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When you arrive in Cambridge there will undoubtedly be many orientation activities prepared for you by your college to welcome you into college and university life. At the IoA, we have also planned a variety of events to introduce you to how the department works and to let you know what you can expect from your time here and what is expected of you as a student. The exact calendar of events will be announced when you arrive, but you can expect the first few weeks to be filled with meeting many new faces and talking to a great many people.

About the Department

The IoA hosts more than a hundred individuals undertaking astrophysics research, including some 45 PhD students. The main building is the Hoyle building, where you will find the reception, administrative staff, lecture theatre, and many of the staff and students. Behind the Hoyle building are car parks, bike sheds, and the historic Northumberland and Thorrowgood telescopes. Finally, at the end of a tree-lined avenue, sits the grand Observatory building, fondly known as the Obs, which houses the Library and more offices.

The most recent addition to the department itself is a University-funded building known as the Kavli, hosting the Kavli Institute for Cosmology. This building is joined directly to the Hoyle via a link on the first floor of the Corfield Wing. It houses a mix of University staff, postdoctoral researchers, postgraduate students and visitors from the IoA, the Cavendish Astrophysics Group, and the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP). Although Fred Kavli passed away in 2013, his foundation continues to support physics research institutes around the world. For example, here can be found the Cambridge Planck Analysis Centre, under the leadership of George Efstathiou. The Kavli Foundation donation has also enabled the University to establish four long-term University fellowships in a research programme targeting "The High Redshift Universe''.

We have also recently seen the addition of a new building, the Battcock Centre, to the south of the Kavli building. While not part of the IoA, the Battcock Centre provides a new home to the majority of the Cavendish Astrophysics Group, concentrating more of the astrophysics research at the University onto the one site. The Department of Earth Sciences Bullard Laboratories can also be found behind the IoA. The end result is that you will have the chance to interact with researchers from a number of different departments. For example, the Cavendish has its own PhD students who you will likely meet from time to time. This mish-mash can be a little confusing, but it also means more opportunities to attend talks, Christmas parties, and summer barbeques!


The Institute comprises several buildings scattered throughout a wooded site, making for a very pleasant working environment. The main entrance and reception are at the Hoyle Building. This was originally a long, single-storey building opened in 1967. In 1999, a modern lecture theatre was added and second storey (the Corfield wing) and an extended entrance area was added in 2002.

South of the Hoyle Building is the refurbished APM building, so-called because it used to house the Automated Plate Measuring facility used to digitise and process photographic plates, where the Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit (CASU) is based.The University Observatory, built in 1823, now houses the library and more offices. Room numbers of the form H26 are in the Hoyle building, whereas numbers like O26 refer to the Observatory. To the East of the Hoyle building is the newer Kavli Institute for Cosmology, completed in 2009. The Kavli comprises a programme of research projects involving the IoA, the Cavendish Astrophysics group and the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP).  The construction of the Kavli building formed the first phase of a longer-term plan to relocate the entire Cavendish Astrophysics group to the IoA site. The next phase was the recently completed construction of the Battcock Centre, which now houses the Cavendish experimental astrophysicists, to the South of the Kavli building forming a rough court with the Kavli and Hoyle buildings.

Although the University of Cambridge has no real centre and has buildings throughout much of central Cambridge, many of the science departments have, since the mid 70’s, been gradually relocating to new sites in the West of Cambridge, conveniently close to the IoA. The Cavendish Laboratories and the Computer Laboratory, for instance, are situated just across Madingley Road from the IoA. Also nearby, on Wilberforce Road, is the Centre for Mathematical Sciences (CMS), where weekly cosmology lunches are held. DAMTP now forms part of the CMS.

Arriving at the IoA

The IoA is situated along Madingley Road, West of Cambridge city centre. It takes about 10 minutes by bicycle or 25 minutes on foot to get to the Institute from the city centre. You can also take the Universal (U) bus from Silver Street and alight, about 10 minutes later, on JJ Thomson Avenue. For those with a university card, each ride on this bus between West Cambridge and the city centre currently costs £1. You can check the bus route and schedule online.

As a member of the IoA, your University Card, issued by your college, will be progammed within your first few weeks to give you access to all the buildings and telescopes. You may come and go as you please at all hours of the day and night, you are very unlikely to ever find the IoA deserted. The University Security Patrol makes regular rounds of the site but it is very difficult for the Patrols to effectively police the site if they cannot identify the legitimate members of the IoA.

In terms of immediate practicalities, you will be assigned an office, usually one shared with other postgraduate students and the occasional postdoc, and a computer account. You can also expect a number of introductions to departmental procedures, introductory meetings with various people, and plenty of chances to meet your fellow students. You also have the option of attending any of the University lecture courses, which will begin shortly after your arrival, and might choose to do so to refresh your knowledge or explore a new topic while you're finding a supervisor.

Choosing a Project and Supervisor

The most pressing issue on the mind of most Ph.D. students is getting to work on your ground-breaking research. While some students identified a supervisor and a project during the admissions process, for many, the IoA works a little differently from most departments; you are given the freedom to shop around before committing yourself to a supervisor and project. You will receive a list of members of staff who are potential supervisors along with their research interests and other members of staff who will make themselves known at an introductory session where those interested in taking on students will present their work. You are encouraged to spend your first few weeks talking with a wide range of people.

Even if you are convinced you know exactly what your chosen line of research is, we recommend taking your time to explore all options. It's been known to happen that even the most die-hard theorists suddenly become inspired by a purely observational project (and vice versa), so be sure to approach the issue with an open mind and find the project, and supervisor, most suited to you. Your fellow postgraduate students are a valuable source of information, and many members of staff will even allow you to embark on a short trial project and spend a month or two before you commit yourself. By Christmas, you should have settled on a supervisor and have a clear idea what your project will involve.

Other Activities

Other activities within the first few weeks include the compulsory University safety course, tours of the telescopes, and the start of graduate lectures. These lectures happen over the first couple of terms, and are designed to give you an introduction to topics relevant to your research. They vary from year to year but generally include computing, public speaking, statistics, discussion group, and the useful Astro Nuts and Bolts, about miscellaneous astronomy topics. Finally, you mustn't forget the annual First Year Curry or Pizza which will allow you to meet the members of the department on a more informal basis.