But I don’t really know what they do…


Today I indulged the microcosmic possibility of returning to Cambridge to do a PhD and attended a departmental talk on the application process. Past ‘Part III’ talks that started out with something along the lines of:

Part III is hard. The difference between those of you who did your undergraduate here and those who hail from elsewhere is that those that did your undergraduate here believe me when I say Part III is hard.

Today’s talk, however, was primarily presented by John Stewart who is teaching the Part III General Relativity course and was markedly more upbeat and entertaining. A highlight included some background on Professor Stewart’s own PhD application to Cambridge, where he shared the following anecdote (poorly paraphrased by me):

During exam time I had girlfriend problems. I still finished with a distinction, but one of the lower distinctions rather than a higher one. [The DAMTP graduate adviser] told me that DAMTP would not have a place for me to do fluids, and so if this is what I wanted to do I should look elsewhere. However, he said, if I were willing to look into other fields, there may be other supervisors available. Well, I was sure that I wanted to stay at Cambridge, so I asked him what offers were on the table. He said: “There’s this one professor, Sciama, but I doesn’t know exactly what he does. He has a few students… Hawking, Rees, and Carter… but I’m not sure what they’re doing either.” It turned out to be a very good decision.

Notably, Stephen Hawking himself had originally wanted to do a PhD under Fred Hoyle, so there’s something to be said for unexpected career paths.

The talk had a few other highlights (none as memorable as the above story), including a few of Stewart’s characteristic one-liners:

There is some funding available from one’s home country, such as the [insert name of German higher education funding agency] in Germany. France, however, considers one criminally insane if one wants to do a PhD anywhere other than France.

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