skip to primary navigationskip to content

Graduate School of Life Sciences

An inspiring educational experience in a unique environment

Studying at Cambridge


PhD Student Lifecycle


This page contains information for PhD students who are not registered on a 1+3 Programme or who have completed the first year of a 1+3 Programme and are now undertaking their 3-year project. 

It contains information on events which will or may occur during the course of PhD study.

Your department may have other department specific requirements that will help them monitor your progress and give you opportunities to present your work and receive feedback. Examples of this are:

  • End of first year presentations
  • Second year poster exhibition
  • Final year presentations 


Research Proposal

Your department or supervisor may ask you for a research proposal within the first term of your PhD. This is department specific requirement. Even if your department does not require one, it is an excellent exercise to do as it is an opportunity for you to:

  • define your research question
  • make plans for your project
  • get feedback from your supervisor
  • reach a shared understanding of your project with your supervisor

Your project may well change as it progresses, but having plans will allow you to deal with the changes.


Progress Report

Each term supervisors submit a progress report on each student on to the Cambridge Graduate Student Reporting System (CPSRS) which is part of the University's student information system CamSIS.  Reports are read by the relevant Director of Graduate Education before being submitted to the Degree Committee and Student Registry.  Students can view progress reports via their self service account. Either the Degree Committee or the Student Registry may investigate further if a supervisor has indicated issues with a student's progress.  You are advised to raise any issues that you may be having at an early stage so that these can be resolved. 


Probationary Assessment (First Year Report)

Under the University Statutes and Ordinances all PhD students are provisionally registered until they have undertaken a formal assessment at the end of their first year.  For students on 1+3 programmes where the first year involves an MRes or MPhil, this assessment takes place at the end of the first year of their PhD study (Year 2 of their programme). The assessment will normally happen after about 10 months of study, or the part-time equivalent.  The Code of Practice for Research Degrees (section 5.2) provides some information on the first year assessment process, and further information is available below. 

The assessment is designed to ensure that students are progressing satisfactorily and to address any problems with progress or the research project at a relatively early stage.  It is not just a formality!  Factors considered as part of the assessment include:  student's ability and progress; suitability of the student's project for a PhD; feasibility of achieving the projected aims within the three year period; and the academic suitability of the project in relationship to the requirements for the PhD Degree.  

Departmental requirements vary however in general the assessment has two elements:

  1. Formal assessment of a written report by two Assessors.  This usually involves submission of a written report and a viva examination.  General information about preparation of first year reports can be found here, however students should be aware of local arrangements in their Departments.
  2. Supervisor’s report of satisfactory progress during the first year and a positive opinion of the student’s capability of completing a PhD in the normal time allowed for the degree. 

Some Departments and Institutions (MRC Biostatistics Unit; MRC Human Nutrition Research; Physiology, Development and Neuroscience) also require students to undertake a presentation as part of the first year assessment process. 

RDP runs a workshop during the Easter Term called Writing Your First Year Report, which will help you with the process.

Written report

Students should prepare a written report of around 4000-6000 words (exact requirements vary between departments, so consult your supervisor).  The report should be in standard scientific format, and include the following:

  • Introduction:  describe the background and rationale of the project.  In this students should refer to important papers (but are not expected to write a comprehensive review)  Students should take care to assess the previous literature as well as describe it, and to cite references correctly.
  • Methods:  describe methods used – what you have done (so far) and how you have done it.
  • Results:  this section should include details of any results you have obtained during the first year's work. Students should not be concerned if they have few results - it is not uncommon for PhD projects to produce few results in the first year.
  • Discussion:  students should include in this section a discussion (in a balanced and critical way) of what their work shows so far and their plans for further work leading to completion of the project. 

Students should remember that this constitutes a formal assessment as part of their PhD. Students should take care to familiarise themselves with the University’s policy on plagiarism.

We anticipate that most students take around 3 weeks to write their reports. 

The Oral Examination (Viva)

Reports are sent to two assessors for review – this is arranged locally by supervisors.  At least one of the Assessors should be from outside the student’s immediate group.  Each Assessor will produce an independent report giving their views on the report.

The assessors and the student will then meet with the student.  This should be used to assess both the student's ability and progress, and also the suitability of the student's project for a PhD. Assessors may clarify aspects of the work and make suggestions about future work.  It is also an opportunity for students to gain experience of scientific debate and also to raise questions with the assessors. 

During the oral, assessors may also wish discuss training and development – students should therefore ensure that they have an up to date training log. 

After the oral, the assessors should make a joint recommendation on registration/pro registration/progression, including any feedback they wish to provide for the student and Supervisor.

The Supervisor’s Registration Report

The supervisor reviews the report provided by the assessors and then makes a report on CGSRS, commenting on progress and making a recommendation on whether the student should continue and be registered for the PhD. The Supervisor also uploads the assessors’ joint report on CGSRS which makes it accessible to the Departmental Graduate Coordinator, the Degree Committee, the College, Student Registry and the student. 

The Log Book

Log books can be reviewed by supervisors or Departmental Graduate Education Committees.  Assessors can also ask to see the log book.  The purpose of this review is educational - to encourage students to focus on training to develop skills suitable to their individual development and to address any particular shortcomings noted by the assessors (e.g. writing skills).  A copy of the log book can be downloaded from the Skills Development section of this website.

Possible Outcomes

Following the assessment, the assessors and supervisor submit reports, which then lead to a recommendation from the Department to the Degree Committee as to whether a student should be formally registered.  Most students will become formally registered for the PhD Degree at this point.

However, where the assessment has raised concerns about a student’s progress there are a number of possible outcomes: resubmission and reassessment of first year report and registration for a lower degree (MPhil or MSc).  Usually, students are offered the opportunity to resubmit their first year report, taking into account feedback received from the assessors.  If it is felt that their assessment is still not satisfactory, Departments can recommend that students are registered for a lower degree (MPhil or MSc).  This is usually discussed with the student in advance of the recommendation. 

Recommendations are made from the Department to the relevant Degree Committee, who then makes a recommendation to the Board of Graduate Studies. 


Intermission and Leave to work away


Students who are unable to work on their thesis for a period of time due to medical or other reasons should apply to intermit their studies.  Further information can be found on the Student Registry website.  Students can request to intermit via their Self Service account.  Requests are considered by the supervisor, College, Degree Committee and Board of Graduate Studies.  Requests for intermissions must be made at the time required - retrospective intermissions will not be approved.  Students should bear in mind that intermissions may have funding and/or visa implications.  Students should ensure that their funding body is happy with the period of intermission.  For students funded by Research Councils, this will be done centrally by the Graduate School.  Students funded by other means should liaise with the Graduate Administrator in this regard.  Students who have a Tier 4 visa must contact the International Student Team.    

Leave to Work Away

Students whose research will involve a period away from Cambridge will need to apply for Leave to Work Away for that period.  Further information can be found on the Student Registry website.  Students can request leave to work away via their self service account.  Requests are considered by the supervisor, College, Degree Committee and Board of Graduate Studies. Students should ensure that they apply for University insurance cover - details can be found here.


Changing your Supervisor or Department

Students may wish to change your supervisor or department for a number of reasons, such as change in the focus of their project, or if their supervisor leaves Cambridge.  Students can request a change via their Self-Service account and are advised to discuss any proposed changes with your supervisor.  Further information can be found on the Student Registry website.  If you are experiencing problems with your supervisor, please refer to the Student Support pages on this website. 


Exemption from University Composition Fee (Writing Up)

Students are eligible for an automatic exemption from the University Composition fee once they have completed the minimum number of terms, as follows:

  • Full-time students:  9 terms
  • Part-time students:  15 terms

Further information can be found on the Student Registry website. 


Submission and Examination

Appointment of Examiners

About two months before you are due to submit your dissertation, you need to apply for examiners to be appointed.   Normally two examiners are appointed, one from within the University (internal) and one from another institution (external). 

You should complete the Intention to Submit form (download the appropriate version for the Faculty of Biology or for the Faculties of Clinical and Veterinary Medicine and submit it together with a copy of your dissertation summary to the appropriate Degree Committee office, following the instructions on the form..  The Degree Committee will then set in motion the process of appointment by asking the relevant Head of Department to make nominations; he or she may consult your supervisor at this point. The summary is used to inform the Head of Department and potential examiners about the content of your work.  Students are not expected to nominate potential examiners themselves.

The form also contains a section for voluntary disclosure of any disability which you may wish your examiners to be made aware of. If you tick any of the boxes, you will be put in touch with the Disability Resource Centre who will then provide the necessary advice and guidance. If appropriate, your Degree Committee will advise the examiners accordingly.


You must submit your dissertation for examination within the maximum period of your study.  For full-time students this is 48 months from the initial date of registration (taking into account any periods of authorised intermission).  Students who do not submit by this date will be removed from the University’s register of students.    Students who are unable to meet their submission deadline must apply to extend their registration date (see below). 

Information on the required format of dissertations can be found on the Student Registry website.  The word limit for PhD dissertations in Biology, Clinical Medicine and Veterinary Medicine is 60,000 although students may request an extension of their word limit up to 80,000 words.  Students can access the request form from their Self Service account.    The word limit for the MSc is 40,000 words. 

Two copies of the dissertation should be submitted to the Student Registry, who then forward them to the relevant Degree Committee.  Students should refer to the Student Registry website for information on what needs to be included in the dissertation and accompanying paperwork. 

We strongly advise against the use of dissertation writing services.  There are no guarantees at all that these services are able to produce dissertations of acceptable quality without plagiarism.  Students should also bear in mind that the dissertation is only part of the examination - they still need to defend it in a viva!

Extending the End of Registration Date

Applications to extend registration dates must be received prior to the deadline for submission of the dissertation.  All applications are considered on their individual merits by the relevant Degree Committee in the first instance and are submitted to the Board of Graduate Studies for consideration. Progress to date will be taken into account as will supervisor's comments. It should not be assumed that an application to extend a registration date will be approved as a matter of routine. Applications will be automatically declined by the Board if you do not confirm on your application that you are fully engaged in your research, and based in Cambridge.

Please note that you do NOT need to apply to extend your End of Registration Date if you have submitted your dissertation for examination. However, you will have been advised by the Board of the outcome of the examination process that you are required to undertake corrections or are required to revise and resubmit your dissertation and you wish to extend your registration beyond the date agreed by the Board.

Students should inform their College and sponsor know if they are making an application to extend their End of Registration Date. Students may also need permission from your sponsor.

Examination and Award

The Degree Committee will receive the dissertations from the Student Registry and forward them to the nominated examiners.  In the meantime, supervisors arrange the date and location of viva voce examinations.  Information about the viva voce examinations can be found on the Student Registry website.  Students who have additional requirements of relevance to viva voce examinations should disclose these on the Intention to Submit form. 

Following the viva voce examination the examiners each submit an independent report (written prior to the viva voce examination) and a joint report (written after the viva voce examination) to the Degree Committee.  The joint report will make a recommendation on whether an award should be granted, and whether corrections to the thesis are required.  The Degree Committee will review the reports and make a recommendation to the Board of Graduate Studies.  The Board will send formal notification to the student of the outcome of the examination.

Information on revising and resubmitting a thesis can be found on the Student Registry website. 

Submitting the hard-bound dissertation

Students should complete any necessary amendments to the satisfaction of their examiners.  Once these have been completed, one hard bound copy of the thesis are submitted to the Student Registry.  Details of the format of the hard bound thesis can be found on the Student Registry website. Some Departments and Institutions also collect a copy of the hard bound thesis for their libraries.  Students should check with their supervisor to see if this is the case.

Restricting access to theses

Students can apply to restrict access to their thesis by completing an application form.  There must be a particular reason for the request, such as disclosure of some or all of the contents of the thesis may constitute a trade secret or prejudice commercial interests.  Further information and a link to the application form can be found on the Student Registry website



Welcome to the Graduate School of Life Sciences

We are the largest centre for research and professional training in the Life Sciences in the UK, offering a very special experience to a community of around 2000 graduate students across departments within the School of the Biological Sciences, School of Clinical Medicine and eleven University Partner Institutes in the Cambridge area.

Every year some of the world's brightest and most determined students are attracted by the opportunity to carry out research projects with renowned scientists in a vibrant, multidisciplinary environment at one of the world's most respected research-led universities.

The School co-ordinates funding opportunities within the Life Sciences for their postgraduate education, as well as ensuring students receive the highest quality supervision and training.