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Information for graduate students

Introductory Information for Graduate Students - October 2018

Welcome to the Department of Biochemistry.  This document aims to give you some information explaining the arrangements for graduate training in the Department.

Progress through your PhD

The outline programme for progression through your PhD is shown schematically below.  If you are one of the small group of people starting later than October, note that you will participate in the various events at the same time of year as the other students, but you will have to give your 2nd year poster and 3rd year symposium presentations relatively earlier than the other students.


Year 1

Year 2

Year 3

Year 4


Research Techniques Course




Thesis planning/writing and submission; 3.5 year funded students


1st Year Seminars














Research Project

Department and Group research seminars and presentations, journal clubs, Graduate School courses, etc.


Thesis planning/writing and submission; 4 year funded students





Thesis planning/writing and submission


1st Year Assessment














2nd Year Poster Session

3rd Year Symposium

We currently run studentships funded for 3, 3.5 or 4 years.  In an ideal world, we would like all students to submit their PhD theses at the end of the third year, and you should aim for this, but we realise that some students with 3.5 or 4 yr funding need additional time to complete their experimental work and write their theses if, for example, that have done lab rotations or PIPS (see later). It is important that you organise your time to ensure that you submit your thesis within 3.5 or 4 years.  The additional funding allowance should be viewed more as a financial safety net and not an encouragement to consume all of that time doing experimental work

While the majority of your time will be spent within your research group, there are many other activities in which you are expected to participate.  We aim to provide an all-round training in research, including the public dissemination of research data. 

Research Technique Course - “Postgraduate Course in Biochemistry” - Michaelmas Term

This series of lectures covers a variety of experimental techniques used in biochemistry and molecular biology. The aim is to familiarize you with a wide range of techniques extending well beyond those that you will immediately encounter in your own research project.  Lectures will be held in the Perham Seminar Room, Sanger Building. Students have to attend all lectures, 3 practicals and all 3 workshops.  All PhD students attend the same programme, regardless of 3, 3.5 or 4 year funding.  You will find a copy of the full programme in your induction pack.  Plans are in progress to introduce further training in the second and third year of the PhD course.  Details will be issued later in the year.

First Year Research Seminars - Lent Terms & Easter Terms - Wednesday, 5.00 pm

These are held on Wednesdays at 5.00 pm during January to April each year and are organised by Dr Tony Jackson.  The audience is comprised of the first-year graduate students and some group leaders.  Each week two (occasionally three) students give a presentation of around 20 minutes duration about the project that they are about to embark upon.  These compulsory seminars are relatively informal – with the aim of fostering an atmosphere in which there can be an interactive discussion and a question/answer session after each presentation. 

First-Year Assessment

You must perform satisfactorily in the First Year Assessment (a formal examination at the end of your first year) in order to be registered for a PhD.  This takes the form of a report/dissertation of about 5000 words and an oral examination which will assess your abilities and aptitude for research and the viability of your project. Comments on your progress and competence will be also solicited from your Supervisor (and GTP; see below). If insufficient progress has been made and there are significant concerns that you are not likely to be able to bring a PhD study to successful completion, then you may be asked to leave or work towards an MPhil or CPGS (Certificate of Postgraduate Studies) as an alternative qualification.

The Graduate Thesis Panel (GTP) Scheme

The aims of the GTP scheme are to provide enhanced mentorship and advice for students, and to provide an independent assessment of student progress to supplement the views of the Supervisor. The membership of the GTP is student-driven, and staff will be invited, by you, to join your GTP after you have consulted your Supervisor. You will present up to two talks per year on your project to your GTP, which will consist of three academics, one of which is your advisor. In the first year, these presentations will be held towards the end of Michaelmas term and in Lent term.  The panel discusses your progress independently with the Supervisor, or via a written Supervisor report, prior to the presentation.  After the presentation and a Q&A session, the GTP gives feedback about your progress and the nature and direction of the project.

All second and third year PhD students are expected to arrange at least one meeting with their GTP, preferably in Lent term.  However, 4th year students are encouraged to have a meeting with their GTP during that final year because the panel may be able to provide advice that will help the student in thesis compilation.

Second-Year Poster Presentation

Towards the end of second year, students give a presentation in the form of a poster.  The posters are displayed at the postgraduate symposium with specific times when students will present them. The posters should be an up-to-date account of the individual's research project in a format accessible to the non-specialist.  In preparation for this session, students should attend the Graduate School course on poster presentations.  The poster should also be used as an opportunity for you and your Supervisor to review progress towards completion within 3-4 years.  It is expected that the posters will be reviewed by the Advisor and the Examiner from the first-year review and some feedback will be given by one or both reviewers.  Furthermore, members of the student’s GTP may also review the poster and offer some verbal feedback. In addition, anyone in the Department may view the posters and so comments may also be provided by other academic staff. 

Third Year Oral Presentation

Third year students each give a short talk in the postgraduate symposium that will be towards the end of September.  There is mandatory attendance by ALL graduate students (1st year to 4th year) at the symposium and for the duration of the whole symposium.  We expect most of the staff to attend this meeting, and indeed many other members of the Department also attend. More details will be circulated later.

Working Practices

Expectations of acceptable hours of work vary between labs and projects, and you should discuss this with your Supervisor, early on in your project.  As a very rough guide, the equivalent of a solid 5-day 9.00 am to 5.00 pm week, is the absolute minimally sufficient time to devote to your work (and this assumes that you work constantly, and efficiently, with only short breaks for lunch etc.).  You will find that many of your colleagues are highly motivated by their research and routinely extend their working time into evenings and some weekends.  This kind of work pattern does not suit everyone, all the time, but you will need to settle rapidly into an effective work routine if you are to complete on time.  You should also take the initiative and, along with your Supervisor, regularly review your progress towards completion.  

Graduate School

The Department of Biochemistry is part of the Graduate School of Life Sciences.  The Graduate School provides training courses, and various other services and information for graduate students.  The Graduate School web page contains a wealth of useful information on scientific, careers and social issues:

Core Skills Training Programme

The Graduate School of Life Sciences (GSLS) has developed a Core Skills Training Programme (CSTP), which you are strongly recommended to complete in your first year.  Completing the CSTP will ensure that you are informed of the range of RD opportunities available in Cambridge and provide the foundational skills in personal effectiveness and scientific communication that are essential for progression.

You will be enrolled onto the CSTP Introductory Moodle in early October, which can be accessed from your dashboard at with your Raven login. This will provide you with all the information you need about the components of the CSTP. The first is the online Skills Analysis Survey, which introduces you to the CamRDF, helps you identify your training needs, and allows you to create a personal development plan. The other components will be available from November and you will receive regular updates by email.  More detailed information about this programme is included in your induction pack.

Additional Notes for MPhil Students

Students pursuing a 1-year MPhil in Biological Sciences are generally grouped together with first year PhD students.  However, there are some differences in the arrangements. 

Advisors and GTP

An individual Advisor will be appointed for each MPhil student.  Students will be informed when they have been assigned to a specific Advisor.  MPhil students will also be expected to organise a GTP, but unlike PhD students, the time line for MPhil students during the ~10-11 months they are conducting research work and writing a thesis is very tight, so their GTP need only meet once in the year (late Michaelmas or early Lent term).

Lectures on Biochemistry Research Techniques

Given the time pressures on MPhil students, they do not need to attend the full course, but are welcome to if they wish and would likely find it beneficial. MPhil students who subsequently remain in the Department for their PhD, would be required to complete the full course the following year.  A detailed programme is included in your induction pack.  

Other Seminars and Lectures

Group Meetings 

Most research groups run their own weekly laboratory meetings and journal clubs.  You should get plenty of practice at talking about your own experimental work and analysing published papers at these meetings.  Some groups also expect students to write reports on a regular basis (e.g. monthly) for their Supervisor.

Research Seminars

There are many opportunities in Cambridge to hear prominent visiting speakers talking about their research.  The Department has a series of seminars given by distinguished visiting speakers on Tuesday lunchtimes through the Michaelmas (autumn), Lent (winter) and Easter terms, although formats may be modified depending on whether external or internal speakers are involved.  There is a very strong departmental expectation that graduate students will attend all of the Departmental seminar series to broaden their scientific knowledge.  In addition to the departmental seminar programme, many of the neighbouring Departments (Gurdon Institute of Cancer Research & Developmental Biology, Stem Cell Institute, Pharmacology, Pathology, Anatomy, Genetics, Plant Sciences, Zoology, Physiology etc.) plus departments in the Medical school, Vet school, and physical sciences (such as Chemistry) also have seminars that may be of interest to you.  So, in addition to the Departmental series, you could attend many seminars in Cambridge – one of the reasons why it is an excellent place to be a scientist!  However, the number of seminars you attend outside the department has to be balanced with your other time demands.  Variations of the following excuses for not attending research seminars are sometimes heard: “I didn’t go because it wasn’t relevant to my work”.  Or “I don’t have the time”.  Neither of these is a legitimate reason.  If you only go to talks on subjects you already know about, you’ll never learn anything new.  Specialising on a research topic doesn’t mean you need to become narrow-minded.  You’re far more likely to bring new ideas to your own area of research if you’re aware of what is happening in other fields. One of the key parts of training to become a research scientist is learning the process of time management – a key transferable skill.  So, fitting your research work around the departmental seminar programme is just one example of that.

Training Courses

In addition to the Research Techniques Course run by this Department there are many other training courses available within the University (see You should identify any courses or lectures that could be helpful to you.  You should discuss this with your Supervisor early in the first term.  Some of the courses may be more suitable for your second and third year (e.g. careers, thesis writing), so continue to keep an eye open for useful courses.

Further information on graduate student training support advice and career development opportunities can be found at the Vitae website:

All students are advised to keep a record of the training courses they attend which are not part of the Core Skills Training Programme. 

Undergraduate Lectures

Members of the University may attend any Undergraduate lecture in any subject, but some courses require permission of the lecturer involved.  All lectures are listed in a special issue of the Reporter in October.  The Reporter is the weekly University publication, available online at:

Details of the Part II and Part III lectures for Biochemistry students are given at:


You each have a Supervisor - the member of staff in whose laboratory you will carry out your research.  Your Supervisor will be the most important person for providing guidance and advice throughout the course of your project.  However, it is useful to have another member of department with whom you can discuss the progress of your project, or any problems you may be having in the Department.  For this purpose, currently all graduate students are allocated an “Advisor”.  The Advisor is a member of staff, who may have some expertise in the general field in which you are working, but who is not usually part of the same research group. 

The role of the Advisor is to allow independent monitoring and mentorship of your progress, to provide general advice, and to serve as a first port-of-call if you encounter some problems (see below).  We expect 1st year PhD students to meet with their Advisor at least twice in their 1st year (in the Michaelmas term and Lent term).  Currently, it is up to you to arrange meetings with your Advisor.  A good time for a first official meeting is after ~4-6 weeks, when you should have a good idea of the project that you are working on.  You should prepare a very short research proposal (based upon your discussions with your Supervisor) before your first meeting with your Advisor, and a brief progress report may be helpful prior to each subsequent meeting. Alternatively, a recent lab talk would suffice.  You can of course approach your Advisor at any time, should the need arise.  Your Advisor will usually also serve as one of the two assessors of your First Year Report (see below) and be one of the members of your GTP.  

Holiday Entitlement

The following rules apply regarding holiday entitlement:

a)  Full-time graduate students can take short breaks for holidays (normally not more than 2-3 weeks at a time, and up to a maximum of 8 weeks in total). The holiday is not transferable to another year and has to be agreed by the Supervisor on the understanding that it will not interfere with any (e.g. 1st year PhD) assessment procedures established in the Department or have deleterious impacts on the progress of your research project.  The Department also needs to be made aware of the start and finish dates of the holiday.

b)  Periods of holiday should not be used for absences which would be covered by procedures for intermission or working away from Cambridge.

PLEASE NOTE that full-time graduate students are expected to devote around 40 hours per week to their course of research for the full duration of the course.  (N.B. the academic year for graduate students runs from 1 October to 30 September, the vacations apply to undergraduate students only).


From time to time problems can arise between a student and his/her Supervisor.  It is always best to deal with these sooner, rather than later.  One way is to arrange a meeting with your Supervisor where you can air any such problems.  If this does not seem a suitable option there are various other people who may be able to help - including your Advisor, one or more members of your GTP, student reps, the Chair or other academic members of the PGC, and/or your college Graduate Tutor (as part of your College pastoral support system).  The university also provides various support systems involving personal counselling services and medical/psychiatric support.  

The key point is to deal with problems at the earliest opportunity before they become serious or degenerate into a crisis!

Opportunities for Teaching

You will have the opportunity to gain experience of teaching both in small groups (supervising) and /or in the Teaching Laboratory (demonstrating).  However, it is essential that you consult your Supervisor and get his/her advice and agreement before you agree to take on any teaching (demonstrating or supervisions). Training courses are available on teaching undergraduates:

Laboratory Demonstrating  

The Department runs a number of undergraduate courses that have a practical component.  For most of the practicals the senior demonstrator (a member of academic staff) will need a number of demonstrators to assist the students.  Depending on the course, this may involve demonstrating for a single practical (usually 3-6 h/day for 5 days) or multiple practicals for one or two terms.  One of the teaching laboratory technicians usually contacts all postdocs and graduate students in the Department to recruit demonstrators for the first year practicals. 


The college supervision system in Cambridge involves small group teaching to build upon and reinforce the material covered in the lecture courses.  Supervising also involves weekly setting and marking of written work and sometimes college exams. It can be very rewarding but it does require considerable time management (and the agreement of your Supervisor) to take this on without it having a deleterious impact on your research. College Directors of Studies (DoS) are responsible for finding Supervisors so the relevant DoS in your college is probably the best person to approach.

Travel funds - The Sanger Fund and The Perham Fund

Many of you will have some funds associated with your studentships to enable you to travel to scientific meetings and conferences.  For those who do not have these funds, the Department may be able to offer some financial support.  However, due to the very limited nature of the funds, they can usually only provide a small contribution, and second or third year students have priority.  The deadlines for applications are 1December and 1March. Christine Thulborn will circulate an email to all eligible students before this. Your chances of getting some funding from the Sanger and Perham Funds will be enhanced if you have shown some initiative in applying for other sources of funding too, such as a Learned Society (see below).

Membership of Societies

There are several professional societies that offer discounted membership to students.  These offer various benefits, often including the opportunity to apply for travel grants to support attendance at both domestic and international conferences.  There is sometimes a minimum qualifying period of membership before you are able to apply for these grants, but this depends very much on the rules of each learned society.  In general terms, it is very much in your interest to join your chosen societies as soon as possible in the first year of your PhD studies and you are very strongly encouraged to do this soon.  

Biochemical Society:  

Benefits include:

• free registration at Biochemical Society meetings

• free or reduced registration fees at 13 other societies' meetings

• student travel grants (up to £100 after 1 years membership)

• 6 copies of The Biochemist each year

• careers conferences

• bursaries

Details of some related professional life sciences societies (e.g. cell biology, genetics, developmental biology, biophysics, microbiology, applied microbiology, plant pathology, antimicrobial chemotherapy etc.) can be found at the relevant page on the Society for Biology website, so please make sure you check these:   

Many of these learned societies offer similar benefits to students as those offered by the Biochemical Society.  Indeed, some societies can be even more generous to PhD students, especially in covering the costs involved in attending both domestic and international scientific meetings.  For example, some microbiology-related societies are extremely generous to graduate students and so you should sign up to any of the most relevant societies early in your first year, to get the biggest benefit from membership.

e.g. see:

The Cambridge Philosophical Society stages a number of lectures and meetings through the year and is also a source of small grants (e.g. for travel to meetings).  Information is usually available through the Colleges.  Note that many benefits of membership can only be obtained if you join very shortly after arriving in Cambridge!  It is therefore very strongly recommended that you join the Philosophical Society early in your first year.

Finally, your College will have funds to help you attend scientific meetings in the UK or overseas.  The nature and availability of funding varies from College to College, so see your College for information.

October 2018