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Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS)

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The application and funding portal for October 2024 entry is now open, the last date to submit an application is 5th December 2023

Programme Description

Our PhD in Politics and International Studies is structured as a three-year programme. With the expectation that PhD students will submit a full draft of their thesis at the end of the third year or soon after.

This is a research degree and is completed through the submission of a thesis of up to 80,000 words. As a full-time programme, it is completed in a period of between three and four years – that is between nine and twelve university terms. 

The First Year

The first year of the PhD is spent in Cambridge, with two major activities: firstly, developing a research topic with the guidance of a supervisor and secondly, training in research methods.

The development of the topic often involves extensive reading into relevant literature, the discovery of relevant information sources (such as archives or databases), and formulating plans for primary research, such as through making plans for fieldwork. This is done in combination with your primary supervisor, who discusses your progress and reviews your written work, usually fortnightly. You are also appointed a second supervisor who can be drawn upon for additional advice.

The first year culminates in the production of a report, which serves as the basis for the registration exercise at the end of the year. This registration exercise is required to move on to official registration for the PhD degree and is conducted through a meeting with your second supervisor and an independent assessor. Its purpose is to ensure that your research project is viable, that an appropriate methodology is applied and that relevant literature is drawn upon.

The second major focus of the first year is research training. There is a weekly seminar on the methodological and philosophical questions that underpin research in the contemporary social sciences, which all first-year PhD students attend. Alongside this, PhD students choose two further courses to attend from a range of options, such as statistics, qualitative methods and languages.

As the induction process and training courses start at the beginning of October, entry to the PhD programme must also begin then. We cannot therefore accept applications to begin at other points during the academic year.

The Second and Third Years

The content of the second and third years varies considerably depending on the type of research being conducted. Many students spend a considerable portion of the second year of their PhD out of Cambridge on fieldwork, while others are resident throughout. To assist you in the development of your research, we schedule an annual meeting with your primary and secondary supervisor, for which you produce a report for discussion.

In the second year and onwards, many of our PhD students contribute to the Department's teaching programme, principally in small-group teaching of undergraduates (supervisions).

There is also the opportunity to deliver a lecture if your research interests align with the taught courses. There is no obligation to be involved in this, but many of our PhD students consider this valuable experience, particularly for those considering academic careers.


Dissertations are assessed through an oral examination with two senior academics, of whom at least one must be external.


Full-time candidates on the course are expected to devote themselves fully to their studies. Full-time students must spend at least three terms resident in Cambridge. Part-time students are required to attend Cambridge and undergo formal supervision with their supervisor at a frequency agreed upon between the supervisor and student and determined by the nature of the research project. Generally, we would expect part-time students to be resident in Cambridge for around 45 days per year, spread throughout the year, for supervision and training.

Next steps

Testimonials from current students

"A PhD at POLIS is a rare opportunity to meet and befriend incredible people who are at the cutting edge of diverse and globally relevant research.
I enjoy working independently and have found POLIS to be a great fit. It is a privilege to be a part of such a well-resourced and intellectually stimulating department. "

 - Lyn Kouadio, PhD student POLIS - 2019


"The structure of the PhD course, amazing staff, the events and workshops organised by the different centres at POLIS all provide a fertile ground for one to thrive. The diversity of research topics means you are always learning something different from your colleagues. I am grateful to be part of the POLIS family."

- Edward Murambwa, PhD Student POLIS  - 2019


"Pursuing a PhD in the POLIS department at the University of Cambridge is one of the best decisions I've made. My supervisor is simply brilliant: a wonder-woman in her field, who constantly challenges me and gives thoughtful feedback to improve my research, while also being one of the kindest people I know. My peers come from all over the globe, they pursue research in a variety of fields, enriching our conversations and providing different perspectives to study. The staff in the department is always readily available to help and share a smile with you in the hallway.  If you are thinking of choosing this program, do it, it is a decision you will not regret."

Vianney Gomezfil Yaspik - 2020


"Coming to the programme with a different intellectual background, I was immediately made to feel at home at POLIS by the sheer diversity of research carried out and the varied kinds of approaches people bring to the PhD programme. The openness and friendly support, the in-depth and challenging discussions, as well as the encouraging process of developing your own project in constructive exchange and collaboration with other PhD students make the programme an intellectually stimulating and deeply enriching experience."

Carl Pierer, PhD student POLIS - 2021