The full-time PhD course lasts for a minimum of nine terms (three years), up to a maximum of twelve terms (four years). Candidates must submit within that time-frame, unless they can invoke truly exceptional grounds (for instance a medical emergency) to justify deferring submission. Under certain circumstances, it is possible to spend time away from Cambridge to pursue research. Candidates on the three-year course are expected to devote themselves full-time to their studies. While a part-time degree is available over five years this is generally only available to candidates who have completed the part-time Masters of Studies Programme offered by the University at the standard equivalent to a first class degree.
The PhD programme consists of three elements. In the first year, there is a focus on training in research methods and transferrable skills. Throughout the programme, there are also PhD seminars and other events, allowing candidates to benefit from presentations covering a number of areas relevant to their work, to present their own work, and to prepare to enter the job market. The essence of the Cambridge experience remains, however, the work with the PhD supervisor. Each candidate is assigned a principal supervisor. He or she will help develop the thesis project through discussion and the review of draft materials presented by the candidates. There is also a second supervisor who also supports the work of the candidate. Ordinarily, the second supervisor will offer an additional perspective to the candidate, although he or she will not be as involved in the on-going work as the first supervisor.
All candidates for the PhD programme are not at first registered for the degree, as they have to pass a registration exercise towards the end of the first academic year of study. This exercise is conducted by the second supervisor and an additional assessor, either drawn from within the University or from outside. The registration exercise aims to ensure that the candidate’s project is viable, that an appropriate methodology is being applied, and that the candidate is capable of carrying the project through successfully. Failure to pass the registration (which may be repeated only once) will result in removal from the course.