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Department of Computer Science and Technology


All candidates for the PhD Degree are admitted on a probationary basis. A student's status with the Student Registry is that he or she will be registered for the CPGS in Computer Science. At the end of the first academic year, a formal assessment of progress is made. In the Department of Computer Science and Technology, this takes the form of a single document of no more than 10,000 words in length, exclusive of tables, bibliography and appendices.

The document is principally a PhD Proposal. That is, a document that demonstrates a clear path from the candidate's current position to a complete PhD thesis at the end of the third year. The document has two purposes: (i) to help the candidate to reflect on and plan their research project and (ii) to allow the Computer Laboratory to assess the student's progress and planned research.


In the document, the candidate should do the following:

  • Identify a potential problem or topic to address for the PhD.
  • Literature review: demonstrate that they are familiar with background literature. This should take the form of a thorough survey of existing literature that incorporates a critical assessment of past work, including
    1. identifying the seminal prior research in the topic area
    2. the most closely related prior work, and
    3. their strengths and weaknesses.

    The goal is to show the limitations (or lack) of previous work. One method that could be employed to do this is to provide both a taxonomy of prior work and a gap analysis table: a table whose rows are the closest related work, the columns are the desired attributes of the solution, and each table entry is a Yes or a No. This would then clearly show that no prior work meets all the desired attributes.

    This section of the document might be expected to form the basis of part of the candidate's final PhD thesis.

  • Progress report: describe initial work that has been done on the topic

    Candidates should have already done some preliminary research. This may be early attempts at proofs, a detailed analysis of existing methods, a critique of existing systems, assembly and testing of investigative apparatus, conduct of a pilot experiment, etc. This section of the document may form the basis of a chapter of the final PhD thesis. It is common for the candidate to have produced an academic paper (even if this is a minor paper for a workshop, for example), where they are the main author. The paper does not need to have been published, but the assessors should be able to see that it is of potentially publishable quality. Such a paper can be submitted as an appendix to the document; in this case the material in the paper should not be reproduced in the document, but should be summarised briefly in a self-contained way.

  • Thesis proposal: describe a coherent and plausible research pathway towards the final goal.

    This should indicate, at a high level, the research that might be undertaken in the second and third years of the PhD. It needs to show that there is a viable route to a thesis in two years' time. In particular, it must state the specific research question or questions that are being addressed. If there are more than one question being addressed, it needs to be made clear how they are interconnected and how answering them would result in a coherent thesis story.
    They need to also be accompanied with a brief discussion of why they are important and interesting questions that are worthy of a Cambridge PhD, and why they are new (the gap analysis table could be used for this). Next, the candidate needs to describe the proposed method of attacking the questions, for example, by listing the major steps to completion through the next two years.

    Some candidates find it useful to structure this as a cohesive one-page summary of the proposed thesis, with a tentative title, a paragraph setting the context, and three or four paragraphs describing chunks of the proposed research, each of which could be the basis for an academic paper and each of which could be expected to be a chapter of the final thesis. The chapters should make a cohesive overarching narrative of the thesis, rather than be stand-alone pieces of work.

    A paragraph identifying criteria for success is recommended where the candidate explains how they will convince the research community that their approach is successful.

    Potential risks are recommended to be identified: what could derail this methodology (technically) and if this happens what is plan B?

  • Timeplan: provide a detailed timetable, with explicit milestones for each term in the next two years against which the candidate will measure their progress. This would ideally include technical tasks that are planned to be accomplished during each time chunk.

It is essential that the supervisor(s) agrees that the document may be submitted. The document will be read by two other members of staff (assessors), who will interview the student about the content of the document in a viva. It should therefore give sufficient information that the assessors can satisfy themselves that all is well. It is expected that the interview will take place before the end of the first year.

Submission deadlines (electronic)

  • For students admitted in Michaelmas Term, by June 30, 23:59
  • For students admitted in Lent Term, October 30, 23:59
  • For students admitted in Easter Term, by January 30, 23:59

All submissions should be made electronically via the filer.

Electronic version (in PDF format) should be provided via the PhD report and thesis upload page. This deposits uploaded files on the departmental filer at /auto/anfs/www-uploads/phd = \\\webserver\www-uploads\phd.

Students intending to take up research placements during the vacations which begin on, before, or shortly after the submission deadlines must submit their report one month before departure to enable the examination process to be completed before the internship begins. No other extensions will be permitted unless otherwise authorized by the Secretary of the Degree Committee.

Oral examination

The student will be invited to discuss the documents with two assessors appointed by the student's principal supervisor. Neither of the assessors should be the student's principal supervisor though one may be the student's second advisor. Occasionally, the principal supervisor may be invited to clarify elements of the PhD Proposal and to attend the viva as an observer.

Where the initial PhD Proposal document is unsatisfactory, the assessors must ask for a revised submission and arrange a further discussion. Where the PhD Proposal is acceptable, it may still help the student to record suggested modifications in a final version of the Proposal. A copy of the revised document must be submitted to the Secretary of the Degree Committee.

The PhD Proposal document is internal to the Laboratory. However, since it is the basis for formal progress reports including registration for the PhD Degree and those made to funding bodies, assessors should endeavour to arrange a meeting where the documents should be assessed and discussed by the end of the student's first year at the latest. The Secretary of the Degree Committee should be informed of the result by the assessors and by the supervisor on the Postgraduate Feedback and Reporting System as soon as possible thereafter.

The report will be considered by the Degree Committee which will make its recommendations on the registration of the student to the Board of Graduate Studies.

In those cases where the student's progress is wholly inadequate, the supervisor should give them a written warning by 15 September (or the appropriate corresponding date - 15 December or 15 March) that they are in danger of termination, with copy to the Secretary of the Degree Committee.

Word limit

The word limit is a maximum; it is not a target. Successful PhD Proposal documents can be significantly shorter than the limit. Writing within the word limit is important. It is part of the discipline of producing reports. When submitting reports (and the final PhD thesis), students will be required to sign a Statement of Word Length to confirm that the work does not exceed the limit of length prescribed (above) for the CPGS examination.


Attention is drawn to the University's guidance concerning plagiarism. The University states that "Plagiarism is defined as submitting as one's own work that which derives in part or in its entirety from the work of others without due acknowledgement. It is both poor scholarship and a breach of academic integrity." The Faculty's guidance concerning plagiarism and good academic practice can be found at

Reports may be soft-bound in comb-binding or stapled.

Secretary of the Degree Committee
September 2013, updated September 2021, updated March 2022