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Pursuing a research degree FAQ

Thinking of pursuing a research degree at Birkbeck? Some questions answered.

How do research degrees differ from taught courses?

A research degree is designed for someone who wants to study a challenging problem in an area of computer science, gain very detailed knowledge of the latest developments in that area and make an original contribution towards solving the chosen problem. It enables someone to develop the skills needed to pursue research subsequently in industry or academia.

As such, a research degree is very different from a taught course. A taught course usually involves attending timetabled lectures and tutorials on set topics with other students. The course is then examined in written exams as well as coursework exercises and work on an individual project.

By contrast, a research degree involves individual study of a specific research problem and the development of a solution to that problem. A research student will be guided by supervisors with expertise in the research area of interest, and will agree an individual plan of work with those supervisors to achieve the aims of the research. The arrangement for supervision and monitoring of progress are explained here.

Every research student attends a series of lectures on Research Methods in Computer Science and Information Systems. If there are other specialised lectures which supervisors believe would be beneficial for a research student to attend, this is arranged on an individual basis. A range of courses to develop your learning and professional skills are also available.

A research student writes up the results of the research work in a thesis which is examined by independent examiners: the examiners first read the thesis in detail and then question the student in an oral "viva" examination.

What research degrees do you offer?

We offer a programme leading to either an MPhil or PhD degree. We also offer MRes Computer Science, which provide an excellent foundation for subsequent MPhil/PhD study.

What's the difference between the MRes, MPhil and PhD degrees?

MPhil/PhD are research degrees involving individual study of a specific research problem. For a student to be awarded a PhD, the research work must have resulted in a significant original contribution to the field of study: this is not required for an MPhil.

The MRes degree has been designed to meet the needs of students wishing to advance their knowledge of an area of research interest in Computer Science and research methods either as preparation for a research degree or to gain specialist knowledge of research developments and techniques which may be applied in industry and elsewhere.

The MRes degree programme offers a two-year part-time or one-year full-time research project, seminars and taught modules. Students follow a module on Research Methods in Computer Science and Information Systems as well as 3 taught modules relevant to their research interests in the case of MRes Computer Science, or a further research methods module as well as 2 taught modules relevant to their research interests in the case of MRes Information Systems & Management.

How should I choose between the MRes, MPhil and PhD degrees?

If you have a clear idea of a specific research problem you wish to study, and also have the necessary knowledge of relevant areas of computer science to begin research work immediately, then registering for an MPhil/PhD degree would be possible. You would initially register for an MPhil degree with transfer to PhD after satisfactorily completing an initial period of study if it seems likely that the thesis will contain significant original work.

If you have a general idea of an area of research you wish to pursue, or would benefit from following relevant specialist taught modules to be in a position to identify a specific research problem for study, then first registering for an MRes degree would enable you to develop your knowledge of an area of research interest before embarking on an MPhil/PhD.

We do consider all applications for either MRes or MPhil/PhD with both programmes in mind, so it is not necessary to choose between the programmes when making an application. We would discuss with you which programme was more suitable when considering your application.

Can I follow each of the research degrees as either a full-time or part-time student?

Yes, you can study either as a full-time or part-time student.

Can I start a research degree at any point in the year?

Yes, we consider applications for research degrees all year round, and you can be registered as a research student from the start of any term (October, January, April). However, if you are first pursuing an MRes programme, then that can only be started in October each year.

What are the entrance requirements for a research degree?

The minimum entry qualification is normally a Masters or upper second class honours degree in Computer Science from a UK university or an equivalent international qualification. However, your academic qualification is only one factor taken into account when considering a research application. We would also want to consider your wider relevant background and experience and also the views of referees who have knowledge of your previous studies and are able to comment on your potential to be successful on a research degree.

Most importantly, we will want to consider your research interests and your ideas on a research project you would like to pursue. We would also need to identify potential supervisors who have expertise in your area of research interest and who are able to consider supervising a new research student. Potential supervisors would then discuss your ideas on possible research with you at an interview.

I have an academic qualification from a non-UK institution. Is that OK?

The College will assess your qualifications to check their equivalence with UK qualifications - please submit photocopies of your degree transcript documents with your application. There is more advice on how to check the general equivalence of your qualifications here.

English is not my first language. Are there special requirements for me?

The College has the following guidelines on English language requirements. However, we are happy to consider an application from you if you do not currently hold an English qualification - we would assess your command of English at interview in any case.

I'm thinking of applying from overseas. Does that make a difference to anything?

We welcome applications from international students. Your application would be considered in exactly the same way as for a student in the UK. We would still want to interview you before considering the offer of a place, but this can be done over the telephone or through Skype.

The tuition fees charged do depend on your nationality and residency over the past three years: see the information on tuition fees for international students. Also, you will need to budget for additional expenses to cover your living costs.

Can you tell me if I will be offered a place if I give you details of my first degree and CV?

No. We would only be able to tell you whether we wanted to pursue offering you a place once we had considered a formal application from you with referees' reports, your CV and outline research proposal and discussed this with you at interview.

What areas of research supervision are supported?

Members of staff supervise research students in a wide range of topics in Computer Science and Information Systems with interests ranging from formal foundations to applications in challenging real-world scenarios.

Some areas of research which match the expertise and interests of staff include:

This work is carried out within three main research groups in the Department: Algorithms, Verification and Software, Knowledge Representation and Data Management and Experimental Data Science, as well as two main interdisciplinary activities: Birkbeck Institute for Data Analytics which researches methods for the acquisition, management, analysis and interpretation of data, and the Birkbeck Knowledge Lab which brings together computer scientists from Birkbeck and experts in education, psychology, language, museum studies, cultural heritage, information systems and organisational psychology to explore the ways in which digital technologies and digital information are transforming our learning, working and cultural lives. In addition, there are informal interest groups which emerge and evolve over time within and between the main research groups, for example in search engine technology, sensor networks, semantic web, computer vision, cluster analysis, neural networks and deep learning, adaptive systems and learning technologies.

How can I find out more about a suitable research area for me to pursue?

Detailed information about the Department's research can be found here. In particular, you will find information about the research interests of members of each research group and projects which they are already working on. You might like to read about this current work to see whether any topics being pursued are related to your own areas of interest. In identifying a suitable research area, the most important thing is that it is an area which is of great interest to you and you are motivated to tackle very challenging problems in that area. Some of the research topics pursued by recent PhD students can be seen here.

Potential applicants are welcome to contact academic staff about their research before making a formal application. The Research Admissions Tutor, Professor George Magoulas, can also be contacted with general enquiries about research activities.

What time do I need to devote to a research degree?

Unlike a student on a taught programme with timetabled lectures and seminars and specific exercises to be completed, as a research student you would agree an individual research plan and timetable with your supervisors.

Some students choose to work set times each day; others choose to work more intensively on some days depending on the particular task being pursued. As a research student, you have the freedom to organise your working pattern to be the one which is most effective for you to produce high quality work research work in as timely a fashion as possible.

As a full-time research student you can expect to work the same number of hours in a week as you would in a full-time job. As a part-time research student, the time you devote to research work will depend on the constraints of your job or other commitments: some part-time research students are able to work on their research during the same periods each week, for example on particular evenings or times at the weekend. Others have commitments which do not enable such a fixed pattern. For them, research work is pursued more intensively in some periods than others depending on their job or other responsibilities. If you are thinking of pursuing a part-time research degree, it is important to plan how the research work can be combined with job demands and other responsibilites: this is something we would discuss at interview.

How long does it take to complete a research degree?

The period of full-time study for a PhD is normally 3 years, and for part-time study 6 years. For an MPhil it is normally 2 years full-time and 4 years part-time.

What computing facilities will I have access to as a research student?

Research students have dedicated areas within the Department and Birkbeck Knowledge Lab with PCs giving access to servers and GPU cluster running a wide range of software. Access to specialised software and facilities running outside Birkbeck can usually be arranged by your supervisors. The College provides remote access to facilities via an Internet connection from home or work. The computing facilities are available to students on a 24-hour basis, seven days a week. Further information about computing facilities.

Do I have to sit exams to get a research degree?

No. The examination is by thesis rather than by sitting examination papers. A research student writes a thesis describing the work undertaken and the results, and this is examined by independent examiners who first read the thesis in detail and then question the student in an oral "viva" examination.

While pursuing their research, students produce a yearly report detailing the progress made in that year and, at critical stages of their studies, a presentation. Progression to a subsequent year is dependent on satisfactory progress being made as explained in Section 2 of the description of the PhD programme.

What are the fees for the course?

The fees for the current academic year are shown here.

Some increase for subsequent years is to be expected.

"International" status is a question of residency rather than nationality; British nationals who have been abroad for some years may find themselves assessed at the international rate. If you are a prospective international student, or think you might be, consult the College information for international students.

Students may pay the fees at the beginning of each term, or by an initial payment followed by direct debit monthly payments over eight months.

What funding is available to help with fees and living expenses?

A small number of studentships covering fees are available in the Department each year. Demand for these is very high and early application is advised.

Overseas applicants can apply for an ORSAS/BIRS award to cover the difference between Home and Overseas Fees. The closing date for receiving ORSAS/BIRS applications is normally in late March.

There are also a very small number of bursaries to cover maintenance costs each year, and these can only be awarded to exceptional applicants. Early application for these is strongly recommended.

Other sources of funding are Research Assistant and Teaching Assistant posts. These posts are advertised here when available. RAs and TAs are able to register for research degrees as part-time students.

Further information about financial support for MPhil/PhD students.

Please contact the Research Administrator for details of current availability of studentships and bursaries.

A research degree sounds like a big commitment. Will I be able to cope?

It is a very big commitment and you need to be quite honest with yourself whether you are prepared and able to make that commitment. You certainly need to be strong academically to be a succesful research student and able to think of new solutions to challenging problems. As well as those skills though, you also need to be self-motivated, determined, and able to organise yourself to work on your chosen research problem. Choosing a problem which really interests you will help you work towards your goal. It is hard work, but when you do obtain your research degree and know you have developed a new contribution to a very challenging research problem, the sense of satisfaction is immense.

I'm looking at a number of universities. Why should I choose Birkbeck?

As a research student, perhaps the most important factor is being in a thriving research environment with guidance from supervisors who are experts in the field of research being pursued. The Department is a leading centre of expertise in information and knowledge management, intelligent systems and computational intelligence. In addition, its location, resources, and support facilities are just some of the reasons to be a research student at Birkbeck.

How do I make an application?

Applications can be made online from the College page on MPhil/PhD in Computer Science and Information Systems. Please include the following with your application:

In addition, international applicants must meet College's General English Language requirements.

What happens after I make an application?

Your application will first be considered by the College Registry who will check your eligibility and fee status. They will then pass the application to the Department where it will be considered by the Research Admissions Tutor and potential supervisors. The Admissions Tutor will contact you with news of the outcome. If we do have potential supervisors who would like to discuss your application in detail with you, we will arrange an interview.

I have a question not covered by the above.

If you require further information please contact the Research Administrator (tel: 020 7631 6729).