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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 closed.

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

"POLIS’ unparalleled array and quality of resources have remained crucial to my growth as a researcher. Diligent research experts like my supervisor and advisor have guided me through fine tuning my academic voice, acquainting myself with my ontological outlook, and even confronting some of my political inclinations. The depth and rigor of the PhD modules around methodology and professional development have rooted my thesis design and helped me envision longer term applications for my work. Above all, navigating this PhD with my POLIS peers, alumni, faculty, and staff has fashioned an intellectual home for me, contributed to my confidence, and steadied my sense of belonging at Cambridge. Whether it’s forging through top tier research conferences, teasing out field studies in foreign countries, or navigating everyday challenges like illness or impostor syndrome, I can always count on a member of the POLIS community to see me, hear me, and stand with me. And that has almost always been the determining factor in my success."

Abii-Tah Bih - PhD Student POLIS (April 2022)


"A PhD at POLIS has been a fantastic choice. Graduate students have the opportunity to be connected to faculty researching across a wide range of issues and approaches. There are many opportunities to broaden intellectual horizons by attending workshops or talks, and I encourage anyone considering applying to do so!"

Say Jye Quah - PhD Student POLIS- 2022


“A wonderful place to carry out independent research, POLIS paves the way for serendipitous and life-changing opportunities, within and beyond the world of academia. The PhD community is truly phenomenal, filled with passionate and driven students who bring a diverse range of perspectives and approaches to their study. I have found POLIS to be a rewarding research environment and have been privileged to find much support and inspiration from my peers and academic staff. “ 

Elizabeth Paradis - 2022


"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


"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