ~£1500 more than the normal stipend). This is helpful, since Surrey is an expensive place to live, and it makes running a car a bit easier on your wallet. Also, if you need to go to UCL for any reason, MSSL will pay for your train & taxi fare to get you there, which is helpful for seeing other members of staff, attending courses and going to talks.

There is a lot of support in place for students at MSSL. There is a PhD tutor who can help with all academic matters, two pastoral tutors who can advise on any non-academic troubles and how these can have an impact on your research. I have had some trouble with my depression since moving here, and I am now receiving (free) counselling from the UCL psychiatric service which has been very helpful. Also, the other PhD students I have talked to about this have been very supportive and are happy to talk to me about my problems and offer advice and reassurance on my troubles.

Nabil: Tea time at quarter to three. What more does one need?

If you’re interested in more viewpoints, articles from previous first year students can be found here and here.

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