Becoming a Postgraduate Student


The most important qualifications for becoming a postgraduate student are curiosity, enthusiasm and self-motivation. Successful postgraduate students are people who are fired up about their work but who are able to channel that fire into the slow burn of research and writing. If you sometimes felt frustrated about the limits of your knowledge when you were an undergraduate, and enjoyed the more extended forms of study such as dissertations or extended essays, that is a very promising sign. Your postgraduate work will be advanced by conversations with seminar leaders and supervisors, by participation in our vibrant research culture, and by your own independent work. Whether you are an MPhil or a PhD student, a high degree of self-motivation is an essential prerequisite for success.

Most of our postgraduate students have a first-class undergraduate degree or international equivalent. We recognize that exams are not always the best evidence of aptitude for postgraduate work, and we regularly accept candidates with good 2.1s, or mature students who have not steered a standard course through their higher education, provided that such applicants have strong backing from their referees, have a feasible topic, and are well qualified for the proposed research. The high number of applications we receive means that postgraduate admission is often very competitive, but each application is considered in detail by a committee of academics in the relevant field.


Funding for postgraduate work in the humanities is increasingly difficult to obtain. For home students a first class degree is no longer a guarantee of winning a maintenance grant from the AHRC. It helps to have a top first or a very strong performance in the area of your proposed research. If you are considering supporting yourself through your postgraduate career you should be aware of the costs. Up-to-date details of fees and charges can be found in the Postgraduate Prospectus. The Student Registry (the body which administers postgraduate study in the University) requires you to provide evidence that you will be able to support yourself through your course before you are finally admitted. If the money runs out during your course there are a very limited number of scholarships and bursaries available from the University and Colleges. The Faculty also has a number of prizes and awards for postgraduate students. However none of these supplementary sources of funding can be relied upon as a means of support, so it is essential to ensure that you have reliable sources of funding before you arrive.


All of our postgraduate courses require you to give a detailed description of the proposed topic of your dissertation. This enables us to be sure that we have potential supervisors for you and enables us to judge the level of your present knowledge of your field. About 500 words is a suitable length for a research proposal. What you propose should be manageable in the time; it should be coherent; and it should have the potential to be a contribution to knowledge. We attach considerable weight to the research proposal when we are selecting candidates for admission. It is therefore worth seeking advice from those who are teaching you at present about how to formulate your topic. You should also try to situate what you propose to do in relation to the existing critical literature in the subject area. You should ask yourself how your work might change the present state of scholarship in your field, and whether the topic is well suited to the resources provided at Cambridge. Even for MPhil courses we generally aim to admit not just those who propose a sensible topic, but those who have the potential to modify the present paradigms of research in their field. Most students, though, refine their research topics after they arrive in the light of what they discover or of advice from their supervisor, so you need not feel that you are inscribing your future in tablets of stone as you compose your proposal.

Written Work

We require all applicants to submit a recent sample of written work of 5,000 to 7,500 words in support of their application. Our assessment of the critical flair, scholarly integrity, and originality of the written work carries great weight in the admission procedure, although we assess the work in conjunction with your references, your proposed topic, and your academic record to date. It is sensible (but not obligatory) to choose a piece of work which is at least roughly in the subject area in which you plan to do research. We are always impressed by high standards of presentation, but you should aim to submit your most imaginative and original work, even if it does not contain detailed footnotes or scholarly apparatus.

When you arrive

There are some technical requirements for research degrees in Cambridge of which you should be aware. postgraduate students are required to reside in Cambridge for the duration of their course (three terms for MPhil students and nine terms for PhD students). Students also have to be accepted by one of the Colleges before they can come into residence. Your choice of College will have a major effect on the kind of accommodation that you are offered while you are here, and on the facilities which you will be able to enjoy. These vary a great deal from College to College, so it is well worth spending some time familiarising yourself with a number of prospectuses. These can be obtained directly from the Colleges concerned, or via the colleges' websites.

We ask a lot of our students. They are expected regularly to produce written work of a high standard, to respond positively to suggestions from their supervisor, and to work independently. Students who are working towards a PhD are usually expected to produce at least one substantial piece of written work each term; it is vital that chapters or drafts of chapters should be steadily accumulating throughout the nine terms of study for the degree. MPhil students usually are required by their course to produce at least one piece of written work for assessment each term. We expect the highest standards of accuracy and presentation, even at the early stages of a postgraduate student’s work.

Cambridge provides everything necessary to make your time as a postgraduate student the most enjoyable period of your education. What you need to bring is your energy: energy to push your work forward, to seek friendship and intellectual sustenance in the rich environment of the University and its colleges, and to make full use of the resources that will allow you to realise your aims for the future.