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Research Element

Research element overview

The topic of the project (and hence the choice of supervisor) should fall within the research interests of the groups within the Departments of the Schools of Physical Sciences, Technology and Biological Sciences. The project is supervised by a member of the research groups of the Departments of the School. To this end, the course Director will advise prospective students and liaise with the corresponding Departments at the application stage.

To gain examination credit for the research element (50% credit towards the degree), students have to submit by mid August a 15,000-word (maximum) dissertation on a substantial project of original research. The viva voce examination of the dissertation will take place during late August/early September, conducted by two assessors (an external assessor from another institution and an internal assessor, who cannot be the student’s supervisor or anyone closely associated with the supervision process) and carried out according to the relevant University regulations. The assessment of the projects is based on the candidate's understanding of the background literature, the commitment of the candidate to the project, the degree of originality shown in the research and the degree of rigour applied in justifying any conclusions.

In the interim period between submitting their dissertations and the viva voce examination, the students have to prepare a poster as if they were to present their research to a conference. The students have to give a 10 minute presentation of their poster at the start of their viva.

Students are expected to contact their supervisors on the Monday of the first week of Michaelmas Term, or soon as possible thereafter. During the first contact, the student will receive detailed information about the background of the project, the anticipated preparation procedure and schedule of the project and future meetings with the supervisor. At the same time the supervisor will recommend suitable core and elective courses.

Research project guidelines

Research Projects and potential supervisors

You may list one or more preferred supervisors on your application form, however this is not mandatory. If no supervisor is listed or your preferred supervisor is not available, we will do our best to assign you someone who is suitable to your background.

We do not need a specific research project to be outlined in the application form. If you are successful in your application, a research project will be agreed between you and your supervisor.

The research project title

Once a research project is agreed, the respective title will be registered with the Course Academic Committee as a ‘provisional working title’ for the student’s project. The provisional title can be changed to a ‘final title’ during the course of the project. At any time of the duration of the project, it is the students’ responsibility to inform the Course Director and the Course Administrator of changes in the title and subject of their project, in the form of a written statement, signed by their supervisor. Any unchanged provisional title will automatically receive the status ‘final title’.

Conduct of the research project

It is very important that the whole project is planned carefully and sufficient time allowed for each step of the research process, including writing up. During the course of their work, students may be expected to see their supervisors regularly (the frequency of the meetings depends partly on the nature of the dissertation selected) to receive feedback and advice on the design and implementation of their research projects and to receive critical comments on draft chapters of their dissertation.

It is the responsibility of students to make and maintain contact with their supervisors, to attend supervisions when requested to do so, and to keep demands on their supervisors reasonable. Supervisors cannot be expected to do the students’ work for them, or to respond instantly to requests for comments and advice. In particular students should agree dates for the completion of near final drafts so that time can be set aside in advance for reading and commenting on these.

It is the responsibility of supervisors to monitor their student’s work and ensure that it is progressing satisfactorily, to respond promptly to student’s requests for meetings, and to turn work around in a timely manner. A good relationship between students and supervisor is crucial to the success of the MPhil course and supervisors are asked to contact the Director of the course as a matter of urgency if they experience any problems in this respect.

Format of the research project dissertation

As per our Regulations in the Statutes & Ordinances,, the dissertation should be of not more than 15,000 words in length (including tables, figure legends, and appendices, but excluding bibliography). It should be printed legibly on A4 paper, using one side of the paper only, in 12-point type, one and a half or double spaced and with margins of at least 2 cm. The dissertation title page should bear, at the top of the page, the author’s name, the approved title of the dissertation and the degree for which it is submitted. The supervisor’s name should appear at the bottom right hand corner of the page. All submitted copies must be at least soft bound. Candidates should take particular care to ensure that the correct version of the text appears in each copy of a dissertation submitted, that the title corresponds to that approved by the Degree Committee, and that an identical copy is retained for reference. A dissertation must be a connected account of an MPhil student’s work, written by himself/herself.

The dissertation should contain a literature survey which may be partly based on the written assignments, but it is expected that the majority of the dissertation will deal with the research actually performed during the research period. The form in which the dissertation is presented and the care with which it has been prepared and illustrated are in themselves evidence of the candidate’s capabilities and will receive consideration as such. Apart from quotations (where appropriate) and recognised technical formulae, theses must be written in English and candidates are expected to show a reasonable command of the English language, to use a spellcheck facility, and to check their work carefully before submission. In submitting a dissertation, each candidate must state, generally in a preface and specifically in notes or in a bibliography, the sources from which his or her information is derived, the extent to which the candidate has availed himself or herself of the work of others, and the portions of the dissertation which the student claims as his or her own original work. The following declaration of originality should appear on the page following the title page:

“This dissertation is substantially my own work and conforms to the University of Cambridge’s guidelines on plagiarism. Where reference has been made to other research this is acknowledged in the text and bibliography.”

In response to growing concerns over plagiarism in all University courses, each piece of submitted work must be accompanied by a standard cover sheet, including a signed declaration to the effect that the work is the student’s own unaided effort and meets the University’s guidelines and regulations on plagiarism which are outlined in Appendix C: Regulations on plagiarism.

Submission of the research project dissertation

The submission deadline for dissertation is 23 August 2019 and any candidate who fails to meet this deadline without advance permission from the Course Directors will normally be awarded no marks for the research project and will fail the entire MPhil degree. Permission to defer submission will be granted only in exceptional cases, and candidates are asked to note in particular that computer-related problems will not normally be considered as grounds for deferral. Any application to defer submission must be made in writing to the Course Director in advance of the deadline and must be accompanied by supporting letters from the candidate’s College Tutor and Supervisor. Except in the case of genuinely unforeseeable emergencies, applications to defer submission will only be considered if they are received at least one week before the deadline.

Each candidate is required to submit two soft-bound copies of the dissertation, together with a completed Certificate of Dissertation Submission, and one electronic version.


In the interim period between submitting their dissertation and the viva voce examination, the students have to prepare a poster as if they were to present their research to a conference. The students have to give a 10 minute presentation of their poster at the start of their viva.  Poster files are to be submitted to the CSC Admin office at least 2 days before the students' viva, so they can be printed on A2 portrait style.


Dissertation and Viva

Marking and feedback of the research project dissertation

All dissertations are marked independently by two project assessors, and assessed by viva voce examination between the student and both assessors. The examination will take place in late August/early September (exact date to be arranged). In the case of a significant difference of opinion between the two assessors, or in the case of a borderline mark (i.e. pass/fail) the assessors will usually ask for a third, independent report. The mark given for a dissertation is then determined by the assessors on the basis of all the marks received and, where appropriate, of their own readings of the dissertation. The dissertation reports will be released to candidates in due time.

The primary purpose of the viva voce examination is to assess the student’s depth of understanding of the subject area and interpretation of the results obtained. If a student is unable to explain the concepts or thinking underlying the text of the dissertation, the mark awarded for the research project is likely to be substantially reduced.

Criteria for the Marking of Dissertations and Viva Voce Examinations

In their dissertation and viva, the student should demonstrate the following:

  1. An awareness of the basic background science underlying their project work and an awareness and critical understanding of the literature which is relevant to their project work, particularly where that literature may impact on their analysis of data or their conclusions.
  2. An understanding of the computational techniques they have employed, including the limitations of those techniques and how these limitations might impact on their understanding or analysis of their data.
  3. An ability to accurately describe and interpret computational results.
  4. An awareness of errors and ambiguities arising in computational techniques, and, where appropriate, an ability to quantify those errors.
  5. An ability to draw convincing conclusions based on the evidence presented.
  6. An ability to present their findings appropriately. This should include:
  • Providing a clear outline of the research problem and/or the goals of the research undertaken.
  • Writing a well-structured, concise dissertation of appropriate length.
  • Choosing appropriate illustrations and presenting them clearly with suitable annotations and legends.
  • Selecting references carefully, and presenting them in a consistent and appropriate form.

Additionally, the assessor is asked to assess to what extent the project work makes a fair contribution to the subject, and if it contains elements of originality. To pass the research project component of the MPhil course, the student should broadly meet criteria 1 - 6 described above. To achieve a "Distinction" the student should fully meet all criteria. Additionally, to achieve a "Distinction", the research presented should represent a genuine and useful original contribution to the field of study, and the dissertation as a whole should approach the quality expected of reports in reputable scientific journals.

Notes for the Viva Voce Examinations

Viva voce examinations normally take place in the last week of August/first two weeks of September, on dates arranged by the Course Administrator on the basis of the availability of external and internal assessors. The examination lasts for about 1.5 hours, during which the student and two assessors discuss the project work in a closed session (no one else is admitted).

The purpose of a viva voce examination is to:

  • check that the dissertation is the candidate's own work.
  • confirm that the candidate understands what he or she has written.
  • investigate the candidate's awareness of where his or her original work sits in relation to the wider research field.
  • provide the candidate with an opportunity to justify their arguments and conclusions.
  • establish whether the dissertation is of sufficiently high standard to merit the award of the MPhil degree.

All viva voce examinations are different. The assessors will have read your dissertation in detail, and can choose to ask you about any aspect of your written work, or the background science theory which relates directly to your dissertation. (We would not expect questions to be asked about background science or theory which is unrelated to the dissertation.) However, various types of questions are quite common. For instance:

  • At the beginning of the viva, you may be asked to summarise your dissertation, or describe the main achievements of your project work.
  • You will probably be asked some questions about the background science theory in your introduction. These questions may require depth or breadth of thinking about these topics, rather than a simple factual response.
  • You will probably be asked some questions about the methods or techniques you have used. The assessors may want to check that you have understood the technique properly, as a way of confirming that you actually did the work described in the dissertation yourself. They may also want to check that you have understood any limitations of the techniques you have used, and any sources of error.
  • You may also be asked questions about any quantitative analysis you have done. The assessors may want to check that you have understood the quantification procedure, rather than, for example, just pressing buttons on some software, with no understanding of what the software does to your data.
  • The assessors may ask you to justify elements of your discussion and conclusion, or to look at your data from an alternative viewpoint, and consider whether this alternative viewpoint impacts on the validity of your conclusions.

The assessors won't expect you to have an instant answer to every question they ask. It is fine to take some time to think about the question, or to ask for clarification. If you really have no idea how to answer a question, then you can tell the assessors this. They will usually be willing to give you some hints to help you think about their question. Occasionally, the assessors may even misunderstand an element of your dissertation, and if you think this has happened, so that the questions you are being asked appear to be addressing topics which are not relevant to your dissertation, you may wish to politely ask the assessors to explain the relevance of their questions.

The assessors are trying to give you an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge, not to catch you out. If you have worked hard on your project and written it up carefully, the viva should be an enjoyable experience, since it gives you the opportunity to talk in detail about the work you have done, and perhaps discuss some new ideas arising from that work.