PhD Life at MSSL

It’s the time of year again when you may be considering applying for a PhD at MSSL. To give you a sense of what life is really like here, some of our new students will answer questions about how they are finding life as a research student here at the lab. Joana and Kaye joined the Astrophysics group earlier this year.

Student Profiles


  • From: UK/ Portugal
  • Studied: Masters degree in Physics at Imperial College London
  • Project: Multi-messenger Astrophysics from Gravitational Wave Sources
  • Supervisor: Kinwah Wu


  • From: China
  • Studied: Masters degree at The Chinese University of Hong Kong
  • Project: Extreme-mass-ratio Pulsar and Black Hole Systems
  • Supervisor: Kinwah Wu

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

Joana: Quiet, Beautiful, Encouraging.

Kaye: Quiet, dedicated and family-like.

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

Joana: I lived in Ariel House for one month, while another student who was staying there hadn’t arrived. While it was extremely beautiful to wake up every day to the sight of the hills in the south of England, I found living there a bit isolating. I am currently living in Woking, which is about a 35/40 minute drive away from the lab, and I commute in every day. It is a bit of a stretch, but I’m getting used to it. The lab is located in an extremely beautiful area, and I love it when we go for after lunch walks (weather permitting). It is a change of pace from London, where I used to live before and, in my case it was a welcome change, as I quite like a quieter and more focused life style (e.g. I’m now learning to horse ride!). That being said, I do like to live in Woking, where I can get to London in less than half an hour by train.

Ariel House, the student accommodation. Credit: Anurag Deshpande

Kaye: Although I have not lived in London before, I spent many years in Hong Kong during college. Big cities are much more convenient for lives, but sometimes I find it distracting — shopping malls and entertainments are too accessible. I have always been hoping to study in an institute that is “isolated” from civilisation. From this point of view, MSSL is a great place for me.

Living in rural Surrey means that you need to relied on private transportation, either a lift or booking a taxi. You could always ask for a lift from others if you live in Woking, Guildford or Dorking. If you live in Ariel house in the first year as I do, you could always go shopping with other students in Ariel house, or order deliveries online. I drive and was lucky to be able to buy a car from a previous PhD student, and therefore I quite enjoy staying in the middle of nowhere, as I could drive to nearby cities and head for London if I need civilisation (usually once every 1-2 weeks). Ariel house is only about 100 meters away from the main building, and therefore you can wake up at 8 and show up in the office at 8:05. No time is wasted on your commute, allowing you to concentrate on the research work. Besides the convenience, the great thing about Ariel house is that you get to make friends with other first-year PhD students from other groups. It feels great to be accompanied as PhD tends to be quite lonely.

What surprised you when you arrived MSSL? 

Joana: The amount of different space missions the people in the lab work on. It was very surprising to me to see how such a remote mansion is now so active in building and testing parts of missions and in getting the scientists here involved with other non-physical aspects of those missions. I was also surprised about how quickly I felt like I belong in the lab: everyone was very welcoming and I immediately started enjoying my work and working environment.

Kaye: The building is historical and beautiful, the air is fresh and the food is great — thanks to our great Chef Sue, who changed my bias against British food. Academic staffs are very friendly and accessible. I usually receive very patience and helpful responses even when I am asking dumb questions. Besides, I find the idea of having all astrophysics researchers as a big group surprising, but I end up really appreciating it. I worked on general relativity, but I learn about cosmology, galaxies, AGNs from others in the group. It’s a very healthy academic environment, as it helps broadening the horizon and allows for interdisciplinary collaboration.

Anything else you want to add?

Joana: MSSL is a place which is quite different from a main university campus. This has its advantages and disadvantages: depending on what you are looking for from a PhD, some of those will weigh more than others. To me, the advantages of being in such a beautiful and peaceful location, surrounded by so many smart and friendly people who are kind of concentrated here (rather than dispersed away, as in a big city) and working on a project which I find so interesting in an environment that stimulates focus outweigh the disadvantages of the long commute, difficult access and lack of a “university feeling”. I am very happy I chose to come here for my PhD!


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

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