Prof. Stephen Serjeant's Frequently Asked Questions

You haven't answered my email!

I'm very sorry, I get over 100 emails every day, sometimes 300. Please resend it or (if urgent) better still give me a phone call.

How do I become a professional astronomer?

The usual path is to start with a first degree in physics (BSc or MPhys) but some start with another numerate discipline such as mathematics. In the UK system, most physics degree programmes require physics and mathematics A2 levels (note: not AS levels). A second mathematics A2 level would be to your advantage. Many people choose chemistry as their other science A2 level, but I didn't. An alternative route for those who are changing careers or looking for less costly tuition fees is to choose an Open University first degree in Natural Sciences, within which you choose the Physical Sciences strand. Numerate degrees are among the most employable, regardless of whether you are ultimately aiming to go into research astronomy, and they enjoy among the largest graduate premiums (ie additional income over the course of one's career as a result of the qualification). The Open University doesn't have entrance requirements in the same way as the rest of the UK university sector and as a result it takes you from a more or less complete standing start to being ready for a PhD, in a fairly steep but still accessible ramp up.

After the first degree, the next stage is a doctorate, or sometimes a masters then a doctorate. In the UK system a masters degree is not a prerequisite for a PhD place. For advice on this, see below. A doctorate is a research apprenticeship. Falling in love with astronomy is not the same as falling in love with research, and you may find that a research career is not to your liking. After the doctorate, the next stage is a series of temporary postdoctoral research contracts.For this it's to your advantage if you can work abroad. After this is the hunt for academic tenure, ie a permanent job. The pay is not great in research, but you get to choose your own hours and work on things that interest you and you believe are important.

I'd like to do a Masters or a PhD

We do have many potential PhD projects in cosmology, including work on gravitational lensing, extreme starburst galaxies, the links between quasar black hole accretion and stellar mass build-up, star formation in galaxies in the local Universe, and constraints on the reionization population that created the first light in the Universe after the Big Bang.

There are two hurdles one must jump to secure a postgraduate studentship: finding a supervisor who's prepared to supervise a project that you're interested in, and finding a source of funding for your tuition and living expenses. The latter hurdle is normally the more tricky. Our department receives a quota of full-time funded studentships from the research council STFC that the Open University often supplements with its own internal sources of funding to increase the number of available studentships. To qualify for this funding, prospective students usually need either an upper second or first class honours degree in a relevant subject. (A lower second is acceptable to the research council if supplemented by relevant Masters-level study, though prospective supervisors will need to be assured that the student can cope with the research programme.) For more information, contact the postgradute tutor Prof. Andrew Norton at physastro_pgtutor at

You should be rummaging the web pages of institutions to see if the research there interests you enough to spend three years doing it. Nevertheless, remember that a PhD isn't in practice with an institution, it's with a supervisor. A big name is good for future prospects but beware of having a supervisor who is such a big shot they're always swanning off somewhere so you never get to meet them in practice. Yes this happens, and then you end up relying on ad hoc help from other staff and postdocs.

Here are some of the things you might expect in an interview for a PhD place. Expect questions on past research project experience (e.g. undergraduate) if applicable, technical questions designed to test understanding of physics and/or maths and/or coding, perhaps (though this would be a stretch) questions aimed at finding potential for finding imaginative answers. Mainly though it's potential supervisors deciding if they could work with potential students. And vice versa - the interview works both ways. Prospective students should ask about the availability of data for observational projects (you don't want to be caught short if the project depends critically on time that hasn't been awarded yet), the availability of sufficient infrastructure eg computing etc to do the project (not usually an issue unless it's heavily computational or lab-based) and remember above all to speak with current students there, particularly those supervised by your prospective supervisor.

PhD thesis corrections

Here are the most common corrections I spot when examining a PhD or MSc thesis:
  1. grammatical errors, such as "it's" vs. "its", or "Where" vs. "where" (Microsoft Word sometimes wrongly capitalises the first word after an equation);

  2. images pulled off the web without attribution that need to have a source or attribution cited.

Social networking

  • Twitter: I have a public profile on Twitter, @stephenserjeant. I'm not particularly concerned about follower counts but I enjoy the conversational serendipity of Twitter.
  • Facebook: My profile on this network is private and I'm afraid only link with friends whom I have met in real life. (Most OU students are mature students so I have no problem in principle with linking with OU students, but be aware that this is not necessarily my OU staff "persona".)
  • LinkedIn: I am happy to link my LinkedIn account with almost anyone with whom I have had some professional interaction.
  • Quora: I am still working out what this network is for.
  • Ello: likewise.
  • Google+: the only reason I have any sort of presence there is the occasional practical professional necessity of Google hangouts for telecons. I have no other interaction with it.

I have a new theory of the Universe

I'm sorry but I'm afraid that I don't comment on unsolicited physical theories (except from OU students during their studies or to provide peer review for academic journals) unless the correspondent can first answer some questions of my own, such as to explain the tensorial nature of the Christoffel symbols, or to explain second (canonical) quantisation. This is to reassure me that the correspondent has a good grasp of the problems they're trying to solve. This isn't to say that new ideas aren't needed or aren't welcomed by the community, but it's very easy for a non-specialist to underestimate the size of the edifice of evidence in this subject, or the gulf between popular science books and the active practice of science.

If you can't answer the above test questions, then my best advice would be to take some training in astrophysics. I certainly wouldn't want to dissuade someone who is being industrious and proactive and we have many successful students who are in all age groups and technical backgrounds. There are many options, both full-time and part-time, including (but not limited to) the Open University. At the OU, most modules you study will give you access to a tutor who will be able to help you with your questions. The OU modules take you from a complete standing start at entry level to general relativity at the most advanced undergraduate level.

Although I won't comment on unsolicited theories except in the cases above, you may find some specific bits of feedback apply to your case. The answers are not perfect because I have not yet understood the slightly crazed conviction of some people that their theory is right, combined with a curious reluctance of those same people to learn more physics and mathematics. If you fall into that category then please don't expect a dialogue.

(0) "I would like to pay you to check my theory." Money isn't the issue - it's that I'd rather not get into a dialogue when the issue is explaining the fundamentals. If you're enthused enough to be prepared to pay, I would recommend taking some modules in physics and astronomy.

(1) "My theory doesn't have the mathematics, so I just need an expert to work it out and/or to comment." or "My theory doesn't make any numerical predictions for experiments - I just need an expert to comment on the concepts." If your theory has no mathematics, I'm sorry to tell you that I'm 99.999% certain it's pseudoscientific waffle. A problem with popular science is that people sometimes think that's all there is. It is VERY easy to underestimate the size and complexity of the edifice of numerical experimental evidence that backs up physics - and in particular GR + CDM + hot big bang + standard model of particle physics.We all had to learn how to make numerical predictions. The onus is on the maker of a new theory to make predictions. Mathematics allows you to express concepts with much more precision than just words. No predictions equals no theory. If you don't know how to make these numerical predictions, then my advice for you is to take some courses in physics and mathematics, where you will find many people keen to help you learn.

(2) "I am absolutely sure my theory is correct." This is a very, very bad sign. No-one competent is ever that sure.

(3) "I don't need to learn any of this conventional physics and mathematics." Again a very, very bad sign, essentially guaranteeing you don't understand the fundamentals of the subject and -much worse- that you're unwilling to fix that problem.

(4) "I have spent (insert some number of decades) on this theory." I'm afraid this can be tragic, especially if conditions 1 or 2 apply. Working a long time doesn't guarantee you're working on the right things.

(5) "The requirement to learn mathematics is like a medieval priesthood restricting access to information to those that learned Latin. Mathematics is not and should not be necessary." Oh dear.

Stephen Serjeant
Latest update 20th October 2017