Career Path


A PhD or doctorate is an advanced qualification obtained after years of specialist study and independent research.

A PhD is a Doctorate of Philosophy, a higher form of degree compared to a bachelor's or a master’s. They generally last between three and four years, and are marked with a thesis and a viva (a discussion about your work) at the end. In a nutshell, a PhD is a demonstration of research competence in your field. The dissertation is intended to demonstrate your:

  • Mastery of your subject
  • Research insight
  • Respect for the discipline
  • Capacity for independent research
  • Ability to communicate results and relate them to the broader discourse

PhDs in the Space Sector

The space sector has a very broad area of interest, and PhDs can cover a huge number of topics related to space. Some obvious topics that involve space are:

  • Astrodynamics
  • Spacecraft Engineering (for new or underdeveloped technologies)
  • Astronomy or Astrophysics
  • Planetary Science
  • Sensor technology

But there are many PhD opportunities that use information gathered from space or develop technologies used by space companies, such as:

  • Ocean science (algae, oceanic condition)
  • Geography (disaster monitoring, human geography)
  • Chemistry (atmospheric chemistry, interaction of pollutants with people)
  • Biology (vegetation levels, crops, animal behaviour)

Sometimes these kinds of PhDs will be purely using data from existing satellites and sometimes helping to design new space-based sensor platforms or techniques. Most scientific instruments onboard satellites are designed and operated by groups of universities, so there are a whole range of types of PhDs available.

Doing a PhD

Since PhDs are generally stepping stones to a career in a particular field, and you will spend the next 3 or 4 years doing research in your topic, you need to make sure you have an interest in this. Once you have found an opportunity you are interested in, you should write your application. It can be useful to have an informal chat with your future supervisor about the research topic, their goals and your goals.

Most universities will have some kind of programme to help you manage your goals and plan your work during the PhD. During the first few months of a PhD, a student will normally carry out some form of literature review, to try and understand the current state of the field, and where novel work can be done. This is followed by the bulk of the research and finally the write-up. PhD students are encouraged to publish their work in conferences proceedings and journals.


Usually, advertised opportunities will have funding arranged beforehand. There are several sources for funds for PhDs:

  • Research Council Grants
  • University Funds
  • Industry Sponsorship
  • Project-based funding, often as part of a larger project grant

If you have an idea for a PhD topic that you would like to research, you could approach a potential supervisor and try and find funding yourself, through research council grants, university funds or self-funding from other sources.


Rob Garner

Rob is a PhD Student at the University of Strathclyde and Vice Chair of UKSEDS. He studied Physics with Space Science and Technology at the University of Leicester.

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