Applying for an astro PhD with an MSc

write thesis phd comics
Since application season is upon us, here’s some thoughts on applying for a PhD for those who have/will have an MSc.

Are you sure?

It seems a bit basic, but the first thing to think about is why you want to do a PhD in astro. It’s hard by design, and ~90% of people with astro PhDs don’t end up in tenured academic positions. I don’t know if that’s what your aim is, but it’s good to know regardless. So think about whether it will be worth it for you given your goals. There are still plenty of valid reasons to do a PhD in astro when you know you won’t end up as an academic, so just think about it.

What do you want?

The next thing to think about is what kind of research you want to do, and take inspiration from what parts of your MSc you’ve enjoyed or found the most interesting. Theory? Data/observations? Experimental lab astro? Instrumentation? Also consider what topics you find most interesting, and which aspects of them you like. This is probably going to be related to your MSc topic, but if you want to shift fields, now is probably the best time to do it.

Where do you want to be?

Then, one of the bigger things to consider is which continent you want to be on. Each country has their own academic system and way of doing things, though there are some similarities. Keep in mind that some systems are harder to get into if you’re not a citizen or permanent resident. For example, it’s not possible for non-UK citizens to get UK funding to do a PhD there, so you’d need to bring in your own external funds like an NSERC, Marie Curie, Rhodes, or Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

Who’s hiring?

Keep an eye on the AAS job register, “Pre-doctoral/Graduate Positions” section (scroll down) and the EAS job directory (filter by position). Not all jobs will be listed yet. For example, Amsterdam usually has a few PhD positions available, and they start advertising these at the end of October. For Canadian and American universities, they typically won’t advertise on there, so you’ll want to look through department websites and see what the different professors do. When you find someone whose research sounds like it’d be a good fit, email them to ask if they are looking to take on a new PhD student. Another place to look for potential advisors is in the author list of papers you find interesting! Again, do your homework and read up on them before emailing them. Check out the AstroBetter wiki for lists of programs and advice on applications. But once you have an idea of what you want to do and generally where you want to do it, ask the profs in your current place if they know which places have people doing that kind of research.

For the US, many places still require the GRE and Physics GRE (but not all!), so there’s that hurdle to get over, and you’ll want to email the department chair of grad studies/admissions to ask if they’ll accept your MSc courses.

Tips on the PhD application itself

You will typically need 3 letters of recommendation. Ask your letter writers now if they feel comfortable writing you a strong letter of recommendation. Yes, use the adjective “strong” in there. If you won’t have a letter from your MSc supervisor, you need to have a really good reason, and have another letter writer explain why that’s the case. For my applications I had letters from my MSc supervisor, another professor in the department who I knew pretty well and had taken a class with, and my undergraduate mentor. Get your letter writers lined up now, and when you know where you want to apply, give them the deadlines and the details. Email them a 2-weeks-before reminder, 1-week-before reminder, and a 2-days-before reminder. Also, if there are any discrepancies in your record, explain it to a letter writer and ask them to include it.

Once you’ve written a draft of the research statement that most places ask for, have a PhD/postdoc and your advisor iterate feedback with you on it. It seriously makes it better.

Good luck and have fun!

AstroBetter series on Twitter at conferences

Twitter logo on Hubble deep field. Image credit: HST/Twitter/A.L. Stevens
My 3-post series on Twitter at academic astronomy conferences has concluded on the AstroBetter blog! The first post, aimed at non-Twitter users, explains the basics of Twitter and why it’s a good thing to have at conferences. The second post, aimed at current or would-be tweeters, gives tips and tricks for conference tweeting, and spawned a great discussion on openness and sharing of unpublished ideas. The third post, for LOC or SOC members, has a rundown of what needs to happen on the conference organizing side for Twitter to be successful at a conference. Join the conversations in the comments section of those posts or on Twitter! 😉

The series comes from a post here from this past May.

Letter to the AAS on #BlackLivesMatter

I’ve decided that I have the energy to channel my anger and frustration and sadness regarding the murder of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling (and the 604+ people of color who have been killed by the police in the US since January 1 2016) to do something about it. Specifically, I was moved by this tweet thread to write to a professional organization I belong to, the American Astronomical Society, asking them to endorse or issue a statement of solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Below is the letter:

Dear AAS Council,

I was enthused to see a post by AAS CSMA members on the Women in Astronomy blog ( making a statement of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. However, I was very disappointed that this statement is not (yet) officially endorsed by the AAS or even the CSMA. Please endorse this statement or issue a similar one.

At a time when our Black colleagues and their families are facing the very real threat of violence and death in their everyday lives, they need to know that their professional organization acknowledges this and provides full support. The amount of effort it takes to do the emotional diversity work is staggering, and our Black colleagues do it every day. It is past time for white allies and predominantly white organizations to step up and shoulder that responsibility too, *especially* when Black people are being gunned down by the police. I find it wrong that the only diversity issue widely discussed in astronomy is sexism, when racism and white supremacy are so pervasive as well. Additionally, solidarity with gender minorities without solidarity with racial/ethnic minorities does not fully support colleagues with intersectional identities such as black women.

Our Black colleagues need to know that they have the full official support of the AAS, and that their contributions to science matter to the AAS, not just because they are POC and “diversity is important”, but because they are human beings with inherently valuable lives, and we live in a world where that needs to be re-said. Science does not happen in a societal vacuum, and the voice of the AAS is needed now to ensure that Black astronomers feel like a valuable part of the scientific community.

Abigail Stevens
PhD Candidate, Univ. of Amsterdam
Junior AAS member

(Thank you to Dave Tsang and Madhura Killedar for feedback on this letter!)

Twitter tips for academic conferences

UPDATE: A version of this post is appearing as a series of posts on AstroBetter!

Earlier this week I attended the Netherlands Astronomy Conference 2016, organized this year by my institute. I was asked by the LOC to be on my Twitter game throughout the conference, and I’m really proud of the concerted effort made by everyone involved — our conference hashtag #NAC2016 was even trending in the Netherlands for a while!! After fielding Twitter questions from a variety of organizers and participants, it seemed like a good idea to centralize and condense my advice.

In astronomy, I’ve noticed that Twitter awareness and usage at an astronomy conference loosely correlates with the median age and median country of origin of the participants — for example, it seems that younger and/or U.S.-based attendees tend to tweet more. However, I don’t think it should be limited to those demographics. There are definite benefits for the larger astronomy community, like being able to follow what’s going on in real time at a conference you couldn’t attend (which I’ve done on multiple occasions), follow one parallel session while attending another (which I’ve also done), promote the work of up-and-coming researchers, and give exposure to exciting new results. Twitter isn’t just for science outreach and education — you’re communicating with your colleagues as well. So, I want to spark the minds of the Twitter-averse and provide an access point for the Twitter-aware-but-not-active with some tips and recommendations in regards to conference tweeting.

Twitter 101

So that we all start off on the same page (and for those new to the Twitterverse), here are my definitions of the Twitter-specific vocabulary I use throughout this post:

  • tweet – A 140-character message on Twitter. It can also be used as a verb, as in, to tweet something.
  • hashtag – The thing that starts with ‘#’. This is like a tag or keyword that is used to link related tweets.
  • account, handle – The thing that starts with ‘@’. This is a username that’s been registered on Twitter and sends out tweets.
  • feed, stream – A list of tweets, typically a list of tweets with the same hashtag or from the same account.
  • trend, trending – A hashtag or topic that has amassed a critical density of tweets. Trending topics are listed in the left sidebar of a user’s Twitter home page.

For conference organizers

  • A good conference hashtag is unique, short, and somehow relevant (bonus points if it’s funny/punny). Including this in the tweets is how all the tweets will be linked. You want it to be unique, so that only tweets for your conference will appear under it; short, so that it doesn’t take up too much of the 140 character tweet limit; and relevant, so that everyone easily remembers it. Ours, #NAC2016, wasn’t unique, but we dominated the tweets for the duration of the conference so we decided it was ok 😊
  • Good conference hashtag examples off the top of my head are #Bdiffuse16 for a diffuse magnetic fields and ISM conference in 2016, #extremeBH for an extreme black hole accretion conference, and #PyAstro15 for the Python in astronomy conference in 2015. You can look at the account @astromeetings for more inspiration. Note that hashtags are not case-sensitive.
  • Decide on a conference hashtag a few weeks before the conference. List the hashtag on the website and in logistics correspondence with the attendees, and ask your attendees to use it on Twitter. You don’t need to register the hashtag anywhere, just start using it.
  • If your organization doesn’t already have a Twitter account, make an “official” conference Twitter account that will retweet others and make its own tweets. Having this gives a somewhat more curated tweet stream to follow. If the conference hashtag is the name of the account, the account itself shows up at the top of the hashtag stream (as you can see here). The one we had for the NAC was @_NAC2016 (with an underscore); for the AAS High Energy Astrophysics Division meeting in April, their Twitter account @AAS_HEAD served this purpose during the conference.
  • Add the Twitter hashtag feed or conference account feed to your website and/or put it on the screen during the coffee breaks. This is where I recommend using the conference Twitter account’s curated feed — it turns out that if your conference hashtag starts trending (which #NAC2016 did), porn bots start tweeting using your hashtag (with NSFW photos), and that’s not something you want to appear on the screen or your website. FYI.
  • Beforehand, ask a Twitter maven in attendance to tweet a lot for the first one or two sessions to give the conference a strong Twitter presence. We found that this encouraged more attendees to contribute on Twitter for the rest of the meeting.
  • To reassure the Twitter-skeptics in attendance, you can remind everyone that people will be tweeting at the conference and if they do not want all or part of their talk to be tweeted (press embargo, competitors, etc.), they can say so and the tweeters will respect it.

For tweeting attendees

  • For those new to the game: the hashtag (including the ‘#’) must be included in the text of all tweets that you want to be discoverable by it. Also, if you have a private Twitter account, only people who you approve to follow you can see your tweets.
  • Give your non-astronomy Twitter followers a heads-up that you’ll be tweeting at a conference, and tell them when the conference is ending, so they can mute you if they want to.
  • Consider writing your Twitter handle on your conference nametag, particularly if there are lots of tweeters at the conference, so people can put a face to your tweets.
  • Don’t forget to credit the speaker in your tweets (typically with either their first initial and last name or just their last name). Tweets have new guidelines so that mentioning a Twitter handle (including the ‘@’) doesn’t count against the character limit, so if the speaker is on Twitter, credit them that way!
  • If you catch it, it can be nice to tweet the project website or online code repository if the speaker mentions it. URLs get truncated so it won’t take up all of your 140-character tweet limit.
  • If you’re sitting towards the front of the room, you can tweet a photo of the conclusion slide or a good summary graphic. Bonus points if you get a good shot of the speaker too!
  • If you happen to know or have heard that the presenter has close competitors and is possibly at risk of getting scooped, keep your tweets vague and don’t tweet photos of their slides.
  • Tweet photos of colleagues with their posters (or even “action shots” of them explaining their poster to someone else).
  • Make sure your smartphone is on vibrate or silent and the volume is off on your laptop — you’re going to get a lot of notifications from other tweeters favouriting and retweeting you. I actually turn off push-notifications for Twitter on my smartphone.
  • Some people thread their tweets on the same talk by “replying” to their first tweet about it (and then deleting their account name from the text of the next tweet). It’s a great idea, but I often forget to do it.
  • Find a good compromise between using abbreviations to fit more in a tweet, and using so many abbreviations that online followers can’t understand it.
  • If a speaker asks the audience to not tweet or otherwise publicize some or all of their presentation, respect that.
  • Consider not tweeting while inebriated using the conference hashtag.

For all attendees

  • If you do not want anything (or a specific thing) from your talk to be tweeted, say so at the beginning of your talk or on the slide before it’s relevant. I personally don’t know any astronomer who would not respect the request. This is a good idea if your results are under press embargo, or if they’re preliminary results and you have competitors.
  • Include bite-sized summaries of your motivation, technique, and/or result to make it easy for the tweeters. Otherwise they’ll need to distill something short and sweet from your ramblings, and if they’re not in your sub-field they may get it wrong.
  • Include your email address and a paper link/reference on your conclusion slide and leave it up for the questions, so that someone can tweet a photo of it. (h/t Beatriz Mingo)
  • You can still read the tweets if you don’t have a Twitter account — just click on the hashtag, go to the ‘Live’ tab, and there you go!

If you have more suggestions, let me know via my contact page or on twitter! 😉

PhD candidate status in the Netherlands

Image from
The Dutch Ministry of Education wants to change the status of PhD candidates in the Netherlands from civil employees to students. This may not sound like much to those outside this system, but it is HUGE to us.

Our salaries are on par with a PhD candidate in the US, but it’s just that — a salary, not a stipend or scholarship. We tend to call ourselves PhD students because that’s the colloquial term, but technically we aren’t, and we like those technicalities that set us apart.

As civil employees we have full-time work status, a union, unemployment benefits, pension contributions, and other legal protections. We don’t take classes, don’t pay tuition, and at UvA the teaching load is ~15-20% of our contract (the rest is research). International PhDs also get the 30%-rule for taxation, thanks to which I can afford to actually go home and see my family. A big reason why I came from the US to do a PhD in the Netherlands is, in no small part, because PhD candidates are recognized civil employees, and those benefits were the tipping point for me when considering PhD positions at different institutes in different countries. The research at top Dutch universities is as good as in other top universities abroad, but our legal protections as junior-career scientists are distinct. As far as I know (in the US, Canada, and most of Western Europe), in the Netherlands we have the best job protections and job security.

Cancelling this status (as an “experiment” or otherwise) would be a slap in the face to me and the many, many other international PhD candidates who move far away from our home countries to work in the Netherlands. It is absurd — please, please do not let them do this. To start, you can help by signing the petition to ask the Dutch Minister of Education to not do this, and the Dutch universities to not participate in this:

There’s more explanation in the petition description, in Dutch and English (scroll down for English).

Dublin on Sunday for The X-ray Universe 2014!

XMM-Newton X-ray Universe 2014 Dublin poster
Below are my title and abstract for The X-ray Universe 2014 in Dublin. I’ll also be live-tweeting! Looking forward to a great week 🙂


A New Route to Phase-Resolved Spectroscopy of Pulsations and QPOs in X-ray Binaries

The accretion disks in neutron star and stellar-mass black hole X-ray binaries provide an opportunity to study matter in strong gravitational fields. In particular, using spectral-timing measurements of X-ray emission, we can analyze the inner parts of the accretion disk and corona. Here we present the application of a new spectral-timing technique to carry out phase-resolved spectroscopy of rapid periodic and quasi-periodic signals from X-ray binaries. This technique measures relative phase and does not require ephemerides or exactly periodic signals, so it is applicable to a wide range of data, from X-ray millisecond pulsations to kHz and low-frequency QPOs. The method gives new insight into the physical mechanisms underlying these signals as well as the geometry of the emitting regions.