University of Leeds Featured PhD Programmes
Norwich Research Park Featured PhD Programmes
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Featured PhD Programmes
Norwich Research Park Featured PhD Programmes
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University Featured PhD Programmes

The first supermassive black holes

Project Description

Supermassive black holes, with masses up to billions of times the mass of the Sun, are found at the centres of most galaxies, including our own. In some galaxies, these black holes are rapidly growing as matter falls in, heating up and producing huge amounts of electromagnetic radiation, outshining all the stars in the galaxy. As pioneers in the field of X-ray astronomy for over 50 years, University of Leicester researchers have played a lead role in identifying and characterising these central, growing supermassive black holes – known as “active galactic nuclei” or AGN.

But where do supermassive black holes come from? How do the very first black holes form and achieve their extremely large masses? Recent discoveries of extremely bright AGN in the distant Universe (looking back to the first ~1 billion years of cosmic history) indicate that supermassive black holes were already in place at these early times, when the first stars and galaxies were also forming. Determining the mechanisms that form these very first black holes remains a fundamental challenge in astrophysics.

Tracking the formation and growth of the earliest supermassive black holes is one of the main science objectives for the Athena X-ray Observatory – ESA’s next large X-ray mission (due to launch ~2031). Athena will enable new X-ray diagnostics of the Universe thanks to its unprecedented sensitivity and fast survey capabilities. Researchers in Leicester have helped define this next-generation mission, playing a lead role in the design and construction of the spacecraft, development of the ground systems, and science plans.
This PhD offers the opportunity to join the Athena project, working with leading researchers in Leicester and collaborators across Europe. The student will develop new techniques to model the formation of the first supermassive black holes, describe their subsequent growth within the early galaxy population and predict their observational properties. These predictions will be used to perform sophisticated simulations of the Athena survey programme, expected to form ~1 year of the observing time of this flagship mission. The student will also develop new data analysis techniques, placing them at the forefront of the future of X-ray astronomy.

Entry requirements:

Applicants are required to hold/or expect to obtain a UK Bachelor Degree 2:1 or better in a relevant subject or overseas equivalent.
The University of Leicester English language requirements apply where applicable.
For full application information and the link to the online application please go to:

Project / Funding Enquiries:
Application enquiries to
Closing date for applications 21st November 2019

Funding Notes

This project is eligible for a fully funded 3.5 year College of Science and Engineering studentship which includes:
• A full UK/EU fee waiver for 3.5 years - International applicants will need to provide evidence they can fund the difference between the UK/EU fee and International fee
• An annual tax free stipend of £15,009 (2019/20)
• Research Training Support Grant (RTSG)


1. Observational Signatures of High-Redshift Quasars and Local Relics of Black Hole Seeds
Reines & Comastri 2016
2. The Formation and Evolution of Massive Black Holes Volonteri 2012, Review for Science Special Issue
3. Cosmic X-ray surveys of distant active galaxies: The demographics, physics, and ecology of growing supermassive black holes Brandt & Alexander 2015, The Astronomy & Astrophysics Review,
4. The Hot and Energetic Universe: The formation and growth of the earliest supermassive black holes Aird et al. 2013,
5. The Hot and Energetic Universe: A White Paper presenting the science theme motivating the Athena mission Nandra et al. 2013,

Email Now

Insert previous message below for editing? 
You haven’t included a message. Providing a specific message means universities will take your enquiry more seriously and helps them provide the information you need.
Why not add a message here
* required field
Send a copy to me for my own records.

Your enquiry has been emailed successfully

FindAPhD. Copyright 2005-2019
All rights reserved.