PhD & Summer Projects


A list of available Astrophysics PhD projects at the University of St Andrews is provided here.  Please contact potential supervisors to find out more on whose projects you are interested in. For more information about the research done by the Astronomy Group visit the Research page.

Applications can be submitted online.

We encourage potential UK PhD students to apply before the 1st of February each year, to start in September of that year. International applications will be considered when positions with appropriate funding become available.



Each summer, staff within the department work with a small number of undergraduate students on individual research projects. These projects allow undergraduates to get a taste of the professional research that takes place here in St Andrews, along with developing key skills that will be of use both during and beyond their degree.

We accept students from St Andrews, the UK and internationally.  If you’re interested, you will need to secure a project supervisor, and a source of funding.  The School of Physics and Astronomy maintains an overview page on vacation placements, and potential sources of funding.

Due to the nature of research, projects evolve and change with time. Therefore, if you are interested in working on a specific topic with a specific member of staff, it is best to contact them directly to see if any projects are available. For an idea of the type of projects on offer here in St Andrews, please see the list below.  All email addresses are completed by ‘’

Summer projects with the LEAP group in the area of exoplanet atmospheres
Supervisor: Christiane HellingPlease see here for summer projects in the LEAP group.

Simulating a past Milky Way-Andromeda flyby
Supervisors: Indranil Banik and Hongsheng Zhao
Email: ib45This project will provide an important contribution to the ongoing debate over whether dark matter (DM) or modified Newtonian dynamics (MOND) is responsible for holding galaxies together. It is based on the observation that the Milky Way (MW) and M31 galaxies are each surrounded by a thin plane of satellite galaxies. Although this appears difficult to reconcile with the DM hypothesis, it is unclear if it might arise naturally in MOND.
In MOND, the MW and M31 must have undergone a past close encounter. The resulting tidal debris may well have formed the observed satellite planes. This project will be about conducting and visualising the results of simulations in which the MW and M31 undergo a close flyby, to see where material in their disks is likely to end up. If there is time, the project will also investigate the effect on material in the vicinity of the MW and M31 but not initially bound to them, looking in particular at particles which fall back towards the MW/M31 and are subsequently flung out at high speed in a gravitational slingshot interaction. The emphasis is on visualising outputs and planning which simulations to conduct rather than on coding the simulations, which is already done to a reasonable level. Nonethtless, the candidate should have some programming experience, preferably with MATLAB (which will be used for this project) but this is not essential.

Automated morphology of high-redshift galaxies: constraining the role of galaxy mergers in inducing bursty star formation in the early Universe
Supervisor: Milena Pawlik
Email: mp84The hierarchical nature of the currently favoured model of ΛCDM cosmology points to mergers as a natural channel through which structures in the Universe form and evolve. Theoretical models of gas-rich major galaxy mergers show that they can significantly transform galaxy structure and induce centralised starbursts strong enough to consume a significant amount of the galaxies’ gas reservoir – the fuel for star formation. Mergers are therefore considered a plausible mechanism responsible for shutting down the star formation in galaxies, which makes them a potentially important channel of galaxy evolution. Observations have revealed that galaxies do interact and merge both in Local Universe and at higher redshifts; however, the importance of such events is difficult to constrain due to the varying sample selection criteria with the merger stage, as well as the short-lived nature of observable merger signatures. In automated image analysis, faint tidal features induced by a merger are particularly difficult to detect in the post-coalescence merger stages. Using the `shape asymmetry’ – a measure of rotational asymmetry of the shapes of galaxy images –  such features can be identified in a robust manner in the Local Universe, where mergers are associated with ~50% of the youngest (<0.1Gyr) centralised starbursts in galaxies (Pawlik et al. 2016). To fully understand the role of mergers in inducing bursty star formation it is essential to follow their evolution throughout the cosmic history; however at high redshifts detecting merger signatures becomes even more challenging.

This project’s main objective would be to test and adapt the shape asymmetry measure for analysis of high-redshift galaxy images. This would involve creating mock galaxy images using FERENGI, a software package designed for artificial redshifting of astronomical images (Barden et al. 2008), for a direct comparison with real images at low redshifts. Using a self-contained image analysis code written in IDL, the aim would be to compute the shape asymmetry of both real and mock galaxy images and investigate the effect of cosmological redshift on the measure. Minor modifications of the IDL code may be required to adapt the measure for high-redshift analysis. The final part of the project would involve automated image analysis of a high-redshift sample of galaxies with recent episodes of bursty star formation.

Modelling photometry data from SuperWASP and JGT
Supervisors: Kirstin Hay and Annelies Mortier
Email: kh97A large proportion of the transiting planets discovered through ground-based observations have been found by the SuperWASP survey, which we are part of in St Andrews. Much of our work detecting extra-solar planets is determining which of the signals detected by our algorithms are caused by transiting planets, and which are due to other astrophysical phenomenon or instrumental effects. One system flagged as a possible transiting planet has been observed on a few occasions by the telescope here in St Andrews (JGT), and the results are inconclusive as to whether there’s still a chance that there’s a hot Jupiter there or the signal we found is due to the variability of the star itself. The project would be to use all the data that we have for the star and try and work out what is causing the “transits” that we see, which should be an interesting result whether there is a planet signal or not.

Some previous coding experience is necessary – python or fortran are preferable.

Resolving the Star Formation History of Post-Starburst Galaxies
Supervisor: Vivienne Wild
Email: vw8This 10-12 week project will involve comparing the spatially and time resolved star formation histories of MaNGA ( galaxies, to those modelled in hydrodynamic simulations. Depending on the student’s interest, the project may take either a more statistical, observational or theoretical route. The statistical route would involve the development of our current Bayesian methods for fitting model star formation histories to data, to take into account the fact that neighbouring regions in galaxies are likely to have similar star formation histories. The observational route would involve the investigation of different methods used to measure star formation histories or kinematics in real and mock datasets. The theoretical route would be to develop the simulations, either isolated mergers, or the output from the cosmological EAGLE( simulation to better match the data.

When complete, MaNGA will be the largest ever integral field survey of galaxies in the local Universe. As part of SDSS-IV, the data is being obtained by a large international consortium, and only a handful of departments have access to the data in the UK. We will focus on reproducing a population of galaxies that have recently undergone a starburst, so-called “post-starburst” galaxies in the low and high redshift Universe. Post-starburst galaxies are a particularly interesting and unusual class of galaxies, apparently caught in a transition phase between gas-rich star-forming disks and gas-poor quiescent elliptical galaxies (Wild et al. 2009, MNRAS, 395, 144). The process(es) that cause this transition for the galaxy population as a whole are poorly constrained. One popular model invokes major gas-rich mergers, which are able to disrupt the stellar orbits sufficiently to turn a disk galaxy into an elliptical. Models indicate that these gas-rich mergers drive a massive short-lived starburst, which can subsequently be detected as a post-starburst galaxy before the galaxy enters the red-sequence. Better understanding how star formation occurs in post-starburst galaxies will help us to determine the role of gas rich mergers in galaxy evolution.