Phd and Honours

While the AAO's primary role is the provision of world-class facilities for optical/infrared astronomy, the broad range of experience of AAO astronomers allows many opportunities for exciting and varied student research projects. These can be at either PhD or Honours/Masters level.

As the AAO is not a degree-awarding body, these projects will be carried out under the co-supervision of an AAO astronomer and a University supervisor. Therefore in order to embark on one of these projects you are required to be accepted into a higher degree program at a university.

Usually the joint nature of the project will require students to spend some fraction of their time at the AAO's headquarters in North Ryde, a suburb 25 km north-west of the centre of Sydney, where they will have access to the office and computing facilities of the AAO. For students based outside Sydney temporary accommodation can be arranged.

The first step in considering a graduate level research project at the AAO is to look through the information on potential supervisors and projects on these pages. Selecting a PhD, Masters or Honours supervisor and project will be one of the most critical decisions you will make in starting a research project - both student and advisor will be looking for someone they can work closely with, and who is well matched to the project. Talking to several prospective supervisors about a number of projects will greatly help you decide. So the next step after reading about the projects currently on offer will be to contact and discuss matters with both your AAO and University supervisors before coming to a decision.

AAO Honours/Masters Scholarships

The Australian Astronomical Observatory offers a $5000 scholarship for Honours or Masters students enrolled at any Australian university, for a research project substantially co-supervised with an AAO staff-member. You can apply using this application form in Word format or this application form in pdf format. The deadline for applications is 15 March. Any questions about the AAO Honours/Masters Scholarships or the application process can be directed to the Head of Research and Outreach at the AAO, Andrew Hopkins.

In addition, we also support jointly-funded Honours scholarships with Monash University (for details contact Dr Michael Brown) and jointly-funded Masters scholarships with Macquarie University (apply using the standard forms above, specifying Macquarie as host institution).

AAO PhD Scholarships

The Australian Astronomical Observatory manages a scheme of top-up scholarships for students at Australian universities who are substantially co-supervised by an AAO staff member. These grants will be $5000 per annum for 3 years, with a possible further 6-month extension. More details (including application forms) are available on the AAO PhD Scholarship Scheme webpage. The deadline for PhD scholarship scheme applications is 15 March.


Staff at the AAO are actively involved in astronomical research and in the development of new instruments to carry out these research projects. Much of this research concentrates on the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) or the UK Schmidt Telescope (UKST), though AAO astronomers also make frequent use of other national and international facilities, such as the Gemini Telescopes in Hawaii and Chile that Australia is a partner in. The AAO has a world-wide reputation in both optical and infrared imaging and spectroscopy. A particular strength of AAT and UKST research is large-scale surveys to identify hundreds of thousands of a certain class of objects; in particular, old stars, galaxies and quasars.

The AAO is engaged in several major ongoing surveys: the WiggleZ project is using the AAOmega instrument on AAT to determine the evolutionary properties of the mysterious Dark Energy, but measuring the clustering of several hundred thousand distant galaxies; GAMA (Galaxy And Mass Assembly) is studying galaxy structures by building a database of a quarter of a million galaxies; the Anglo-Australian Planet Search is surveying almost 300 nearby stars to search for extra-solar planets; and the RAVE survey is using the UK Schmidt Telescope to map the kinematics and chemical abundances of stars in our Galaxy. Two major surveys (now completed) that have had enormous scientific impact were the Two Degree Field Galaxy Redshift Survey, and the Two Degree Field QSO Redshift Survey. The first of these obtained redshifts (distances) for more than 220,000 galaxies out to a redshift of 0.3. The second survey measured redshifts for over 22,000 quasars, at redshifts up to 3. The 6dF Galaxy Survey has completed a mammoth survey of over 120000 nearby galaxies over the whole Southern sky. In addition to planets, old stars, galaxies and quasars, AAO astronomers have a wide range of other interests. These include brown dwarfs, supernovae, star formation, starburst and active galaxies, gravitational lensing and cosmology.

The AAO is also home to one of the world's most innovative and vibrant astronomical instrumentation groups - in recent years the AAO has been involved in the construction of instruments for both the AAT and UKST (SAMI, IRIS2, AAOmega, 6dF) and other telescopes (OzPoz for the FLAMES instrument on the ESO VLT; Echidna/FMOS for Subaru; as well as work for Gemini and DAzLE for VLT). Research projects involving development of new and innovative instrumentation, followed by an observational component, often produce some of the most sought-after astronomy graduates.

What do we do?

We are often asked "What do we do?" Contrary to popular opinion, a typical astronomer will only use telescopes a few weeks a year. Getting time to use a telescope is highly competitive. At the last estimate, there are 13,000 astronomers world-wide although only about a third of these aggressively pursue access to telescopes. AAO astronomers do not restrict themselves to the AAT or UKST. We apply for time on radio and sub-millimetre telescopes, larger optical/infrared telescopes like Gemini and the VLT, and space-borne observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray observatory and so on.

Who are we?

The research interests of staff at the AAO are extensive. You can find a list of the AAO astronomers and PhD students on the AAO Science page. Additional descriptions of the research interests of several AAO staff can be found on their personal web pages, linked from the AAO Science page, and some recent science highlights from the AAO can be found in the AAO Annual Report, as well as the AAO's Newsletter and Press Release pages.

PhD projects are programs which target significant new bodies of research over a 3-4 year timescale. As an astronomy PhD student you will be involved in developing (with your supervisors) a program of research designed to attack some set of key questions. You will have to write observing proposals, take data, analyse it and prepare it for publication, as well as writing up your results in thesis form. The AAO can offer co-supervision of students in PhD projects together with a University-based supervisor at your home institution.

The following are a few potential projects for PhD students. Astronomy is a subject in which developments move rapidly - so the hot topics by the time a project starts could have changed. All projects are worked out by discussion between you and your prospective supervisor, so treat this list as a source of ideas and a starting point. Members of staff may have other projects waiting in the wings. Students who are interested in subject areas not covered below are encouraged to contact relevant AAO astronomers directly. Students who are interested in projects in astronomical instrumentation should contact Andrew Sheinis, the AAO's Head of Instrumentation.

  • What shapes galaxies?

Supervisor: Caroline Foster
Measuring the intrinsic (or three-dimensional) shape of galaxies is a non-trivial task as it is complicated by projection effects. The intrinsic shape of galaxies is a fundamental property that is directly influenced by various galaxy formation processes. One can obtain meaningful constraints on the intrinsic shape of galaxies by combining photometric and kinematic maps for statistical samples of galaxies.
The advent of multi integral field unit spectrographs are enabling the observation of statistically meaningful samples of kinematic maps for the first time. Using data from the SAMI Galaxy Survey, this project will explore and identify the physical mechanisms that influence the intrinsic shape of galaxies. This will provide new constraints for galaxy formation models.
This project involves collaboration within the SAMI Galaxy Survey, the use of data from the Anglo Australian Telescope (Australia's largest optical telescope) and the possibility to be involved in observing and data acquisition. The selected student will acquire experience in developing code, expertise with modern statistical techniques and integral field spectrograph data analysis skills that are easily portable to other fields.
  • Models that shape galaxies

Supervisor: Caroline Foster (AAO) and Kenji Bekki (UWA/ICRAR)
The intrinsic shape of galaxies is a fundamental property that is directly influenced by various galaxy formation processes. The intrinsic shape of galaxies is being reliably constrained for the first time by combining photometric and kinematic maps for statistical samples of galaxies using the SAMI Galaxy Survey data. This project will compare these observational results with the latest hydrodynamical simulations of galaxy formation and evolution that can predict the intrinsic shapes and kinematics  of galaxies in a fully self-consistent manner. This comparison thus will allow this project to understand the detail of how different merging histories and dark matter distributions influence the shape of galaxies. This project involves collaboration within the SAMI Galaxy Survey and the possibility to be involved in observing and data acquisition. The student will acquire experience in code development, galaxy modeling, as well as a rare combined observational and theoretical expertise.
  • The Huntsman Telephoto Array: ultra-faint imaging of galaxies

Supervisors: Lee Spitler and Anthony Horton

The Huntsman Telephoto Array is a new astronomical imaging system that makes use of a large array of Canon telephoto camera lenses. Normally used for sports and wildlife photography, this lens array has distinct advantages over conventional telescopes for imaging faint and spatially-extended stellar structures in nearby galaxies. The PhD student on this project will have exclusive access to this new facility, which will be based at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia. By identifying new dwarf galaxies and stellar streams around nearby galaxies their historical record of formation can be recovered and we can determine how galaxies assembled their mass. This project will provide an exciting combination of hands-on astronomy instrumentation, image processing and astrophysical analysis. The data obtained will be combined with observational data at other wavelengths, including radio maps of neutral hydrogen gas from the WALLABY survey on Australia’s ASKAP telescope. The Huntsman system is a precursor for a Macquarie-led space-based cubesat facility, the Australian Space Eye.  

Huntsman Array
  • The Rise of the Jellyfish: Galaxies caught in the act of environmentally driven transformation

Supervisor: Matt Owers
In this project, the student will study the enigmatic "jellyfish galaxies'" and their surrounding environment. Jellyfish galaxies are found in massive clusters of galaxies and exhibit one-sided trails of extremely blue knots and filaments. These knots and filaments are interpreted as the manifestation of hot, young stars formed in-situ within gas which has been stripped from the parent galaxy, indicating the jellyfish are in the process of being transformed by the environment. Observing galaxies "caught in the act'' of being strongly transformed by the environment will lead to a better understanding of the dominant physical mechanisms at play. 
The student will use integral field spectroscopy (from the new KOALA instrument on the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope and the WiFeS instrument on the 2.3m telescope at Siding Spring Observatory) to investigate the impact of this gas stripping on the star forming properties of the galaxy, and also to investigate the properties of the blue knots and filaments in the tails. Furthermore, the student will use the combination of X-ray information (provided by the Chandra and XMM-newton satellites), which traces the hot intra-cluster medium, and multi-object spectroscopy (from the AAOmega instrument on the AAT), which traces the dynamics of the cluster through galaxy velocities, to obtain a detailed understanding of the environmental conditions required for the formation of a jellyfish galaxy. 
The student will gain valuable skills in collecting, processing and analysing data taken with some of the world's premier instruments and observatories while collaborating with researchers from Australia and around the world.
  • The reality of moving groups

Supervisor: Gayandhi De Silva
The GALactic Archaeology with HERMES (GALAH) survey is a major Australian-led high resolution spectroscopic survey aiming to determine the detailed chemical composition of one million stars with the new HERMES spectrograph on the Anglo-Australian Telescope. The primary aim of GALAH is to carry out Galactic Archaeology, that is to unravel the star formation, chemo-dynamical evolution and merger/accretion history of the Milky Way, using the Australian pioneering technique known as "Chemical Tagging". The idea behind chemical tagging is to use the unique elemental abundance patterns to search for stars that were born together, but now dispersed throughout the Galaxy. Previous explorations into chemical tagging with much smaller data sets have revealed the presence of several chemically uniform, yet unbound structures known as "moving groups". The goal of this project is to identify explore and characterize the moving groups in the GALAH database. The potential student will be able to work in collaboration with the broader GALAH team, including experts in Galactic archeology and Stellar Astrophysics in Universities around Australia.
  • The angular momentum of massive galaxies

Supervisor: Sarah Brough

Our current model of the formation of galaxies suggests that they grow gradually over time through mergers with other galaxies.  The most massive galaxies observed today have therefore gone through many such mergers. The initial galaxies are thought to start off as rotating systems and with each merger the galaxy loses more and more rotation until they are barely rotating at all.  However, small studies of some of the most massive galaxies, Brightest Cluster Galaxies (BCGs), find that some are still rotating, in stark contradiction to our current picture.

Until recently, there were only small numbers of observations of these massive galaxies.  The ground-breaking multi-object integral-field SAMI galaxy survey now means that there are observations of hundreds of these galaxies.  This project will therefore use SAMI observations to resolve this conundrum and understand why some massive galaxies are still
rotating.  Integral field observations are the future of astronomy so this project will be an important grounding in a crucial new technique.

  • The unbound stars of massive galaxies

Supervisor: Sarah Brough

One of the pressing, unanswered questions in astronomy is why the most massive galaxies in the Universe are not observed to have grown in mass as much as theoretical models suggest that they should have. A possible solution is that galaxies merging with the most massive galaxies may actually be destroyed into clouds of unbound stars in the process. This would also explain the origin of diffuse, stellar haloes observed around some of the most massive galaxies: Brightest Cluster Galaxies (BCGs). BCGs are massive elliptical galaxies found at the centres of groups and
clusters of galaxies.

This project would utilise data from the multi-wavelength imaging and spectroscopic Galaxy And Mass Assembly (GAMA) survey to select the BCGs and undertake initial surface brightness analyses before obtaining new deeper imaging from world-class international telescopes to measure the mass of diffuse light and its origin for the first time.  This project will provide key skills in data mining, image analysis and obtaining astronomical observations.

Honours or Masters projects are smaller in scale than PhD projects, and aim to provide senior undergraduate students with a research project they can undertake at a level of ~50% of their time over the course of their enrolment. Honours or Masters students will be expected to write a thesis for their University describing this work, and are often also able to write up results for publication in a refereed scientific journal.

Some potential Honours/Masters projects are listed below. The nature of research is that some of these projects could be extended and grow into PhD projects. Similarly members of staff may have other projects waiting in the wings. Astronomy is a subject in which developments move rapidly - so the hot topics by the time such a project starts could have changed. All projects are worked out by discussion between you and your prospective supervisor, so treat this list as a source of ideas and a starting point. If you're interested in subject areas not covered below, you are encouraged to contact relevant AAO astronomers directly. Students who are interested in projects in astronomical instrumentation should contact the AAO's Head of Instrumentation, Andrew Sheinis, or the Head of Instrument Science, Jon Lawrence. Lee Spitler and Richard McDermid (AAO/Macquarie Lecturers) can also be contacted for information on Masters Projects through Macquarie University. PhD students who undertake brief (3 month) research projects in their first year, prior to starting their main thesis project can be co-supervised by AAO astronomers in such projects, and some of the projects below may be suitable for this.

Project: The best way to measure environment

Supervisor: Sarah Brough

Galaxies are found in a wide range of environments, from hamlets where they are a very long way from their neighbours to cities where they live cheek-by-jowl with thousands of other galaxies.  Unfortunately there are many different ways of measuring that environment, each of which gives a slightly different picture of what effect that environment has.  The aim of this project is to use data from the very large new Galaxy And Mass Assembly (GAMA) survey to determine the environment measure that optimally characterises a galaxy's true environment.  This project will provide invaluable skills in the mathematical analysis of large sets of data.

Project: Unveiling the large scale kinematics of nearby galaxies in the Dragons survey

Supervisor: Caroline Foster

The projected shape of galaxies on the sky has been used to categorise and interpret the formation of galaxies since the dawn of extragalactic astronomy. Despite several decades of efforts, the classification of galaxies is still being debated, particularly with the advent of new technology able to observe the velocity dimension efficiently. This essentially allows for galaxies to be observed in 3D. For technical reasons, this kinematic classification is usually limited to the very inner parts of galaxies and could change further out. It is thus important to study the 3D outskirts of galaxies to obtain a reliable classification.

As part of the "Here be dragons" survey, we have obtained VLT/VIMOS spectra of 5 nearby galaxies out to large galactocentric radii. These data are mostly reduced and in hand. Given the success of this pilot project, we are applying for a larger survey (30 targets) on Gemini. With the current data, we hope to test the scale at which the kinematic classification holds and probe the kinematic transition beyond the usually probed effective radius. Indeed, these kinematically distinct halos (KDH, see Foster et al. 2013) have been observed in several early-type galaxies. A KDH is predicted for merger remnants, and given the fact that most galaxies are the product of multiple mergers, such a feature should be present in the majority of early-type galaxies. With this sample of varied morphological types (spirals to ellipticals), we hope to determine how widely spread KDHs are across the Hubble sequence.

This project offers the possibility of early involvement in the new Dragons survey, the use of data from world-class observatories and of a recently developed data reduction technique (Norris et al. 2008; Proctor et al. 2009) to push the galactocentric boundary. The selected student will acquire invaluable spectral and kinematical analysis skills that are easily portable to popular IFU studies. The Dragons survey is an international collaboration between scientists in Australia, Canada, Chile, USA and The Netherlands, offering a connection to further worldwide opportunities.

Project: 2D spectroscopic analysis of local dwarf star-forming galaxies

Supervisor: Angel Lopez-Sanchez and Heath Jones (Macquarie)

The new observational technique of 2D spectroscopy using Integrated Field Units (IFU) is providing amazing new results about the kinematics and the chemical composition of galaxies. In particular, Blue Compact Dwarf Galaxies (BCDGs) are excellent targets to perform such studies, because their modest sizes allow that all the galaxy can be observed in just some few pointings. During the last year we have collected some 2D spectroscopy data of a sample of BCDGs using the new WiFeS instrument available at the 2.3m ANU telescope at Siding Spring Observatory, and the preliminary results are quite promising. We are offering the opportunity of study one or two of the BCDGs for which we already have good-quality data. In particular, this project will give to the Honours student an introduction to 2D spectroscopy techniques (we expect to continue the observations using both WiFeS @ 2.3m ANU and SPIRAL @ 3.9m AAT) and to gain some expertise in the reduction and analysis of this kind of data. The aims of this project is to perform an analysis of the physical (mass, star-formation rate, extinction, electron temperature and density, excitation), chemical (ionic and total abundances of helium, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur, neon, argon...) and kinematical properties of the ionized gas within these galaxies, which may be compared with the properties of the neutral gas from our own ATCA observations. Finally, the student will also learn to write up the results not only for his/her Honours Thesis but for a subsequent publication. As an example of this project, please consult the 2D spectroscopical analysis of the brightest star-forming region of the local BCDG IC10, López-Sánchez et al. (2011) and this research image.


Will I get paid?

Most PhD studentships are funded through scholarships from individual Universities or through grants from the Australian Research Coucil (ARC) to University supervisors. The Australian Astronomical Observatory manages a scheme of top-up scholarships for students at Australian universities who are substantially co-supervised by an AAO staff member. These grants will be $5000 per annum for 3 years. More details (including an application form) are available on our AAO PhD Scholarship Scheme webpage. For visiting undergraduate students, the AAO offers stipends through our AAO Student Fellowships and the Australian Gemini Undergraduate Summer Studentships. There are also Honours and Masters scholarships available. Access to the AAO's computer facilities, and office space at the AAO's North Ryde buildings are provided to PhD/Honours students jointly supervised by AAO staff.

Will I get better access to AAT time?

Observing time on the AAT is awarded purely on the basis of scientific merit in a process of peer review of proposals - so in short, no. Having said that, AAO staff are extremely successful in competing for and winning time on both the AAT and other telescopes, so you will receive the best possible assistance in preparing winning proposals.


There are no hard and fast rules for establishing a joint supervision project. Every case is unique. Your University, however, will have guidelines for when you must select a project, and for the approval of projects (and supervisors) by the University.

The process for establishing a joint supervision project will usually go something like this

  • Talk to your prospective AAO supervisor (in fact you should talk to several).
  • Talk to your prospective University supervisor, or the supervisor of the PhD or Honours program at your University.
  • Establish with the supervisor of the PhD or Honours program at your University that they are prepared to allow joint supervision.
  • There will now be a phase where all three of you work out how the project will work, what hoops the University will require you all to go through, and when.

In general the earlier you start making contact with supervisors before your research project would be due to actually start, the better. For example, getting the ball rolling and talking to prospective supervisors in the July-November period before an Honours project starts in February (though not essential) would be a good idea (though exact timing seems to vary from University to University, with students in some departments choosing projects as late as the first week of the academic year).

PhD programs are generally organized somewhat earlier, with the Australian Postgraduate Award deadline of October 31 being a hard limit forcing students to at least choose what University they are going to do their degree at, which may also involve getting a feel for the kind of research they'd like to do. Once you are accepted for a PhD programme, if you are co-supervised by someone at the AAO you can then apply for one of the AAO top-up scholarships (worth $5000 per year for 3 years). The deadline for these is 15 March.

Please feel free to contact us here at the AAO to discuss your interests, concerns or problems. You can either contact a prospective supervisor directly, or make contact through Andrew Hopkins, the AAO's Head of Research and Outreach.

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