First, Get that PhD!

 

All professional research astronomers have a PhD in astronomy or a related field. Use
the web and talk to people about the best places to do your PhD. Be bold and choose a
different university for your PhD than your undergraduate degree. This exposes you
to different ideas and broadens your horizons. It also looks better to a potential
employer. You may even consider doing your PhD overseas. Advantages could
include a shorter program (three to four years in the UK and Australia vs. five to six
years in the US) and no Graduate Record Examination (GRE) required.

Attributes of a good PhD student include a passion for research, a high level of
motivation, well organized, and good verbal and written skills. As a student you will
probably be working more than 40 hours a week (think apprentice), so it’s important
to work efficiently. The old mantra “work smarter, not harder” is very relevant here,
especially as data volumes continue to grow at an exponential rate. Two good articles
on what it’s like to be a PhD student and how to obtain a PhD are:

“How to be a Good Graduate Student” and “So Long, and Thanks for the PhD!”.

Choose your PhD supervisor carefully. They will be your guide and mentor for the
next few years. It’s a good idea to check out their publication record to see where
their recent interests lie, and ask current students what they think of their supervisor
and the research group/department. There is a wide range of supervisory styles from
the “Hi, here is a research topic. Come back and see me in 3 years time.” to “I want
updates of your progress every 5 minutes.”

Some supervisors can be quite demanding, which likely stems from two factors —
their research reputation is at stake, too, and they want to prepare you for the ‘real
world’ of independent research. Richard Reis has written several interesting articles in
the Chronicle for Higher Education which includes
“Choosing the Right Research Advisor”.

While working on your PhD, you should aim to write papers (and publish them!) as
you go. This will make the actual writing of your thesis a much easier task. I suggest
you try for one published paper for each year of full-time research. Some students
manage more than a half dozen papers during their PhD program. The bad news is
that you have to compete with them in the job market! And don’t forget to read other
people’s papers, because ‘knowing the literature’ is very important.

It’s also a good idea to discover the ‘big picture’ beyond your narrow sub-field, I
suggest spending about 10% of your week attending seminars and chatting with
colleagues outside your field about their work. Some collaboration work done outside
of your department will look good when it comes time for letters of reference and job
applications.

Networking is also important for your career so hone your skills during your time as a
PhD candidate. Give research talks. Being able to present your research can be crucial
to your career prospects, so get plenty of practice. Finally, consider applying for small
grants and awards as these can help improve your CV.

Warning: Too much time spent observing or writing computer code can adversely
affect your chances of acquiring a PhD! While this work might form the basis of your
project, be careful it doesn’t become all-consuming – you still need to prepare and
present a thesis to be awarded a PhD.