If you wish to become my student...

I frequently receive mail from unknown students or graduates who wish to pursue further studies at Cambridge under my supervision. If you are one such applicant, here is some advice and a few facts. Please read this and it will save time to both of us.



I am always looking for really good graduate students to do interesting new research. The long-term partnership between student and supervisor is one of the most rewarding aspects of doing research in academy as opposed to industry (I've tried both).


When I say really good I mean it. Are you best of the best? To a first approximation, everyone who is at Cambridge was top of their class at whatever school they came from. This is one of the top universities in the world. Don't apply if your previous track record is not outstanding; otherwise you'll be out of place here, and die of peer pressure.
This is not meant to say you need to be arrogant; you just need to be really good, and you need to be prepared to interact and cooperate with other really good people, sometimes a lot smarter than you. Even if this rarely happened in your previous school, it will definitely happen here, no matter who you are. Happens to me, too, of course. And it's a nice, useful and instructive feature of being at Cambridge.


What kind of person do I want? Someone good (show me good school marks, awards, references etc). Someone who likes to build stuff (show me something you've done and you're proud of; if it's open source, and real people are actually using it, so much the better). I like hackers (apprentice hackers also ok). Someone with some idea of what they want to do here (show me a good research proposal). Someone interested in something I will find exciting and fun to work on (read my web page for hints, but then come up with something new).


Since I get so many applications, I don't really take any of them seriously until they have gone through the first basic filter of the Board of Graduate Studies of the University of Cambridge. An application that comes to me via BOGS has passed some basic sanity checks; it includes stuff such as academic record, references and a statement of what the candidate proposes to do once here. Most importantly, it comes in a standard format, which makes it a little easier to compare it with and rank it against all the others. Once I see a proper application, at least I know you're serious about coming to Cambridge.


Apart from your past grades, what makes your application stand out? A good research proposal! This shows that you understand enough about research to point at a suitably challenging problem, with awareness of why it's interesting, why it's difficult, why it's still unsolved, and why it is plausible to imagine that you will solve it in three years.
This may seem daunting, especially the last bit! So my advice, passed on from my PhD advisor and to him from his own, is to choose a problem that few or no people have yet recognized as a research problem. If you pick a topic that has already been studied to death, you'll have a hard time making a worthy contribution. Conversely, if are smart when choosing your topic, you'll have an easier time of finding low-hanging fruit.
It's also good if the topic is one we both find interesting and fun. If you want to discuss your idea with me before the real submission then please be clear, to the point and concise.
If you can't convey the core of your idea in fewer than 300 words, probably the idea isn't really clear to you either. The more you talk, the less interesting it gets. You can write something longer once you submit the real application, not when you're proposing a topic.


To get a place at Cambridge you must not only be good; you must also raise enough money for the whole three years. If you are independently rich, fine. If your company is willing to pay for your PhD, fine. Otherwise, it may be advantageous for you to apply for a scholarship, from an external entity (e.g. your own government) or from Cambridge. In the latter case, if you want to be considered for the available Cambridge awards, be prepared to submit your official application to the Board of Graduate Studies very early on, up to one year in advance. Check our department's PhD page for application dates and the deadlines page of the Board of Graduate Studies for further details.
If you apply too late you won't be considered for a scholarship, even if the department admits you, and then you might not be able to accept the PhD offer if you do not have the funds.

Don't let all of the above discourage you. If you've got what it takes, you will overcome all those obstacles and you will be the one who gets the acceptance letter in the end! And it will be the start of a tremendously rewarding 3-year experience.

Good luck!

PS: as you may have noticed, the bits in square brackets form a well known magic sentence. Quote it back to me to show that you've read this message. With the number of requests I get, I need a way to filter out those who haven't understood all this.

And finally: if you are not entirely sure whether a PhD is the thing for you, Douglas Comer's insightful essay might offer some food for thought.

Master Course

We have plans to offer a Master course at the Computer Laboratory in the future, but we don't just yet. For the moment, consider the PhD if you want to work with me.

Summer internships

No thanks. Too little time to do anything interesting. I do not offer summer internships to external students and I no longer even answer email about this.
(Undergraduates from India, for some reason, indiscriminately spam all faculty members with such requests.)

Last revision: 2007-12-05