PhD applications – Biological Learning

PhD Programme

The Computational and Biological Learning Lab (CBL) at the Department of Engineering uses engineering approaches to understand the brain and to develop artificial learning systems. Research in computational neuroscience covers learning and memory in perceptual, cognitive, and motor systems. PhD students in the group have the opportunity to pursue computational studies at the neuronal or behavioural level, or experimental studies of human behaviour using state-of-the-art robotic and virtual reality interfaces, or combine computational and experimental approaches.

The Department of Engineering has recently received the highest research rating in the UK of all science departments and provides excellent training that includes graduate courses in computational neuroscience and machine learning. CBL is a lively and dynamic group around 30 people, and encourages interaction between all members of the lab, including students, postdocs, and faculty. The entire group meets at least three times a week, on top of various other regular activities, such as reading and journal clubs. Students in computational neuroscience benefit from the strong machine learning group within CBL.

The University has a number of competitive fully-funded 3-year studentships available each year (to students of any nationality) and CBL also welcomes students with pre-secured funding or with other scholarship/studentship applications in progress.


Applicants must have
  • strong problem solving and mathematical skills
  • a keen interest in neuroscience
  • a relevant first degree such as Computer Science, Engineering, Mathematics, Neuroscience, Physics, Psychology or Statistics

Students seeking to combine work in neuroscience and machine learning are particularly encouraged to apply.

How to apply

General description

The process of ending up as a graduate student at Cambridge is somewhat involved but we hope worth the effort. There are three hurdles which must be cleared.

  1. Administrative hurdle: a (rather complex) official application form must be submitted with supporting material to the University of Cambridge Graduate Admissions Office.
  2. Scientific hurdle: CBL must support your application thereby giving you a formal "offer subject to funding". We prefer you contact us separately from the formal application described above so that we can evaluate your application as early as possible. Below we describe in detail the steps we take to decide this.
  3. Funding hurdle: An "offer subject to funding" means you can take up your place if you are either able to fund yourself fully or you receive funds from Cambridge or elsewhere. The decision on funding is not taken by CBL but is taken by the different funding agencies using your formal application and our evaluation. Once you have an "offer subject to funding" you will automatically be considered for the various funding sources and you will not need to submit more information for this. For more information on related issues see the relevant pages of the Student Registry on costs and funding.

  • There is also an additional minor hurdle for non-native speakers: taking a language proficiency test as detailed here.

For more general information see the page of the Office of Graduate Studies of the Department of Engineering.

Evaluation by CBL

Applications are evaluated in two stages.


Applicants should first email the following in pdf or plain text to the CBL administrator Diane Hazell:

  • their CV
  • a statement of research interests (including why in particular they want to work in CBL and if they have a preference for the Hennequin, Lengyel, Turner or Wolpert group)
  • transcript(s) for previous degrees

and arrange for three academic referees to send us letters of reference.

(Note that this is not the same documentation as that required for the official application form submitted to the University's Graduate Admissions Office, mentioned above, although there are some overlaps.)

A decision as to whether an applicant proceeds to the second stage will be made based on this documentation.


If you are shortlisted you will normally come to CBL for a day of interviews. In this case, you will be expected to

  • Prepare a 25 minute talk that should cover some research or a project you have done as well as a brief description of your research interests. You are welcome to use your own laptop or bring a pdf or powerpoint presentation with you on a USB stick. You will present your talk to the members of CBL. Often we interview several candidates on the same day and, if so, you are welcome to sit in on the other candidates' talks.
  • Read 1-2 research papers assigned a week or two ahead of the interviews and be prepared to discuss the papers in depth (including mathematical-technical details).
  • Participate in around six 30-minute interviews each with one or two members of the group. These will cover different areas including general topics and more specific evaluation of relevant skills depending on your background such as neuroscience or mathematics.

If a personal interview is unfeasible, we will arrange a ~60-minute interview over phone / Skype. In this case the interview will consist of
  • a 10-15 min presentation of your previous work related to your application,
  • a 5 min presentation of your research interests and plans for a PhD,
  • a discussion of a research paper which you should read thoroughly before the interview,
  • a general interview on areas related to computational and experimental neuroscience but not requiring factual knowledge as you may be new to neuroscience,
  • a chance for you to ask us question about CBL, the Department, or the University.
(You will be asked to send us max 10 slides in pdf for your presentation, and max 2 slides describing your research interests, at least 1 hour before the interview.)

Timing and deadlines

Graduate students usually start their PhD studies in October. All dates below refer to the preceding 1-year period.

Note that you will need to submit an application both to the University of Cambridge Graduate Admissions Office (see hurdle #1 in General description) and to CBL (see hurdle #2 in General description, and as described above) separately, in parallel. Some but not all(!) of the documentation you need to submit for these two tracks are the same, so please make sure you put in all necessary forms and supporting documents to each. Please also make sure that you do not miss the relevant deadlines listed below.

Deadline for formal applications to the University of Cambridge Graduate Admissions Office:
The deadlines given here are correct for admissions in 2012, see here for the original and always up-to-date source of information.

  • for candidates who wish to apply for funding:
    • for applicants from the USA
      • for new applicants: 15 October
      • for current or previous students of Cambridge : 3 December
    • for other overseas (including EU) candidates: 3 December
    • UK applicants: 13 February
  • for applicants not applying for funding: *~10 January

Note, that decisions about funding by the Cambridge Trusts can be made as late as August.

Good luck with your application.
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