The PhD


The PhD is a research degree examined by a dissertation of up to 80,000 words, usually after three or more years of research. The criteria for obtaining the degree are that the dissertation represent a 'substantial contribution to knowledge' and that it also represents a realistic amount of work for three years' study.

Candidates are normally accepted for the PhD on a probationary basis. At the end of their first academic year, it is necessary for candidates to register formally for the PhD. To do so, candidates submit a registration portfolio, which includes a brief account of what has been achieved since admission, and updates account of the object and scope of the dissertation, and a specimen of substantial new written work towards the dissertation. This portfolio is examined by two experts in the field who will recommend registration, or resubmission of materials. This procedure is designed to ensure that candidates are on course for submission of their dissertation after a total of three or four years.

Applicants for the PhD who plan to work on a subject area in which the Faculty provides an MPhil course, and who have not previously taken an MPhil, MA or similar research foundation course, are required to take the relevant MPhil before they are registered for the PhD. Candidates who have taken an equivalent MPhil or MA course already are normally given a dispensation from this requirement.


Candidates work closely with their supervisor who is assigned to them after a candidate has been accepted and before the commencement of their studies. The supervisor will be a specialist in the general field in which you propose to work, although they may not be an expert on your particular topic of research. Your supervisor will assist you in refining your research topic, oversee the general direction of your work, and ensure that what you are doing is up to the standard expected for the degree towards which you are working. You can expect to meet your supervisor on average once a month to report on your progress, and more frequently than this if necessary. How much you write in a given period will vary, but as a rule of thumb you will usually be expected to produce at least one substantial piece of written work each term.

Prospective PhD students should research the Faculty thoroughly before applying to ensure that there is a Faculty member with appropriate expertise to oversee the proposed project. The Faculty’s research map might be of use as a starting point here, as will the Faculty academic staff profiles.

You do not need to contact any Faculty members in advance of applying - supervisors aren't appointed until after the candidate has been accepted and can't appoint themselves to supervise a project in advance. But you are strongly encouraged to insert a name in the ‘Proposed Supervisor’ box on the application form, so as to demonstrate that you have researched the Faculty thoroughly and have a clear sense of whose expertise is a match for your proposed project.

The Faculty of English makes every attempt to ensure continuity of supervision so that postgraduate students are able to complete their programmes under the guidance of the supervisor with whom they begin. Nonetheless, periods of academic leave and departures to posts elsewhere are a standard feature of university life and are not always possible to foresee in the medium term. In such cases a change of supervisor may be necessary and is organised by the Director of Postgraduate Studies. It is also possible to change supervisor with minimal formality if the research project develops in such a way as to render an alternative supervisor more appropriate.

In addition to their supervisor, PhD students are assigned an advisor, who is a member of the Faculty with expertise in the student’s field. The student has a formal advisory meeting with the supervisor and the advisor once a year. The advisor is also available for less formal consultation from the outset.

Enquiries which relate specifically to the English Faculty can be directed to:

Anna Fox
Postgraduate Coordinator
9 West Road
Cambridge CB3 9DP
United Kingdom

Contact us if you have any general enquiries about postgraduate admissions.