The primary aim of our postgraduate training programme is to ensure our students develop the skills required to produce an excellent PhD thesis by the end of their studentship. Towards this goal, a student will have acquired the essential skills required to design and conduct experiments (including obtaining ethics approval and navigating research governance elements where necessary), to analyse results, and to communicate these both in writing and orally. Open Science skills also feature significantly, as do a range of other skills that can be transferred successfully to an individual’s eventual choice of career, which may be academic or fall in another area such as clinical pyschology, industry, education, or policy.
Sources of support
A PhD at the MRC CBU is achieved by supervised research and falls under the jurisdiction of the Degree Committee for the School of Clinical Medicine. The provision of supervision and teaching is overseen by the Postgraduate School of Life Sciences. Within the CBU, the internal Postgraduate Education 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 MRC CBU, is agreed by student and supervisor, and endorsed in a review meeting at the end of the first year of study by representatives of the Postgraduate Education Committee. Each postgraduate student has a Primary Supervisor, who will supervise the main body of their research, and an Advisor, who acts as a supplementary source of advice and support. Some students may additionally have a Second Supervisor as part of their supervisory team, particularly where a student’s research is interdisciplinary. We also have two pastoral care tutors, the Madre and Padre. These are available to offer personal support that extends beyond purely academic concerns throughout a student’s time at the Unit. Students are able to draw upon the support of the managers of the CBU volunteer panels, both healthy (the Cambridge Adult Volunteer Panel) and clinical (Cambridge Cognitive Neuroscience Research Panel). Our students also enjoy the benefits of superb computing facilities and scientific support staff, including excellent methods and IT support as well as an experienced Graphics/Multimedia Officer.
The Cambridge Postgraduate Programme in Cognitive and Brain Sciences
MRC CBU students are full members of the Cambridge Postgraduate Programme in Cognitive and Brain Sciences, which was jointly established by the Unit and the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry. The programme includes a series of weekly cognitive neuroscience seminars presented by senior researchers from the MRC CBU and the University. This year’s programme will also include Amy Orben’s Psychology as a Robust Science seminars. This year these will be held in Lent term in the CBU lecture theatre. Further details about the seminars will be circulated at the beginning of Michaelmas term. Please note that these seminars are considered a compulsory element of the training we offer for first year CBU students.
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 e-mail – if you are interested in receiving these updates please e-mail the seminar administrator [grad-admin [@] mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk, but without the brackets and spaces] 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.
First year training programme
As an integral part of our postgraduate training we have incorporated a more structured first year training programme for all students. This is delivered via two streams for students specialising in: a) skills-oriented training especially relevant to but not limited to cognitive neuroscience; or b) clinical sciences. Many lectures, seminars and training elements are important for research with both a cognitive neuroscience and clinical emphasis, but some topics are more specialised and more or less relevant or approrpiate, accroding to your particular area of research. We encourage all our students to agree a training programme that is bespoke for your particular needs with your supervisor on arrival.
CBU Wednesday Lunchtime and Chaucer Club seminars
Students also attend the CBU’s weekly Unit Seminars. These are held during termtime only and include the Wednesday Lunchtime Seminars on Wednesdays at 12:30pm and Chaucer Club Seminars which have most recently been held on Thursdays at 2pm. The seminars are given by CBU, Cambridge, and other distinguished scientists from further afield. Students will also have the opportunity to present their own research in a Wednesday Lunchtime Seminar, usually in their second year. We consider these to be an essential and extremely important training and development opportunity – not just for students, but for all our scientific staff.
Facilities and links with other departments
The MRC CBU has excellent 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. There is a 3 Tesla MRI scanner on the premises, as well as MEG, EEG, TMS, and TDCS facilities. Through its partnership with the University of Cambridge Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre, the MRC CBU has excellent access to PET and additional fMRI (3 Tesla) facilities. The MRC CBU also offers state of the art computing facilities, supporting Unix, PC, and Mac platforms, and handling the large volumes of neuroimaging 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 Postgraduate Programme in Cognitive and Brain Sciences, a joint programme of termly Seminars given by members of each Department and attended by all first year postgraduate students.
The MRC CBU is also an active member of the wider neuroscience community in Cambridge, supported by the Cambridge Neuroscience network.
Completion on time
The MRC CBU has adopted the following procedures, designed to ensure that students complete their research on time. Though the University submission deadline is within 4 years of beginning a PhD, by ‘on time’, we mean completion of the PhD within the number of funded years a student has available to them. This varies from one student to the next, and as such, we do not wish for any student to be left with a significant unfunded period at the end of their PhD. This is something we emphasise to both student and supervisor at every opportunity.
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 to three 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 March 1st 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 Postgraduate Education 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 5000 word report in June. This typically comprises a literature review motivating the choice of research topic, as well as a summary of the student’s progress over the previous months and account of experimental and theoretical work completed. The report must also include a timeline and proposal outlining the research planned for the next two to three years of work (guided by the remaining number of funded years a student has), directed towards the completion of a PhD in that period. The student will also submit a Development Log that outlines their participation in seminars and training over the first year. This is to meet University and Research Council requirements for postgraduate training as well as to identify any gaps in training that should be met in the remainder of the PhD.
The report is distributed to and evaluated by the student’s primary supervisor and advisor and by two representatives of the Postgraduate Education Committee, typically the Postgraduate Tutors. A five way meeting is then held with the student. A recommendation would normally then be made to the School of Clinical Medicine Degree Committee that the student be upgraded from being probationary to being fully registered for a PhD and where required, to the funding body (e.g. MRC) recommending the grant be continued for the remaining years. These recommendations can only be made following the first year review meeting. It is the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure that these occur on a reasonable time-scale – unless there are exceptional circumstances, we would expect the evaluation process to be completed by the end of July.
A mid-PhD review will also be held as an additional opportunity to ensure students are still on track with a clear idea of planned projects and their timely delivery (within the number of funded years of their PhD), to consider whether the student has any outstanding training needs, and to ensure that students have begun to think about possible next career steps and make use of the excellent career and mentoring resources available to them both in the CBU and wider University.
Around nine months before students are due to complete, a final year review meeting (which will be towards the beginning of the third year for some students and the fourth year for others, again depending on funding) will be held between student, supervisors, and representatives of the Postgraduate Education 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 sample of their writing which can be a paper submitted for publication or first part of the thesis itself, such as literature review, methods section, 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 constantly 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!