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Programme Description

The PhD is a research degree, and is completed through the submission of a dissertation 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 of the PhD is spent in Cambridge, with two major activities: firstly, developing a research topic, with the guidance of a supervisor; and secondly, on training in research methods. The development of the topic often involves extensive reading into relevant literatures, 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 on a fortnightly basis. 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 being applied and that relevant literatures are being 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 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 are involved in contributing to the teaching programme of the department, 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.

The PhD dissertation, once submitted, is assessed through an oral examination with two senior academics, of whom at least one must be external to the university.

In addition to the full-time PhD programme, there is a part-time option, with the PhD dissertation completed over five years instead of three, but this option is only available to those who have already completed the department’s part-time Masters degree to a very high standard.