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Planet formation by dust growth and disc fragmentation in protoplanetary discs

   Department of Physics

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  Dr Farzana Meru, Dr Rebecca Nealon  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

PhD position in Physics at Warwick University - Planet formation by dust growth and disc fragmentation in protoplanetary discs

Dr Farzana Meru, Dr Rebecca Nealon


We invite applications from outstanding and highly motivated students for the Warwick Prize Scholarships in Astrophysics. The successful applicant will work with Dr Farzana Meru and Dr Rebecca Nealon within the Astronomy and Astrophysics group in the Department of Physics at the University of Warwick.

This project will explore outstanding questions on the evolution of planet-forming discs and the formation of planets within them. 

Planets form in protoplanetary discs — which are discs of gas and dust that swirl around the central star. Once upon a time our Sun would have had one of these discs, and our Solar System planets would have formed out of it. The recent observations of planet-forming discs have been completely revolutionary in giving us clues as to how planets might form. We are at an exciting time with planet formation research and now is the time to develop the theories to truly understand these observations.

Young massive discs — known as self-gravitating discs — may become unstable and break apart (i.e. fragment) into giant gas balls in the outer regions. These may ultimately evolve into giant planets or brown dwarfs. There are various elements of this process that still need to be explored in detail. For example, we have recently found that a fragmenting disc can trigger more fragments to form in the inner part of a disc — a process called Triggered Fragmentation. But how prevalent is this process in real discs? Furthermore, instead of the disc breaking apart into planets, can dust in these young discs grow enough to form planets?

Also, while we often think of planet-forming discs as flat structures (i.e. a bit like a dinner plate), this is not necessarily the case, and many discs are likely to be warped at some stage in their lifetime. How warps interact with existing disc processes like dust and gravitational instabilities is poorly understood. Does the presence of a warp contribute to dust collection and thus planet formation? Or do they prevent dust collection? Can warps be responsible for the formation of misaligned planets? Does this picture change if we include fragmentation and growth?

The student will have the flexibility to pursue the above questions during their PhD. This project involves performing state-of-the-art numerical simulations with a view to make connections with observations. This will be done by running simulations with existing codes but the student will also have the opportunity to develop their own analysis tools.

Warwick is an internationally recognised centre of research excellence. We run state-of-the-art computer simulations to develop theoretical models using the university's modern super-computing facilities, and are experts in the exploration of large and heterogenous data sets, adopting novel techniques including machine learning. Also, our group takes leading roles in many major ground and space-based projects, including GOTO, NGTS, PLATO, SDSS, WEAVE, 4MOST, and DESI.

The Astronomy & Astrophysics group is part of the Physics Department at Warwick; both the department and the university hold Athena SWAN Silver awards, a national initiative to promote gender equality for all staff and students. The Physics Department is also a Juno Champion, which is an award from the Institute of Physics to recognise our efforts to address the under-representation of women in university physics and to encourage better practice for all. The Astronomy & Astrophysics group also hosts monthly equitea forums to break down barriers faced by all under-represented groups in science.

More details on PhD positions with the Astronomy and Astrophysics group at Warwick are available here.

Start Date: October 2023

Funding Duration: 4.0 years

Applications due by: 10 January 2023


You must have or expect a First or Upper second class MSci, MPhys or equivalent degree in Physics or a closely related discipline. Holders of BSc honours degrees are eligible but successful BSc applicants typically have substantial additional research experience. International equivalents are detailed here.

For students whose first language is not English, we normally require a score of 6.5 in IELTS or equivalent. If your previous degree was taught in an English-speaking country this requirement may be waived.

The award is available to home and international applicants.

How To Apply

You must apply through the University’s online application system and follow the instructions. Use course code P-F3P0. Make sure to state an interest in the Astronomy and Astrophysics group. Please state ‘Warwick Prize Scholarships’ as the funding option. We encourage applicants to express interest in more than one available PhD project.

Funding Notes

The project will provide a full UK-standard annual tax-free stipend of £18,200, rising with inflation, plus allocations for travel and computing.

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