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Postgraduate Admissions

Course closed:

Medical Science (MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit) is no longer accepting new applications.

We host 20–30 graduate students at any time and invite applications from prospective PhD students wishing to pursue research in areas covered by any of our research programmes. Our approaches include experimental cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, computational modeling and neuroimaging using MRI, MEG, and EEG.


Our aim is that students develop the skills required to submit an excellent PhD thesis in either three or four years, depending upon the duration of their funding. Furthermore, our goal is to equip students for highly successful careers in their chosen profession, whether this is academia, clinical practice or industry. Our students design and conduct experiments, analyse results and learn to communicate those findings both in writing and orally. There is no "standard" model for an excellent PhD, but they always result from the combined expertise of our supervisors and the dedicated enthusiasm of our doctoral students.


A PhD at the CBU is achieved by supervised research and is under the jurisdiction of the Degree Committee for the School of Clinical Medicine. The provision of supervision and teaching is overseen by the Graduate School of Life Sciences. Within the CBU, the internal Graduate Committee is responsible for all aspects of the running of the degrees. A suitable project falling within the interests of the supervisor, and sustainable within the limits imposed by the facilities available at the CBU, is agreed by both student and supervisor, and endorsed by the Graduate Committee.

Each graduate student has a primary supervisor, who will supervise the main body of their research, and an adviser who acts as a supplementary source of advice and support. We also have two pastoral tutors who offer personal support and counselling throughout a student’s time at the Unit. And we always encourage students and their supervisors to seek additional support where this will benefit the science, for example in the form of additional advisers from other departments.


Students attend a variety of Unit seminars given by distinguished scientists and are also able to present their research, usually in their second year. They can draw from the CBU’s panels of research volunteers, both typical volunteers and from specialist clinical panels, and enjoy the benefits of superb computing facilities and support staff, including a graphics and multimedia officer.

The Cambridge Graduate Programme in Cognitive and Brain Sciences

CBU students are full members of the Cambridge Graduate Programme in Cognitive and Brain Sciences, which has been jointly established by the Unit and the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry. This consists of a weekly series of theoretical seminars presented by senior researchers from the CBU and the University. Lectures will be held at 4–5.30pm on Mondays  in the West Wing Seminar Room at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, 15 Chaucer Road, Cambridge CB2 7EF (unless otherwise specified), or at the Psychology department on the Downing Site in Cambridge city centre. Seminars are held during Michaelmas and Lent terms only. These are compulsory for CBU first-year students, but anyone interested is welcome to attend and we also welcome visitors form other university departments.

Details of the Seminar programme will be updated regularly and any changes in the programme, as well as any other information of interest, will be communicated via email – if you are interested in receiving these updates please email the seminar administrator to ensure that your name is on the “Camgrads+” mailing list.

All public talks are publicised on the University talks website, which also contains an archive of older lectures.

Facilities and Linkages

The CBU has excellent state-of-the-art facilities for experimental behavioural studies involving normal populations and patients with brain damage, as well as institutional links with Addenbrooke’s hospital giving access to various types of patient populations, including stroke and progressive neural degenerative diseases. A number of programmes have strong interests and expertise in mental health, and in recent years students have worked alongside clinicians to explore mechanisms and novel treatments in individuals with ongoing mental health difficulties, including anxiety and depression.

There is a 3 Tesla MRI scanner on the premises, as well as MEG and EEG facilities. Through its partnership with the University of Cambridge Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre, the CBU has excellent access to PET, additional fMRI (3 Tesla) facilities, and in the near future high-field scanning (7 Tesla). The CBU also offers state-of-the-art computing facilities, supporting Unix, PC, and Mac platforms, and handling the large volumes of neuro-imaging data as well as extensive computational modelling. All students have their own networked desktop computer, with internet access through JANET.

The Unit’s close links with the University Department of Psychology and the Department of Psychiatry are strengthened through the Cambridge Graduate Programme in Cognitive and Brain Sciences, a joint programme of termly seminars given by members of each department and attended by all graduate students.

The CBU is also an active member of the wider neuroscience community in Cambridge, supported by the Cambridge Neuroscience network.

Completion on time

The procedure below was initially designed to ensure that students complete their research on time and within the time allowed by their funding. With the introduction of the new four-year degree programme we will be offering more formalised training opportunities and a personalised training and research programme will be agreed with all students during the early weeks of the degree. This will ensure that a realistic and appropriate timeframe is planned to ensure completion of the PhD thesis within the agreed period, whether three or four years. The timeframe below is given for the three-year duration; adding an extra year for those students with four-year funding will front-load the training programme into the first year and shift the review points back by a year, but the overall structure remains the same.

The primary goal of the student’s first year is to put them in a position to hit the ground running at the beginning of their second year, with a fully developed and agreed research plan for the last two years of their thesis, and, preferably, with a significant chunk of relevant research and training already completed. To this end, students and supervisors are encouraged to begin discussion of possible topics as soon as the student arrives, and to initiate exploratory research, skills training, literature surveys, etc, as soon as is practicable. If supervisors do not feel that satisfactory progress has been made towards agreeing and developing a possible topic within six months of the student arriving (usually 1 March of the first year), then they should allocate a topic within the broad area of interest stated on the student’s application. A student who objects to the proposed topic may approach the Graduate Studies Committee over a change in supervisor, but should be prepared to accept a proposal from the secondary supervisor.

Assessment will take place at the end of the first year, with the submission of a 5,000-word report by 30 June. This will comprise a summary of the student’s progress over the previous months and is likely to include a literature review motivating the choice of research topic and an account of experimental and theoretical work completed. The report must also include a proposal outlining the research planned for the next two years’ work, directed towards the completion of a PhD in that period. The student will also be expected to submit an up-to-date progress log, outlining their participation in seminars, training courses, etc, over the first year. This is to meet University and Research Council requirements for graduate training.

The report is distributed to and evaluated by the student’s primary and secondary supervisor and by the graduate tutors. A five-way meeting is then held with the student. A recommendation would normally then be made to the Faculty Degree Committee that the student be registered for a PhD and to the MRC that the grant be continued for a further two years. These recommendations can only be made following the meeting with the Graduate Committee, and it is the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure that these occur within a reasonable timescale – unless there are exceptional circumstances, we would expect the evaluation process to be completed by the end of July.

Around nine months before students are due to complete, a meeting will be held between student, supervisors, and representatives from the Graduate Committee to make sure things are on track for completion. Our aim is to reduce the stress of discovering, towards the end of the final year, that there is still too much to do and not enough time to do it. Students will be asked to bring two things to these meetings: an outline of the proposed thesis, with a plan for what is still needed and when it will be done; and a first part of the thesis itself, which could be literature review, methods sections, an experimental chapter, etc.

This is not in any way intended as an assessment, which in any case would not be suitable in a student’s final year. The thesis plan is intended to crystallise the remaining requirements in the minds of both student and supervisors. The written material is intended to ensure that the student has actually got some experience of what writing the thesis will be like. It frequently happens that students discover that writing is far more time-consuming than they had expected, and we think the best way to get a realistic expectation about this is to have some actual practical experience. To sum this up: our aim is to reduce stress, not to add to it!


We do not consider a master's degree mandatory for entry onto our PhD programme but obviously, if it is an appropriate topic then it will improve your CV and increase your chances of being shortlisted for interview.

Key Information

3-4 years full-time

5-7 years part-time

Doctor of Philosophy

MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit


Course on Department Website

Dates and deadlines:

Applications open
Sept. 3, 2018
Application deadline
June 28, 2019
Course Starts
Oct. 1, 2019

Some courses can close early. See the Deadlines page for guidance on when to apply.

Graduate Funding Competition
Dec. 5, 2018
Gates Cambridge US round only
Oct. 10, 2018

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