I came from an undergraduate taught degree at Durham University. The change to postgraduate level is as I’d naturally expected: the work is a lot more independent, a lot more time-consuming, and so more intense. But it's very focused, and the challenge encourages you to push yourself.
My research focuses on sources of high- and very-high-energy gamma rays in the Milky Way and other galaxies, in particular the giant, active galaxies at the centre of galaxy clusters. The radiation is a probe of non-thermal particles; tracing cosmic-ray acceleration.
I had a previous interest in high-energy astrophysics, in that my fourth year project at Durham was X-ray-based (looking at low-luminosity active galactic nuclei with the XMM-Newton satellite), and this prompted me to look for PhDs in a similar field.
I chose to study at Leicester because of the excellent reputation of the Department (in Astronomy particularly) and the interesting research going on there. The recommendation of my fourth year project supervisor and the friendliness I was shown at interview also helped make up my mind. I applied for a number of PhDs at other institutions, receiving a few offers, but chose this one based on the attractiveness of the project. The opportunity to do some ground-based observing, and move into a higher-energy domain than I’d worked on before, appealed to me.
I’m really enjoying the work so far. The facilities in the Department for research students are very good. I have the necessary software to carry out analyses, access to relevant journals and articles through the library, and participation in such activities as observing runs and conferences is facilitated. There is opportunity also to gain teaching experience by demonstrating labs, and taking undergraduate students for weekly seminars.
The atmosphere is very geared toward a positive experience, with courses, seminars, talks and other opportunities to meet fellow members of the Department either socially, or to share findings of the scientific community, for example during afternoon tea and Journal Club.
My progress is well-monitored, and my supervisor is on-hand to provide me with the necessary help to keep my research ticking over. There are other members of staff I can talk to about my work too, which is really beneficial.
It was daunting starting research at a new university, but I was eased into the work gently, and the friendliness of everybody I met kept my nerves down a great deal. That – and the daily afternoon tea breaks! During the first few weeks I spent a lot of time playing around with the analysis methods that would make up a lot of my work, teaching myself the programming languages I’d need, and reading lots of literature on the subject of gamma rays!
I would thoroughly recommend Leicester. It’s friendly and you are well-motivated by the work going on, both your own and that of your peers! I didn’t study for my undergraduate degree here, but the postgraduate courses are very good; specifically aimed at buffering the various aspects of research on-going in the Department.
I commute to the University from my home-village, but I do enjoy a couple of nights a week socialising with the rest of the Department’s postgrads. The newly-opened O2 Academy on campus has proved great for gigs, and there are some nice pubs (attended primarily by postgraduate students) around too. Pub quizzes; karaoke; beer gardens – there’s a healthy pro-pub atmosphere here!
The campus is compact. The fact that I can get my books, food, money and various other necessities all in one place is great. It’s also right next to a large park, which is lovely on a sunny day! For such a small area, there are plenty of quirks to the Leicester campus. The paternoster for example or the stone near the library that can be used as a calendar at noon every day. The park’s not technically campus, but it might as well be.
Leicester has been my local city all my life, so coming back here to study for a PhD meant no unpleasant surprises geographically. It’s not a massive city, but certainly big enough to occupy your general shopping needs, and it’s been looking really nice in recent years since a lot of work’s been done to improve the town centre.
We have a new shopping centre in town now (Highcross) with lots of shops and eateries. We have the National Space Centre just outside of town, and various other attractions. Then further out, the countryside is lovely: Bradgate Country Deer Park is a charitable trust of 850 acres, and houses the ruins of Lady Jane Grey’s house. It is a site of local historical and geological interest and natural beauty. Leicester is extremely multicultural, so we have some excellent festivals (Diwali in particular is worth a visit!) I can’t comment much on the nightlife, but it’s a big place so there’s something for most tastes, and Leicester has a great live music scene!
I enjoy the Old Horse pub on London road – a pretty splendid pub, and there’s some excellent Indian restaurants in town. The University side of the city is really pretty and I’d never ventured up that way as a child, so it came as a very pleasant surprise: New Walk and Victoria Park especially.
I’m not involved in any Student societies yet but I would recommend it. As an undergrad at Durham I set up and ran a Circus Society for two years and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my time there. An opportunity to meet like-minded people, have fun doing what you love, and get involved in an organisational/managerial capacity, is something I’d heartily recommend doing! I was also involved in the running of the AstroSoc, which I’m told is similarly popular here at Leicester, and the charities committee. These experiences should not be missed out on during your time at Uni, because they won’t necessarily come around again…
Managing my finances has been alright so far. I haven’t been exceeding my funding and I do some teaching for a little extra money sometimes. I demonstrate labs in the Department, and I work the odd weekend at Bradgate Country Deer Park – in the tea rooms. The teaching is fulfilling, and breaks up your day, provided you don’t do too much of it. As to the work elsewhere, it’s good sometimes to do things that ‘bring you back down to Earth’, since spending all your time in the Physics Department can make you a little insulated if you’re not careful.
Once I finish my research I intend to do post-doctoral research, which has always been my intention.
My time at Leicester thus far has usually been busy; sometimes very busy. Not as stressful as I’d been warned, but still a great deal of work. There is a great atmosphere within the Department – plenty to do and get involved with academically. Full-time is an adjustment that should not be taken lightly! I have to sleep a lot more now, than when I was an undergrad!
I would definitely recommend Leicester to a new student! If you’re sure research is what you want to do, and you’re enthused about the subject, you’ll love it. My advice would be to get organised right from the start, and you’ll find it’s a lot easier juggling the work and other commitments. Make the most of the opportunity you’ve been given!