The first supermassive black holes

Qualification: PhD

Department: School of Physics and Astronomy

Application deadline: 21st November 2019

Start date: 28th September 2020



Dr James Aird and Professor Julian Osborne 

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.


• Starting from existing theoretical models of galaxy populations, develop flexible prescriptions to place black holes within these simulated galaxies and track their growth via periods as AGN. 
• Produce mock catalogues, providing realistic predictions of the physical properties of AGN and their host galaxies as well as the observational signatures across the electromagnetic spectrum (spanning optical, infrared and X-ray wavelengths). 
• Compare these predictions to data from current X-ray surveys to motivate refinements to our model.
• Use the mock catalogues to perform sophisticated simulations of Athena X-ray surveys as well as the supporting imaging at other wavelengths that will be provided by future space- and ground-based telescopes. Develop techniques to analyse these data and measure the properties of galaxies and black holes.
• Alter the model framework to explore the impact of different supermassive black hole formation mechanisms. 
• Help define the requirements for surveys with Athena and other forthcoming astronomical facilities. 


  • 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,



UK/EU applicants

This research project is eligible for a fully funded College of Science and Engineering studentship which includes:
• A full UK/EU fee waiver for 3.5 years
• An annual tax free stipend (For 2019/20 this is currently £15,009)
• Research Training Support Grant (RTSG)

International Applicants

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

Entry requirements

Entry requirements

Applicants are required to hold/or expect to obtain a UK Bachelor Degree 2:1 or better in a relevant or overseas equivalent.
The University of Leicester English language requirements apply where applicable.

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Informal enquiries

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How to apply

How to apply

To apply

Please use the Apply button at the bottom of the page.  Select September 2020 entry.

Application Notes

We recommend you apply as early as possible so that any missing information can be obtained before the deadline.

In the funding section of the form state CSE2020 AIRD Studentship

In the research proposal section include the name of the supervisors and project title.  If you are applying for more than one project within Physics include details of each project.

In the personal statement section upload your completed CSE Studentship Form.  If you are applying for more than one Physics project complete a form for each project and email the additional forms to together with your application ID number.  If you are applying for projects in other subject areas please submit separate PhD applications online.

Upload a copy of your CV, copies of your degree certificates and transcripts if awarded and evidence of English language proficiency if applicable and available.

If you already have reference letters please upload these. If not enter the contact details of your referees in the reference section. Please ask your referees if they can submit their references as quickly as possible, ideally within two weeks of receipt of our reference request.

Application timetable

21st November Deadline for applications and all supporting documents 

9th December Interview invitations to be sent out by email

w/c 13th January 2020  Interviews

21st January 2020 Informal offers to be made

31st January 2020 Deadline for acceptable of informal offers 

The PGR Admissions Office will notify unsuccessful applicants once a decision has been made



UK/EU applicants

International applicants who can demonstrate that they can fund the difference between UK/EU and International fees.