skip to primary navigationskip to content

Advice from students

Welcome to Cambridge and a warm welcome to the Department on behalf of last year's MPhils!

It has been an exciting year and we are reluctant to leave. In parting, we pass on some of our thoughts on the course. This is a mixture of advice, introduction, and welcome rally written by past students, who update the guide from year to year. Do come find us if you have questions, some of us are staying on for the PhD.

1. Schedule

Most people agree that there is an immense amount of writing to be done over the course of nine months, while trying to take in all that the Department has to offer.

Before you arrive and at the beginning of each term, make sure you are aware of the relevant deadlines for submitting work, and look over the schedule for the Department, which changes each term. The Department calendar is a handy shortcut to the month's events. Part II lectures can be a useful introduction to a new field, but some find the online schedule is tricky to navigate. The schedule of Part II lectures is also printed and posted in the Department. It's worth going to the first few sessions of topics you might be interested in, especially to pick up the reading lists, and learn more about the expertise of different members of the Department. Many students find the lectures interesting and helpful, and at the end of the year they often say they wished they had attended more.

The Lent Term is particularly busy; the time allotted for the third essay is shorter than the other two, which means you need to start working on Essay 3 before you have finished Essay 2. You also need to submit your dissertation topic form before you hand in Essay 3, which means there can be a rush to pin down a topic, supervisor and potential title by the deadline in late February.

While the staggered submission deadlines allow you to concentrate on each of the essays and the dissertation in turn, it is best to keep your next project in mind and to start some preliminary research even as you are still working on an earlier project. Especially for the dissertation, the sooner you get started the better. This doesn't mean researching straight away, but perhaps having conversations and getting reading suggestions from people you might want to work with, so that your topic can slowly take shape and evolve over the course of the year.

All essays are weighted equally (half of your final mark is determined by your three essays, and the other half by your dissertation), but do be aware that the first essay will be the only one marked in early December, when some of you may be applying for doctoral programmes and PhD funding. Keep this in mind as you will have to submit your marks for this essay in PhD and funding applications, and you may also wish to use this essay as a writing sample.

In the first week or two of the course, as before each new essay, you will be able to meet with different faculty members in the Department and talk to them about supervising your work. You will be meeting with the MPhil/Part III Managers at the very beginning of Michaelmas Term, therefore we advise that you arrive at Cambridge with an initial idea, however vague, for your first essay and possibly even an idea about potential essay and dissertation supervisors. The managers are very helpful in directing you towards possible supervisors and topics. so don't worry if you don't. While getting settled into your new surroundings, it is absolutely acceptable to meet informally with Department members to help solidify ideas but given how busy pre-term can get, we advise making initial contacts and beginning conversations via email over the summer. Earlier is usually better if you can manage it.

Cambridge terms are brief at eight weeks. Be prepared to work over the holidays, but do take some time off over the New Year and between Lent and Easter Terms.

And – despite our scheduling warnings – the MPhil is not a dire nine-month slog through deadlines. It is fast-paced, but it is also a glorious time to immerse yourself in research and take advantage of the vast human and material resources the Department and University has at its disposal.

2. 'MPhil in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine'

Having just finished the course, we can only recommend using the MPhil to explore the extents of 'HPS'. The mix of essays and dissertation really allows you to experiment with new approaches and subjects, and to make use of the resources of the wider University and its departments, seminars, teaching officers, and lectures. The Department is open to considering many different directions in the history, philosophy and sociology of science, technology and medicine, which enables a huge range of research projects. We advise you not to constrain yourself by defining yourself exclusively as 'historian of x', 'philosopher', 'anthropologist' or 'physicist'. Some of the 'philosophers' in our year ended up writing historical work or using their background to engage sociological problems, while 'historians' took up philosophical approaches to diverse topics. Keep in mind that some of the strongest work arises when you challenge your own preconceptions of what you 'can' write on. The second and third essays might be a particularly good time to try something new.

You may also want to take the opportunity to try new kinds of research. The Whipple Library has a wealth of special collections and rare books, and the Museum has a fantastic range of scientific instruments. Working with curators and librarians will give you insight into the way objects and archives are acquired and preserved, and the different stories you can tell with material objects.

If you are stumped for essay and dissertation topics or want to get a sense of the potential breadth, we recommend flipping through lists of student projects in the Department's annual reports, the Part II papers and reading lists, and the list of potential essay and dissertation supervisors; visiting the Whipple Museum, the University Library and Archives, any of the specialist science libraries; and reading some of past MPhil essays held in the Whipple Library.

3. Supervisions and feedback

Teaching in Cambridge revolves around supervisions. You will select a supervisor for each piece of written work, so you will probably work with three to four different supervisors during the MPhil. There is a list of potential essay and dissertation supervisors. It is a very good indication of potential supervisors, but it is not comprehensive: past MPhil students have also worked with teaching officers in Cambridge (or elsewhere) not listed and many supervisors will consider topics not specifically noted. The MPhil Manager will help you find the most appropriate supervisor, but don't be afraid to ask around.

For those unfamiliar with supervisions: in the MPhil all supervisions are one-on-one meetings between you and your supervisor. Most supervisions last about one hour. Generally, they are premised on discussing written work you submit 24–48 hours beforehand. In the early stages of research, supervisors will also guide you towards sources, help you shape your research approach, and react to your initial findings. Make sure to get writing to your supervisor on time and indicate what you have changed from previous versions so they don't get habituated to re-reading the same section you haven't changed for weeks. You may want to include a short note about next steps, alternate arguments you are considering, problems encountered in research or writing, or anything else you would like to discuss during the supervision. In the MPhil, a huge amount of the teaching happens in these supervisions, so do your best to make the most of them.

One way to think about supervisions is that supervisors guide your work – they don't direct it. It is up to you to arrange supervisions and to use them wisely, but we do advise discussing supervision schedules and deadlines for submitting work for supervisions with your supervisor as supervision styles vary.

While it can be tempting to avoid supervisions when your work is not progressing as fast as you would like, when your writing is in an awkward stage, or when your argument has just collapsed, supervisions can be tremendously helpful in thrashing out those situations. Essays and dissertations do not emerge fully formed. You will likely go through several iterations and supervisions are an excellent forum to develop your ideas. You should start writing early. Let's repeat that. You should start writing early. Arguments behave differently in full prose than they do in bullet points or conversation – and only the written work will be examined. We also recommend turning in drafts early and often, even if your supervisor doesn't ask for them at first – several weeks before the deadline, talk to your supervisor about when you should give him or her a full draft, because it's extremely helpful to have to produce one with enough time to do some major re-shaping and revisions before the actual deadline.

Grading and feedback are potential sources of confusion. Keep in mind that your supervisors will not be involved in grading your work. Members of the Department meet after you submit topics for each paper and allocate two examiners from the staff for each paper. (Since only staff can examine, PhD students make great second readers, more on that below.) The examiners will not know your identity, nor can theirs be revealed to you. Examiners each submit a mark and comments that you receive when you meet with the MPhil Manager after each submission (Essays 2 and 3 are discussed together and you will likely receive the feedback for them in mid to late April), but you won't get a marked copy of the essay. Take the comments you receive and go talk to your supervisor about them – he or she will want to know how you did and can give you helpful tips on how to improve.

In the event that the two examiners cannot agree on a final mark for the paper, your work will be reviewed by a third anonymous external examiner, who is employed by another university. If this happens, you will not receive a definitive mark for your paper until the second examiners' meeting in the spring. Remember that the academic world is full of constructive and productive disagreements. Don't be discouraged if your paper was sent out to an external examiner. If scholars were on the same page all the time, most of their work would be pretty boring.

4. Seminars

Go! You can write papers anywhere, but group meetings make the MPhil special.

Everyone is required to attend the Part III-MPhil seminar and encouraged to attend Departmental Seminars, which comprise two distinctive aspects of your academic/social life. The format of the seminars will be changing a bit next year from how we experienced it, for us the first half of they year was based on group discussions of preassigned readings, with a different faculty member and topic every week. Starting next year your experience will be slightly different, with a series of 'Master Classes' being taught on various subjects important to HPS. You should know that the idea for this format has come out of reflection and discussion about the feedback that our class and those in previous years have given about the seminars. This is a testament to the importance of student feedback in this course, so make sure to share your thoughts with your student representative and the MPhil managers, they will be attentive and responsive to your thoughts and ideas! During the second half of the year, the seminar becomes a space for everyone to present their dissertation research. It is essential to attend and participate, as it helps us get to know one another and our diverse field better. The Departmental Seminar, unlike subject-specific ones, is attended by most of the Department, and it is a great chance to see people in action, thinking outside of their comfort zone. While it can be intimidating to speak up in the company of PhDs, lecturers, supervisors, and those who have been immersed in HPS for years, Part III-MPhils are usually given priority in asking questions and you should do so. Going to these seminars and other discussions in the Department is not only an important chance to learn from peers and faculty, but is a great social opportunity. The MPhil and Part III students almost always go to the pub after seminar, and you will really bond as a group during these sessions.

Reading groups and other seminars are another vital part of Department life and you are strongly encouraged to attend at least one regularly, though by all means attend as many as you can. In the beginning of the year, the crowd will be big so feel free to sample as many as you like even without having done all of the reading. Things whittle down by Lent Term, when you will have found your niche and can be an active participant! Further, the Department offers graduate training seminars, many of which are specifically targeted toward the Part III-MPhils and include mini-courses: in years past we have had seminars on the history of scientific publishing, the philosophy of chemistry, gender issues in STS, and sessions on practical subjects such as how to turn an essay into a publishable article.  The Department puts a lot of effort into these, so you should make use of them.

The Department is also responsive to students' interests and initiatives. If you feel like a particular area of interest is not catered to, you might want to consider talking to a member of staff or other graduate students about starting an informal reading group or graduate training seminar. In the past year, that's how our Science, Technology and Gender series was proposed by an MPhil student and supported by a staff member, who put together a well-attended four-part series.

As a member of the University you are also allowed to attend any undergraduate lecture course. Undergraduate lecture courses in HPS are often the best introduction to a research area and the Department's teaching officers. They are open to all. If you are interested in attending the Part II primary source seminars, speak to the organiser first. These seminars are intended for Part II students only, but many organisers don't mind if you listen in.

5. Most importantly: people!

A quick note on terminology: Part II students are third-year undergraduates who only take classes in HPS; Part III students have continued their studies from Part II without a break. They are in their fourth year at the University – and thus an excellent font of information on Cambridge's idiosyncrasies as a university and town!

Everything above about scheduling and academic work almost sidelines the most important component of the MPhil: people. Your MPhil year will be much more enjoyable (and your work much better) if you don't isolate yourself. Use the coffee room upstairs, go to the reading groups and seminars, meet up at the pub after the Part III-MPhil seminar, and go to the field trips with the Cabinet of Natural History. After Departmental Seminars and Coffee with Scientists, attendees also always goes to a local pub (typically The Mill, The Eagle or The Bath House) and afterwards to a restaurant for dinner. This is a great chance to meet speakers, discuss research ideas, meet people, and just have fun.

The Department is notoriously friendly and supportive. In addition to those formally tasked with administering the course or Department, you will be surrounded by a group of fantastic Part III, MPhil and PhD students and post-docs and teaching staff. Take advantage of them! Find out who else is working on similar topics or questions and ask if you may share your own work with them. Most people are delighted to help even if they are not officially supervising your work – either by discussing your projects or by reading drafts. If you are interested in others' input, ask early (and nicely) and give people time to comment. To make the most of the expertise in the Department (and your supervisor), you should have a substantial penultimate draft ready about a week before the deadline.

And don't forget to plan some social events with your peers – this year we had some great HPS barbecues, and a very active Facebook group where we communicated about plans and events. Group picnics, expeditions and punts are great settings for talking about HPS and making new friends.

If you have any concerns or if you need help of any form, talk to the MPhil Manager, the Director of Graduate Studies, your student representatives, or your supervisors. If you are in doubt whom to contact: ask! Most people in the Department will be able to direct your query. The Department welcomes feedback, and takes the online surveys issued a few times a year very seriously. So make sure to provide constructive feedback, communicate with your MPhil rep or just talk to Department members if you have questions or comments about how to improve the course.

Have a great year!

(and come talk to us)