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MPhil/PhD in Computer Science and Information Systems

Programme Overview

The Department provides facilities for students to pursue programmes of research leading to the MPhil and PhD degrees of the University of London, by both full-time and part-time study. There are two dedicated research labs in the department and a seminar/meeting room for researchers. Part-time PhD students have the use of a number of hot desks with computing facilities. The computer facilities include high performance/throughput computer clusters.

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PhD Supervision

A PhD student will have two supervisors, a first and second supervisor. We envisage two possible types of supervision, of which the first will be the norm:

Main and secondary supervisors

One of the supervisors is the main supervisor and the other the secondary one. In this case most of the interaction will be between the main supervisor and the student. The level of interaction of a full-time student with the main supervisor will be on average once a week, and of a part-time student once every couple of weeks.

With part-time students, it is possible that on occasion, email interaction could replace physical interaction. It is noted that we would like to maintain as much flexibility as possible with part-time students and therefore it is possible that the interaction pattern will be low at some times and high at others.

The role of the secondary supervisor is to provide the student with additional feedback and guidance. Interaction with the second supervisor will be driven by request either from the supervisor or the student. The second supervisor will also provide backup in cases when the first supervisor is absent from the Department.

Joint supervision

In this case the roles of the two supervisors are equal. It is especially important in such cases that there is a clear understanding of the individual roles of each supervisor and that there is good coordination between the supervisors regarding the subject area researched. The level of interaction of a full-time student with each of their supervisors will be at least once every couple of weeks. For part-time students the level of interaction will be once a month with each supervisor, with email interaction to replace, on occasion, physical interaction.

Prior to starting the degree it is the responsibility of the supervisors that the student fully understands their respective supervisory roles.

Taught Modules

Depending on their prior qualifications, PhD students may be required to undertake and pass up to three taught modules delivered by the Department. Normally, the modules will be taken in the first year for full-time students and in the first and second year for part-time students, and will need to be passed at the Merit level (60%). Passing the required taught modules will be one of the criteria for the student's progression to the next stage.

Research Plan and Initial Research Project

In consultation with their supervisor(s), PhD students should complete the Research Plan form available here: Word Doc / PDF within the first three months for full-time students and first six months for part-time students. The agreed Research Plan should be submitted to the Director of Research. As part of their Research Plan, students will be required to undertake an Initial Research Project. The aim of the Initial Research Project will be to produce a detailed review of the relevant research areas, identify concrete research problems to be investigated, demonstrate the student's ability to conduct independent research and possibly produce new theoretical results and/or prototype software. The results of the Initial Research Project should be be reported within the Stage 1 Report and Presentation (see Section 5 below for details).

PhD Monitoring

The following completion times should be taken as guidelines:

  • For full-time students - three years plus at most one year for writing up. We strongly encourage full-time students to complete their studies before their funding runs out.
  • For part-time students - normally, five years plus at most two years for writing up. We are more flexible with part-time students taking special circumstances into account.

For the purpose of monitoring the student's progress the student will have to produce a yearly report and, at a critical stage of their studies, a presentation; see Section 3 for the detailed structure of these. The monitoring will be overseen by a review committee of three to four academic staff, which will include the student's two supervisors. The committee will be appointed for each particular student at the outset of their studies by the Research Admissions Tutor and the Research Tutor in consultation with the supervisors. The progress reports will govern progression of students to subsequent years of study, which will be approved by the Department Research Committee. The second report will determine the transfer from MPhil to PhD for full-time students. For part-time students the transfer will be determined by their third report. The review committee will also consider the rarer cases where the student is considering submitting a thesis for an MPhil degree.

Both full-time and part-time students will submit their first progress report to their review committee at 9 months. Full-time students will give an oral presentation together with their first and second progress reports at 9 and 18 months, and part-time students will give an oral presentation together with their second and third progress report at 21 and 33 months. Thereafter there will be annual reviews of all students, both part-time and full-time, which will normally take place in June. Students will be required to submit a short progress report, showing their achievements to date and how this is leading towards a PhD. In all cases students should present a detailed work plan for the next year. They should indicate their plans for completion and submission of the thesis by the end of the 4th year at the latest for full-time students, and by the end of the 6th year at the latest for part-time students; see Section 3 for more details. It is the responsibility of the supervisors to coordinate with their students the delivery to the review committee of the progress reports, and to schedule presentations when applicable, so that students' progress can be discussed by the Department Research Committee by late June.

The progression reviews are not a formality. If the student does not meet the required standard for a PhD then the review committee may consider the student as a candidate for an MPhil degree or alternatively consider terminating their registration. The main aim of the PhD transfer review is to establish that the contribution the student is making is likely to lead to a PhD, and to put in place a realistic plan for the remaining part of the PhD.

The review committee will also look at students' publications, which are important in terms of getting external feedback on the research, establishing the contribution of the research, getting practice in presenting the work and the opportunity to meet other researchers in the field by conference or workshop attendance. In most cases we would expect a student to publish at least two papers prior to submitting the thesis; these could be either conference or journal publications.

The following timetable shows the various stages of the PhD monitoring (pres. is a shorthand for presentation).

Stage Deliverables Part-Time Full-Time
0 report only 9 months N/A
1 report+pres. 21 months 9 months
2 report+pres. 33 months 18 months
3 report only June each yr June each yr


Structure of the Presentations and Progress Reports

Stage 0 - Report

The key points that the part-time student should aim to get across at stage 0 are:

  1. What is the research area the student is investigating.
  2. Preliminary review of the state of the art in the chosen field of study.
  3. Work achieved so far and likely contribution.
  4. Programme of work on the PhD as a whole, and of the next year of study in more detail.

Stage 1 and 2 - Presentation and Report

The key points that students, part-time and full-time, should get across at stage 1 are:

  1. What is the research area the student is investigating.
  2. What are the open problems in the area that could be tackled.
  3. What has the student achieved so far; this should include at least a critical survey of the state of the art in the chosen field of study and preliminary original research being carried out.
  4. What does the student expect to achieve during the next year of study and how will these goals be realised.

The key points that students, part-time and full-time, should get across at stage 2, which determines the transfer from MPhil to PhD, are:

  1. What is the contribution the student is making to the chosen field of study and justification why the contribution will lead to a PhD.
  2. How does the contribution fit into the bigger picture regarding the chosen area of research.
  3. Comprehensive and up-to-date critical review of the literature relevant to the thesis.
  4. Preliminary table of contents for the thesis.
  5. Detailed plan for the following year of study.

In both cases the oral presentation should reflect the material in the submitted report, as indicated above. The presentations to the review committee should take approximately 20 minutes, and will be followed by a short discussion.

Stage 3 - Subsequent Reports

The key points that the part-time student should aim to get across at stage 3 reports are:

  1. Where they stand in terms of the goals that were set the year before.
  2. What contribution is being made towards the PhD and what research needs to be done to complete the contribution.
  3. Achievements to date including, software developed and/or publications during the past year.
  4. Refinement of the table of contents of the thesis.
  5. Detailed work plan for the next year.

Additional Comments

For stages 0 to 2 the reports should be between 10 to 15 A4 pages, and from stage 3 onwards the reports should be between 5 to 10 A4 pages. In addition to the specific points for each stage, they should address the following issues:

  1. Participation in conferences, workshops, seminars and other activities related to the PhD work.
  2. The supervision, provision of resources, administrative and othe relevant matters.
  3. Self-assessment of the student's progress.

The review committee will also look at the logical organisation and style of the report. The review committee will produce a short written report on the outcome of the progress review. This will be discussed between the student and their supervisor, and the student will have the opportunity to add their written comments.

Other Issues

Full-time research students are expected to attend the Department's Research Seminar Series, and part-time students are highly encouraged to attend.

Full-time students are expected to support the Department's taught courses for at most 5 hours per week, as part of their training. This will normally involve lab supervision, tutorial help and marking of coursework, and will be remunerated at the current College rate.

Research students must have an active and up to date web page, within the Department's web site. The web page should include at least: contact details, a description of their area of research, and a publications list.

The Research Tutor will meet all new research students as part of the induction session. This will be followed by a reception to allow staff and students to get to know each other.

A yearly questionnaire will be made available to students to get their feedback on their supervision and other issues such a learning resources and training.

Students who are experiencing problems that cannot be resolved with their supervisors should discuss these with the research tutor.

Staff-student meetings will be organised by the Research Tutor once a term.

PhD students are required to attend the Department's research methods course, normally in their first year of study.

PhD students will also be encouraged to attend generic research training courses, as appropriate.

When appropriate the Department will endeavour to support student's attendance at conferences. An application for such support must be handed in to the first supervisor and will be decided the Head of Department.

The Department will supply students with the appropriate computer hardware and software, as identified at the outset of their studies. Applications for any further hardware/software must made to the first supervisor and will be decided by the Systems Manager and the Head of Department.

Entry requirements

The minimum entry qualification is normally a Masters or upper second class honours degree in Computer Science. The MRes in Computer Science programme also provides the necessary foundations for continuing into the MPhil/PhD programme.


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. Students wishing to pursue a PhD degree are first registered for an MPhil or, if appropriate, the MRes. The first 9 months of study (18 months for part-time students) are spent on training in research methods, background research, developing experimental software and exploring possible research directions. After this initial period, a work programme for the remaining period of study is formulated together with supervisors which will lead to a proposed thesis topic. If during the subsequent phase it seems likely that the thesis will contain significant original work, the registration is transferred from MPhil to that of PhD. This normally happens after about 18 months of full-time study (33 months for part-time students).

A significant proportion of current research students in the Department are part-time. Part-time research students benefit from the same access to academic staff and computing facilities in the evening as full-time students do during the day.

How to apply

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

  • a detailed, up-to-date CV
  • a short statement of about one A4 page, stating why you wish to pursue a research degree at Birkbeck and indicating your areas of research interest
  • a research proposal of about 1,000 words (we are happy to consider longer proposals) outlining the research topic that you wish to pursue during your study. You might like to look at our webpages for information about current research activities within the Department and this page for a list of topics of particular interest to specific members of staff (in which case, your porposal should provide a response to the research questions raised).
  • academic transcripts of previous studies.

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

Given that this is a research programme, we do consider an applicant's proposed area of research when considering an application. Our admission process includes an interview that is conducted by at least two members of staff, including the potential supervisor of the PhD student, to discuss about the proposed research. We are, thus, unablle to process applications without a research proposal. The only exception is applications that relate to a specific research project, such as projects funded by industry, or R&D funding agencies (national or international), where the research plan is already described.

In the last research evaluation of academic departments (Research Excellence Framework-REF 2014), almost all of the Department's research activity was judged as being of international significance. Specifically for research outputs, which include research published by our PhD students, 32% were judged as being world-leading (the highest possible category, placing us 11th out of 89 Computer Science departments in the UK) and 45.1% as internationally recognised.

Potential applicants are welcome to contact academic staff about their research before making a formal application. Information about the Department's research groups is here, and the research activities of individual staff can be found their personal web pages. The Research Admissions Tutor, Dr Andrea Calì, can also be contacted with general enquiries about research activities.

Funding Opportunities

The Department is currently recruiting for several combined PhD student/Graduate Teaching Assistant posts, which include a fee waiver and monthly salary. You can find more details of the post and how to apply here.

Moreover, a number of studentships covering fees are available in the Department each year. Demand for these is very high and early application is advised. Please refer to the College's pages on financial support for MPhil/PhD students for further information.

There are also a very small number of studentships 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 (RA) and Teaching Assistant (TA) posts.

These studentships and posts are advertised here when available. RAs and TAs are able to register for research degrees as part-time students.

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

Birkbeck Graduate Research School

The Birkbeck Graduate Research School offers support and training to Birkbeck's vibrant community of MPhil/PhD researchers. It encourages and nurtures the development of research across and between disciplines and helps postgraduate research students with their ongoing professional development. It also oversees the examination and awarding process for all MPhil/PhD degrees.