Cambridge

Selwyn College Selwyn College, Cambridge. Photo from Selwyn College Flickr

As this site has recently been updated to reflect, I am going to be studying at the University of Cambridge come October 1. This is still something of a dream, not yet feeling like a thing that is truly happening. Flights are booked, accommodation is reserved, bus tickets from Heathrow are sorted—and it still doesn’t feel real. To help it feel more real, I’ve decided to write down the process. When I was going through this, from the outside, it was all a bit of a mystery. With any luck this will make it less mysterious.

Is this something I want to do?

Probably not.

Perhaps a bit more explanation is in order. If you are, like me, studying computer science, then a PhD is a terrible investment. Don’t do it just to become more qualified. The running joke is that PhD stands for “Please hire, Desperate”. Like all good jokes this has a kernel of truth. Most places won’t want to touch you because you’re too expensive, don’t have a wide breadth of knowledge, and lack “real-world skills” (despite the fact you have probably developed excellent “real-world skills” during your PhD).

If you want to work in research and development, or at a university, then perhaps this is the right option for you. Job options are slim, but in industry do tend to be well paid. If you pick university, be warned: you will be underpaid for the rest of your life. While not the “path of poverty” it is joked to be, you will never be as well paid as your industry peers.

The above warning applies less strongly to Masters’ applicants, because you don’t automatically become unhirable. But go in sceptical, particularly in computer science: will this actually help me get where I want to be?

Story time
I love teaching. For me, it is a bit of a no-brainer to work at a university and continue teaching. It is a bit of a disappointment that I will never be rich, and it’s a bit hard hearing all my friends talk about the salaries they are getting going into industry, knowing that my top salary will barely match their starting salary. But I am hoping the old saying is true: “Do a job you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life.”

Assuming you have decided this is the life for you, let us start with…

Choosing a supervisor

Before we go any further, let me make one point abundantly clear: you cannot start this process too soon. If you think 12 months ahead is possibly being too forward, you are wrong. I first contacted my supervisor Dr Mateja Jamnik 15 months before I was due to start studying. It was almost too late. Contact potential supervisors now.

When deciding whether or not to undertake postgraduate study, I was advised (by my excellent honours supervisor Dr Kourosh Neshatian) that I should not choose the university, I should choose the supervisor. This is, of course, easier said than done, because how to you find a supervisor? There are thousands of universities around the world, each with a dozen or more potential researchers. Yes, a small data-set by any standard, but still a bit much when there is no good algorithm to filter by!

The hunt begins with (what else?) Google. Type in words that sound interesting. See which names start to come back. Pick a couple of universities that sound nice, and see who their researchers are. Then see who they collaborate with. Who were their supervisors? If they are over a certain age, see who they supervised—they are probably able to supervise you now! This sounds like it would lead to exponential explosion, but a strange pattern starts to emerge: when you find your corner of the academic world, it becomes apparent that there are no more than a hundred or active researchers, and that they all know each other.

This limited pool is your set of potential supervisors. This is the step where gut instinct takes over. Go through their personal web pages (admittedly easier in computer science because the odds that they have a [still maintained] website is better-than-average) and see who they are, how they think, how they work. If there is anything that just doesn’t seem to gel, strike them from the list. This is a person you will have to work closely with for 3+ years, so it’s worth getting this right. If you have any doubts about whether you could get on well with this person, it mightn’t be worth the risk! What if you’re wrong? Well, it was better to err on the side of caution than to wind up 18 months into a project where every conversation is a fight.

One tip I kept seeing was to get in touch with your potential supervisor’s past students. This is probably excellent advice, but not something I did. It seemed too intrusive to reach out to people to grill them on what their supervisor was like. Plus, I wasn’t sure how much this would help. Just because they got on great doesn’t mean I would—they’re not me, so why would their experience have any impact on mine? Still, if you have the nerve to do this, I can’t see that it would hurt.

Another piece of advice I received, which I partially listened to, is to consider the location. It’s all very well finding the perfect adviser, but if they live in the middle of a nuclear wasteland you might still want to pass. This place will be your home for the foreseeable future, you have to like it. For example, I had considered a few Australian supervisors, but I cannot see myself living in Australia for three years, so decided it wasn’t worth it.

Some things to not do: Choose the university based on its prestige. (I know, rich coming from someone who is going to Cambridge, but hear me out.) Just because a university is well-regarded doesn’t mean your PhD/Masters/whatever will be worth more. It probably won’t hurt, but if you’re choosing somewhere for their name at the expense of the supervisor or project, you won’t survive this. Choose a supervisor because they’re a “rock-star”. Frankly, this will probably hurt you more than help you, because if they really are a rock-star in your field, they are probably already over-worked, supervising more than a few students, and will probably remain that person who knocks on your door once a month who you have to remind of your name. This is not a productive relationship, don’t settle for it. * Choose a supervisor because they have funding. Yes, it is super important to have funding for your research, but having a supervisor with funding is a bit of a double edged sword. That money probably comes from a grant for a specific project, which means your topic is preselected. If this isn’t a deal-breaker, there is another concern: if anything goes wrong in the supervision relationship, you can’t easily change supervisor, as your funding is tied to them.

Story time
When I was looking for places to study, I initially didn’t consider Cambridge. I looked at places that are admittedly still very ambitious, such as the University of Edinburgh, but did not find a supervisor that I felt like reaching out to. It was from here that I learned of Mateja, as she studied at Edinburgh. It was somewhat of a disappointment to discover that Mateja worked at Cambridge, because that meant that I now had to try and get in to Cambridge! Entry to Cambridge is a bit competitive, to say the least. Nevertheless, I managed it, and so can you!

Found someone? Good. Hold on, because now you have to decide on a project.

Picking a project

Now that you have a supervisor, you need to settle on what, exactly, you want to devote the next three-to-seven years of your life towards studying. If you have an idea already, great, put it forward, but be prepared for your supervisor to shoot it down. They know how research works, you don’t. Take the hint.

Let’s be honest, most of us have no idea what to study. With any luck, your supervisor (whom you have contacted, yes?) will have a list of projects either on their website or (more likely) that they can email to you if you request it. These make an excellent starting point. Don’t feel bound by the list, but it will provide a jumping-off place for your search.

Finding your niche is something truly difficult. You need something achievable, but also something no-one has done before. Sure, no-one has show whether \(P \stackrel{?}{=} N\!P\), but it also doesn’t make for an ideal PhD topic. I have no good tips for this, as it is something that I find difficult. Finding the initial problem is hard, but once you’re neck-deep in it, there seem to be problems everywhere.

If you cannot find a project that both you and your supervisor agree on, now is the time to abandon ship and find a new supervisor. If you don’t like the topic you choose, you will not be able to stay motivated. If they don’t like the topic, they will not want (or possibly not be able) to help you when, inevitably, there are challenges.

Picking a project is a research endeavour in its own right. Do not think that it will be easy, something that you can just come up with over-night. This will take potentially weeks of research to identify, narrow, and understand. Different universities have different requirements for what you have to understand by enrollment. Some will only ask you to know the general area; others will require you to have a six page proposal ready when you apply to enrol, just to be sure you understand what you’re signing up for!

Story time
I am terrible at finding research problems. It does get easier, I’ve learned, because when you start to look at a problem you start to see holes. But from the outside, it is nowhere near as obvious. This is where a truly excellent supervisor steps in, offers some ideas, and lets you run with it. For example, when I was contacting Mateja for the first time, I had a (frankly terrible) half-idea that I put forward. I was trying to look like I knew what I was doing. I did not. But Mateja put forward a few ideas that she was interested in looking at, and then let me take any of them in a direction of my choosing. This is how I ended up with “Automating representation change across domains for reasoning”.

Enrollment

By this stage, you might be ready to enrol at your supervisor’s institution. This is not where is becomes easy, I can assure you. Depending on the university, this process ranges from mildly annoying, through to hopelessly frustrating! I was fortunate that Cambridge’s process is mostly online, with a simple tracking page for you to see (vaguely) what is happening. Could it be better? Of course. Is it the worst out there? Absolutely not.

Cambridge was not the only university I applied to (eggs, baskets, etc.). I also applied to the University of Canterbury. This was a very different process. For starters, this is not an online application. Everything is done through good old fashioned dead trees and talking to people—ew. Feedback was limited (although substantially faster than at Cambridge) and the whole process was fairly poorly documented. That’s not to say every part of it was worse: the actual application form was much simpler, mostly because it expected less. All it needed for a research topic, for example, was a tentative title. That’s it. Cambridge demanded a multi-page proposal! Yikes!

Assuming you manage to wrangle all the paperwork (why do I need another photo of myself?) and shepherd your referees into order (yes, that deadline is this week; yes, I sent that email three weeks ago), congratulations, you have taken literally only the first step of dozens to being enrolled. That was, however, the last step where you had any semblance of control. You fate is with the gods of academia now: the admissions department.

If you know a soothsayer, now is the time to give them a call. They are possibly your best chance of understanding any decisions that are about to be made. If you have a passionate supervisor, this step is much easier, as they will hopefully charge in to battle to support your application. At Cambridge, the enrollment process involves a Skype interview with your nominated supervisor: this is a great chance to have a first chat with them face-to-face. Until this point most of your contact was via email. This step can make-or-break an application—after all, if they’re not willing to say you are worthy of a place, there is no way in hell you are getting in. But if they do support you, there is not much that will stop the process: your grades are probably fine if you have got this far, it just becomes a numbers game. All you can do is hope you don’t fall below the cut-off line. Do not expect your progress at this stage to be fast. Universities would be out-paced by a glacier, all you can do is wait. Well, wait and apply for funding.

Funding

Do not do a self-funded PhD. It is not worth it. If the research is worth anything, someone will pay you to do it. The best kind of funding comes from trusts or universities, because these do not tie you to a specific supervisor or topic. However, this also makes these sources of funding the most competitive. When you start thinking about funding is also important, and may be worth researching up to several years in advance, in order to prepare the best possible version of yourself (note: I tried this, it didn’t work).

Funding is very much a make-or-break exercise, and the amount of funding you need depends on where you want to study, whether you are a resident of that country, and how much money you need to survive. Do not be stingy when applying for funding: yes, you might feel like you’re being a pain constantly asking for references, but you are doing this to make sure you can survive. You cannot work full-time while you are studying, don’t trick yourself into thinking that you can. If you are going overseas, remember that you will be stung twice: you will have to pay international fees, which demands a larger scholarship; and you will not have access to all your usual resources, or employment, for potentially some time.

Most universities are very good about discussing the amount of money you will need to survive for the duration of your degree. For example, as an international student studying towards a PhD in Computer Science at the University of Cambridge, the University estimates that I will need about £40,000 per year, covering both fees and living costs. Yikes. Be prepared for a big number. (The US is worse, where a comparable university would be $45,000 just for fees—living costs are extra!) One thing to be aware of is that their “living costs” estimate assumes you live like a pauper and like it. Even if your scholarship covers living costs, be prepared to do some work (e.g. as a supervisor/tutor/T.A. depending on country) to top up the funds. If you choose to study domestic, you will not need scholarships that are quite so huge, because often study is partially funded by the government for domestic students (at least, that is the case in Australasia).

Story time
Finding funding was a huge problem for me. In fact, it reached the point where I though I was not going to be able to go to Cambridge because almost all the scholarship opportunities had gone. I had been going to interviews up and down the country (and internationally) for months, always making it to the final few, but never being able to secure the funding. Be prepared for a lot of disappointments when searching for funding. There was a lot of cheering and crying when I received the email saying I had received the Hamilton Cambridge International Scholarship, as it was the only thing that kept the dream alive.

The good news

Every story of “how I got in to grad school” always has an element of survivor bias: the people writing these pieces are the ones that made it. There are a significant number more who did not make it. This essay is no different, because I also managed to pass every hurdle on the way (somehow). But with any luck, this story has been interesting, and might give you some guidance on what form your own path will take.

I do hope that you will also get good news on your application, but don’t worry if this is not the case—just try again. If you definitely want to start studying at a certain time, apply to work with a different supervisor: there are still plenty out there who would be wonderful to work with. If you really do have your heart set on a certain project with a certain person, wait it out. Get a job for 12 months and earn a bit of pocket money. Sometimes this is unavoidable, due to terms: southern hemisphere applicants have to wait twelve months (November through October) between the end of their academic year and the start of that in the northern hemisphere.

And if you did get good news, let me be the first to say congratulations! This is no small achievement, you have successfully been selected from literally thousands of applicants to be good enough to study at the most advanced level available. But for you, the fun has only just started. Get that visa, book those tickets, find that flat/room/cardboard box that you will call home for the next 3+ years. This is an exciting time, grab it with both hands and run with it. You will laugh, you will cry, and you will almost certainly think this was a bad decision. It is not. You are strong, you will survive this, and you too will go on to perpetuate the survivor bias that leads us all to postgraduate study.

I might be wrong

I am just at the beginning of this journey myself, so all of the above is just a reflection of how I went through the application process. I might find that it all was a load of bollocks, that I got through by the skin of my teeth, and that you should never, ever do things this way.

With that in mind, I present to you a collection of resources I found immensely useful when perparing to study. There is a computer science and Cambridge slant to these resources, but they might be useful to other disciplines too.

FYI, I use cookies to improve this site.