PhD projects

PhD projects


Why a PhD at MQ AAAstro?

The MQ Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programme aims to train students to undertake research at the limits of our understanding of the Universe. During the course of their PhD, students will work with leading MQ astrophysicists to further our understanding of how galaxies formed and evolved over cosmic time, how our Galaxy was assembled, how planets and stars are formed out of interstellar gas and how stars die. At the conclusion of their studies, MQ PhD researchers will be world experts in their chosen area, and will have developed considerable skills in data analysis, theoretical modelling, and computer visualisation during their studies. The 3 year PhD and 4-5 year MRes/PhD programmes provide the skills required to become an independent researcher, with the ability to develop and undertake original research, and to communicate the relevance, significance and context of their work to others. The MQAAAstro focused PhD programme allows graduates to choose a diverse range of careers spanning from the classic academic pathway by moving to a post-doctoral appointment, to working in the broader Astronomy sector such as becoming a data scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, to choosing a career in a related industry such as the Education industry (teacher, outreach officer) or the Information Technology Industry (IT person data scientist), to mention a few.

Here are some of the other reasons to get your PhD with MQ AAAstro:

  • Generous individual research support budget.
  • Opportunity for observing trips to telescopes (e.g. Magellan in Chile and Keck in Hawaii).
  • Links with innovative instrumentation engineers and astronomers at the Australian Astronomical Observatory and CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science
  • Living expenses and fees included in scholarship award.
  • Fastest-growing astronomy research centre in Australia.
  • High-quality research environment – ranked as an equal among Australia’s top astronomy research centres
  • Live in vibrant Sydney while working on the beautiful Macquarie University campus.

A wide range of potential PhD topics are on offer. Students interested in particular projects or potential projects in related areas, are strongly encouraged to contact the relevant supervisor(s).

PhD scholarship application information

How to apply

PhD scholarships for domestic and international students include nearly $25,000/year for living expenses and all program fees for the duration of the project. Certain projects have an allocated scholarship, others can attract a domestic or international scholarship. Application instructions are available here (international students also see this page), but first please contact the relevant supervisor listed next to the project.

Cotutelles and joint PhD programs

Macquarie University also runs cotutelle and joint PhD programs, which allows PhD students to be affiliated with Macquarie and another university overseas. More information is available here.


High-quality students with strong undergraduate marks and Masters degree completed. Exceptional students with prizes and research publications have a good chance of winning a scholarship. Generally you need a 4 or 5 ranking on this system to win a PhD scholarship. Alternatively, you can apply through the new MRes program and transfer to the PhD program.

Don’t have a Masters degree? Macquarie has a new Astrophysics Masters program. More information is available here.

Think you might want to do a PhD at MQ AAAstro?

For more information on qualifications, deadlines and projects available, contact the project supervisors above, or email AAAstro admin.

Applying for a PhD or a MRes degree

Funding to support your PhD development

Funds are available to each student to help source small equipment or consumables, access to facilities, or specialist training, and to present your research results at premier national or international meetings. For more information click here.

Outreach and Education

There are many opportunities for MQ Astro focused PhD students to be involved in outreach and communication including the famous yearly MQ Astronomy Open Night, an event that routinely attracts over 1000 people. Our students also run our two domed telescopes which, aside from research and teaching, are also open weekly for the public. Aside from running operations at the Observatory, our students are also in charge of our 45-seat inflatable planetarium that is taken to schools and events.

MRes: Masters by Research

We offer Masters by Research degrees focusing on Quantum Science and Technology related research topics through the Macquarie University MRES degree. This two year degree involves eight units of coursework training and then a full year research project. Students accepted to this degree receive an automatic scholarship which increments from Yr1 to Yr2. For more information on the MRES degree click here.

Where are our Alumni now?

Our past students have been awarded fellowships, moved on to postdoctoral positions all over the world or moved to industry. Recent examples include:

  • Aaron Rizzuto (PhD 2014) University of Texas, Austin, USA Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Stacey Bright (PhD 2012) Space Telescope Science Institute (Baltimore, USA) Senior Data Scientist
  • Catherine Braiding (PhD 2011) University of New South Wales, Postdoctoral Fellow.
  • Korinne McDonnell (PhD 2011) CSIRO, Education and Outreach Officer
  • Brent Miszalski (PhD 2009, cotutelle with Strasbourg, France) South African Astronomical Observatory (Cape Town, South Africa) Astronomer
  • Madusha Gunawardhana (BSc(Hons) 2009) Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy, University of Durham, UK - Postdoctoral Research Associate

PhD projects

There are a number of projects that PhD students are involved with at MQAAAstro. If you're interested in PhDs projects at with us, please contact the supervisor within the projects.

MUSE The FORCE: MUSE Used to Spectroscopically Explore The FORnax Cluster Environment


Supervisor: Dr Richard McDermid (Macquarie)

MUSE is a revolutionary new instrument on the European Southern Observatory (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT), which allows us to make detailed maps of the motions and chemistry of gas and stars in galaxies. This project will be part of a new international survey of the nearby Fornax galaxy cluster using MUSE, together with a wealth of ancillary data, to study tens of galaxies in unprecedented detail. Multiple avenues of PhD study are possible for the student, including:

  • Studying stellar ages and chemistry: when and where did stars form?
  • Stellar dynamics - what are the orbits of the stars, and what can they tell us about dark matter, supermassive black holes, and galaxy assembly?
  • The interactions between galaxies and the cluster environment - how are galaxies altered by their proximity to other galaxies?

The collaboration includes members in Chile (ESO) and Europe (including MPIA Heidelberg, IAC Tenerife, and INAF Rome), and visits to these institutes will form part of the study experience. Both theoretical and observational aspects will be explored.

Galactic Archaeology

Supervisor: A/Prof. Dan Zucker (Macquarie/AAO)

The field of Galactic Archaeology – the detailed study of stars in our Galaxy and its nearest neighbours in order to uncover clues to their formation and evolution – is entering a new era with the commissioning of the revolutionary new HERMES spectrograph. HERMES, being built for the Anglo-Australian Telescope, will obtain detailed elemental abundances and precision radial velocities for over a million stars in the Milky Way in the GALAH (GALactic Archaeology with HERMES) survey. GALAH and other projects now underway or starting soon (e.g., the ESA space mission Gaia) will open new frontiers in our understanding of the formation and evolution of the Galaxy. In this research area, you will have the opportunity to work with Dr. Daniel Zucker and the HERMES Super Science Fellows at Macquarie University, as well as with other members of the GALAH team and collaborators at universities and institutes in Australia and around the world.

An ultra-stable infrared spectrograph to search for earth-like planets

Supervisor: Christian Schwab

Photo of the RHEA Spectrograph  

The discovery of Earth's twin, a habitable world in another stellar system, is one of the most remarkable scientific endeavours of our time. This project will set up a testbed instrument, which combines novel technologies from astrophotonics and adaptive optics into an innovative spectrograph design that will improve measurement precision in the near-infrared spectral range, working toward the detection of rocky planets around small and red stars.

The PhD candidate in this project will work with Dr. Christian Schwab to develop the optical and mechanical design for an ultra-stable, single-mode spectrograph and integrate a prototype in the Macquarie University lab. The student will also test the spectrograph on-sky at the Macquarie University campus observatory and use it to demonstrate high-resolution infrared spectroscopy at a large adaptive optics facility.

The student will learn to work with a leading optical raytracing software (Zemax) to model optical systems as well as CAD software to design the optical mechanics for the spectrograph. In the lab the student will work to acquire expertise in assembling and aligning optical and laser systems, learn to integrate vacuum equipment and and gain experience operating instruments at small and large telescopes. If time permits, we will couple our spectrograph with the SCExAO adaptive optics system at the Subaru telescope facility on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

The  RHEA spectrograph, built at Macquarie, is currently being tested at the Subaru Telescope.  This instrument works in the visible part of the spectrum; the PhD candidate will work at a sightly larger infrared single mode spectrograph.

Mapping the structure and environment of the gaseous Milky Way


Supervisors: Dr Joanne Dawson (Macquarie/CASS), Prof. Mark Wardle (Macquarie)

Interstellar hydroxyl (OH) is a versatile probe of star-forming and pre-star-forming gas in the Milky Way, and a promising tracer of what is known as the “dark” interstellar medium (so called because it is invisible to standard spectral line tracers). This hidden material may make up as much as half of the neutral gas mass in some parts of the Milky Way, and is a vital missing link in the evolutionary cycle of the Galaxy’s gas. The Southern Parkes Large-Area Survey in Hydroxyl (SPLASH) is the first large, sensitive survey of OH in the Milky Way, and is pioneering the field of OH astronomy. The student will work with newly-processed SPLASH data in order to investigate the distribution and physical properties of OH-rich gas and link these to major outstanding questions about ISM evolution and the structure and environment of our Milky Way Galaxy. Models of OH excitation will be used directly in the interpretation of the observational data, with potential directions including developing OH as a barometer of the physical conditions in the local environment, and as a tracer of complex, entangled structures along the line of sight. Potential follow up work includes observing projects with ASKAP, Australia’s pathfinder for the SKA.

Satellites and Stellar Streams in the Local Group

Supervisor: A/Prof. Dan Zucker

Galaxies like our Milky Way form by accreting smaller systems, and this process of galaxy cannibalism continues to the present day: the dwarf satellites orbiting the Galaxy and M31, its nearest large neighbour, are survivors, while the victims are stretched across the sky in stellar streams. These satellites and streams, many of them revealed by wide-area astronomical surveys like SDSS (the Sloan Digital Sky Survey) and PAndAS (the Pan-Andromeda Archaeological Survey), probe the conditions of galaxy formation in the early Universe and the behaviour of Dark Matter on the smallest scales. In this research area you will have the opportunity to work with Dr. Daniel Zucker at Macquarie University, as well as with collaborators at other universities in Australia and overseas.

Stellar Collisions

Supervisor: Prof. Orsola De Marco (Macquarie)

When stars interact with one another, or with their planetary systems, the course of their evolution is invariably altered and new star species form. Using a suite of hydrodynamic computer simulations we are in the process of studying such interactions. In collaboration with several international institutes we also study the light signal from stellar interactions and mergers so as to model observations from future wide scale, time dependent surveys.

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


Supervisor: Dr Matt Owers (Macquarie/AAO)

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.

High-altitude star-formation and the superbubble connection


Supervisors: Dr Joanne Dawson (Macquarie/CASS)

When the most massive stars end their lives, their supernova explosions blow enormous “superbubbles” in the interstellar medium, which may be thousands of light-years in diameter. These superbubbles sweep up material as they grow, until they are surrounded by thick skins of dense gas – the perfect environment for the condensation of new star-forming clouds. They may also grow vertically to expand right out of the plane of the Galaxy, venting their hot interior gas high above the Disk. This project will investigate ongoing star formation in dense clouds associated with Superbubbles in the Milky Way, and in particular those located far above the Galactic Plane where the star formation activity is usually low. The student will work with multi-wavelength data from radio to the infrared in order to build up a comprehensive picture of current and future star formation, including carrying out their own dedicated observing projects on sub-mm telescopes in the Atacama desert in Chile. The project may be developed in several directions, including collaboration with numerical modellers to study the dense cloud formation process, and expansion to the wider population of high-altitude clouds in the Milky Way.

The Huntsman Telephoto Array: ultra-faint imaging of galaxies


Supervisor: Dr. Lee Spitler (Macquarie)

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 with be combined with observational data at other wavelengths, including radio maps of neutral hydrogen gas from the WALLABY on Australia’s ASKAP telescope. The Huntsman system is a precursor for a Macquarie-led space-based cubesat facility, the Australian Space Eye.

Joint PhD projects with national observatories

Mapping the Galactic Magnetic Field with Masers


Supervisors: Dr. Joanne Dawson (Macquarie/CASS), Dr. Jimi Green (CASS)

It is believed the Milky Way has magnetic fields threaded throughout its spiral structure with unusual and unexplained reversals in direction. What does this mean for our Galaxy and how will it influence its evolution? This project will explore these fundamental questions, by utilising new radio observations of astrophysical masers (‘microwave lasers’) to map our magnetised Milky Way. For the first time, through cutting-edge data from Australian telescopes, we will be able to trace the magnetic fields around newly-forming stars along the spiral arms of our Galaxy.

The challenge in studying the spiral and magnetic structure of our Galaxy is finding a tracer which can be observed throughout the Galaxy, can be accurately positioned in space, and can provide the vital information on the magnetic field itself. Astrophysical masers from interstellar molecules are perfect for this. The 6.7-GHz methanol maser is an ideal tracer of the main structural features of our Galaxy, since its intrinsic and exclusive relationship with high-mass star formation closely locks it to the spiral arms. On the other hand, 1.6-GHz hydroxyl masers, which have a strong magnetic dependence, clearly demonstrate the strength and direction of in-situ magnetic fields via Zeeman splitting of the maser transition. This project will combine state-of-the art observations of methanol and hydroxyl masers from the Parkes Telescope Methanol Multibeam survey and its companion, the Australia Telescope Compact Array MAGMO survey. By combining hundreds of maser detections from these two powerful datasets, the student will derive a new picture of the structure and magnetic field of the Milky Way.

This project is in collaboration with CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science (CASS), Australia’s premier radio astronomy facility and key partner in the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The student will work in tandem with supervisors at Macquarie and CASS, reducing and analysing radio astronomical data from world-class telescopes, and developing their research in a vibrant and active astronomy community. The student will gain a high level of expertise in key aspects of telescope operations and data processing, and will benefit from the strong international standing of the CASS student programme, placing them in an excellent position to embark on their future careers.

Pulsars, black holes and gravitational waves


Supervisors: Dr. Joanne Dawson (Macquarie/CASS), Dr. George Hobbs (CASS), Dr. Ryan Shannon (Curtin University, CASS)

Studies of pulsars have already led to two Nobel prizes in physics, and there are more to come. It is likely that the first pulsar orbiting a black hole will be found along with the first extra-Galactic pulsars. Pulsars will soon be used to study the gravitational wave emission from supermassive binary black holes and may even be navigating spacecraft through the solar system. Pulsar projects are key science projects on major new international telescopes such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the Five-hundred-metre-spherical radio telescope (FAST) currently being commissioned in China.

The Parkes telescopes in New South Wales, Australia is a world-leading telescope for pulsar astronomy.  It has been used to discover more than half of the known pulsars and is leading the search for ultra-low frequency gravitational waves. Combining the expertise from Macquarie University and CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, we have various pulsar-related PhD projects available. These include:

1. Searching for bursts of gravitational wave emission. This project would involve developing statistical algorithms to search for the signatures of gravitational waves in our pulsar data sets. If successful the result would have enormous astrophysical implications. Even if no signal is found, the project will enable us to place the most constraining bounds to date on the existence of such gravitational waves.

2. Data mining the CSIRO data archive. Understanding how to process “Big Data” is a huge computational problem and has implications well outside of astronomy. The CSIRO data archive contains 100s of terabytes of data obtained from the Parkes telescope and we now have the opportunity to process all of these observations using up-to-date software algorithms. This project may lead to the discovery of new pulsars and an understanding of how pulsars change over decades.

3. Simultaneous pulsar and spectral line surveys. Many new telescopes, such as FAST in China, will undertake simultaneous surveys to find new pulsars and also to study spectral lines. This has not been done before and being able to develop the necessary calibration routines to carry out such surveys will be of great interest worldwide. As part of this project we will be able to be involved in some of the first observations with the World’s largest radio telescopes that are currently being built.

All these projects would suit a student interested in astronomy, high-performance computers and data analysis.

2D spectroscopic analysis of local dwarf star-forming galaxies

Supervisor: Dr. Ángel López-Sánchez (Macquarie/AAO)

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 (BCDG) 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 years we have collected some 2D spectroscopy data of a sample of BCDG using both the WiFeS instrument available at the 2.3m ANU telescope at Siding Spring Observatory and the SPIRAL instrument available at the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope, also at Siding Spring Observatory. The preliminary analysis of these data are quite promising.

We are offering the opportunity of study a sample of several BCDG for which we already have good-quality data, as well as continue our observations of BCDG at these (WiFeS at 2.3m ANU and new instrument KOALA at 3.9m AAT) or other optical telescopes (GEMINI, VLT, WHT, CAHA).

In particular, this project will give the student a detailed understanding of the 2D spectroscopy techniques. The student will then gain expertise in the reduction and analysis of this kind of data. The aims of this project are to perform a detailed 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 (rotation of the galaxy, distortions due to interactions, existence of outflows or inflows of gas) properties of the ionized gas within these galaxies. The analysis of the stellar component underlying the strong starbursts can be also studies. Hence, we will compare the properties of the stars and the ionized gas with the properties of the neutral gas (derived using our own ATCA observations).

Finally, the student will also learn to write up the results not only for his/her Thesis but for subsequent publications. As an example of this project, please consult the 2D spectroscopical analysis of the brightest star-forming region of the local BCDG IC 10, López-Sánchez et al. (2011), and the combined optical-radio study of the BCDG NGC 5253, López-Sánchez et al. (2012).

Other Australian Astronomical Observatory Projects

Supervisor: AAO staff

The Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO) hosts research staff in areas of optical/infrared astronomy and instrumentation. Strong collaborative links exist between AAO and MQ AAAstro, including a number of joint staff positions between the institutes. PhD projects are available that can be jointly supervised by AAO staff and astronomers at AAAstro. Otherwise you can browse the research interests of AAO staff here

Please contact the relevant AAO staff person for arranging a suitable MQ supervisor for the project.

Other CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science Projects

Supervisor: CASS staff

CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science (CASS) is Australia’s premier radio astronomy facility and key partner in the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). Research staff at CASS study work on such diverse topics as star formation, galaxy structure and evolution, active galactic nucei, pulsars, gravitational wave detection and interstellar medium, as well as advanced topics in radio astronomical instrumentation. Strong collaborative links exist between Macquarie and CASS, and there are opportunities for PhD projects that can be jointly supervised by CASS staff and astronomers at MQAAAstro.

CASS staff interests can be browsed here. See here for information on how to arrange a project and enter the CASS co-supervised student programme.

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