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Postgraduate Study


The taught element comprises two module types: core modules which trace the requirements for life’s origins from its astrophysical origins to the emergence of biospheres, providing the essential knowledge to be research-active in planetary science and life in the Universe; and optional modules specific to the academic pathway followed, which allow for students to deepen their knowledge in an area they are competent in from their first degree. Candidates will be required to take:

  • 4 core modules
  • At least 2 pathway-specific optional modules

The core modules will be taught in Michaelmas and Lent terms. They will cover the main material that all students are expected to master in planetary science and life in the universe: the origin of planets, the origin of habitable environments, the origin and detection of life, and the evolution of biospheres. These core modules will equip students with the essential knowledge to lead multidisciplinary research in this field.

The pathway-specific optional modules will be taught in Michaelmas and Lent terms. The pathways are:

  • Astrophysics,
  • Earth Science,
  • Chemistry,
  • Biology. 

The selection of optional modules offered will be updated annually to respond to changes in the research landscape. Options in each pathway will cover advanced topics that allow a deepening of students’ training from their first degrees.

The Group based project work

Funding proposal project

In Michaelmas term students will be placed in small groups to develop a funding proposal, for example an application for telescope time, a new piece of analytical instrumentation, or for an experiment to run on the international space station. 

The programme will also feature non-assessed content designed to broaden the students' knowledge.  This may take the form of short modules on specialist topics, communication workshops, and weekly seminar series.

Communication project

In the lent term students will be placed into small groups to write a press release and contribute to a mock press interview to present the outcome of a high-impact scientific study. 

Research Project

This group-based research project will run over the whole year. The research project will centre on prospecting a planet or planetary system for habitability.  This challenge draws on expertise from across PSLU disciplines. 

Group research projects will be designed such that each student completes an individual research project drawing on their pathway-specific expertise that fits within the scope of the overall group research project.

One to one supervision

Students are under the general supervision of the course director. Each student is also assigned an academic advisor who guides the student's choice of courses and provides supervisory guidance when required.

The University of Cambridge publishes an annual Code of Practice which sets out the University’s expectations regarding supervision.

Seminars & classes

The course engages with seminars offered by host departments and partner institutions in the University.


Students will have lectures equivalent to around 52 contact hours for core modules (on essential skill for planetary science and Life in the Universe) and 48 hours for optional modules (deepening their expertise in a particular pathway area).

Small group teaching

Core course teaching will be accompanied by demonstration classes accumulating to around 24 hours teaching.

Literature Reviews

Literature reviews form part of the research project report.

Posters and Presentations

The students will give presentations on their research project as part of the project assessment.


Feedback on the student’s performance on their written examination, their oral presentation and their coursework results is provided by the module leader; feedback on their research project progress is provided by their research project supervisor.

Postgraduate students are represented on the Department's Postgraduate Education Committee, which normally meets five times a year, and consists of one or more student representatives from each of the research groups or master’s degree programmes. The committee exists to enable discussion of any issue affecting postgraduate studies and students may approach any member of the committee to suggest items for discussion.


Thesis / Dissertation

The group research project assessment will be a summative assessment of an individually written report, a group-written synthesis that brings the reports together, and an individual oral presentation on the whole group synthesis. The group assessment on the synthesis requires all students to understand the background and implications of all work done (no more than 3,000 words).  Each student will be required to individually write a written report of not more than 5,000 words on which they will be individually assessed.  Lengths include table, figures, figure legends and appendix but exclude bibliography and illustrative code snippets.  The dissertation will be on a subject approved by the Degree Committee. 


Funding proposal project - assessed as a group presentation to a panel and through group written assessment (no more than 2,000 words).

Communication project - assessed as a written single press release from the group (no more than 600 words) and a group presentation to a panel.


Each Core and Pathway specific optional modules will be assessed by one, or by a combination of, the following modes of assessment:

Written exams will be closed book and will primarily test candidates' theoretical knowledge via calculations, short answer questions and essays.

Coursework will typically be in the form of a report providing a critical analysis of the literature or a review of a scientific paper, typically of not more than 4,000 words in length.  The reports will be expected to be concise and will be judged on the quality of argument, the clarity of presentation, and the insightfulness of interpretation.

Oral Presentation on candidates’ work could be required as part of the assessment of submitted coursework.

In the MPhil in Planetary Science and Life in the Universe, the weighting of the assessed course components is as follows:

  1. The three projects will combine to provide 40 per cent (40%) of the final grade
  2. The taught modules examination (mix of written exams, coursework and oral presentation) will represent 60 per cent (60%) of the final grade where :
    • The four core modules will count for 30 per cent (30%) of the final grade.
    • The option modules will count for 30 per cent (30%) of the final grade.

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Key Information

10 months full-time

Study Mode : Taught

Master of Philosophy

Institute of Astronomy This course is advertised in multiple departments. Please see the Overview tab for more details.

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Dates and deadlines:

Michaelmas 2024

Applications open
Sept. 4, 2023
Application deadline
May 16, 2024
Course Starts
Oct. 1, 2024

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

Course Funding Deadline
Dec. 5, 2023
Gates Cambridge US round only
Oct. 11, 2023

These deadlines apply to applications for courses starting in Michaelmas 2024, Lent 2025 and Easter 2025.

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