PhD Applications

Congratulations on considering getting a PhD! This is a very exciting time for artificial intelligence and robotics. Graduating with a PhD from my lab will open up a range of unique opportunities, including highly-competitive jobs across the top tech firms, academic positions with a view towards one day setting up your own research group, and startup ideas for those with entrepreneurial ambitions. As a PhD student in the Robot Learning Lab, you will be conducting exciting and ambitious research in a supportive and friendly environment, with state-of-the-art facilities and regular interaction with me and other researchers, and you will have the opportunity to travel internationally to the top conferences and events across the world.

Application criteria

Formally, the minimum requirement is a Master's degree with a grade equivalent to a UK distinction. However, please note that applications to my lab are highly competitive, and usually only one or two applicants are successful every year. Therefore, for your application to be considered, you would need to have exceptional grades, and you would need to show knowledge and interest in robotics, computer vision, and machine learning, far beyond just the content of your degree's taught modules. For example, this could be demonstrated by any publications you may already have, or by writing an informed and interesting research proposal (see below).

How to apply

Candidates should formally apply through the Department of Computing's online application system, and guidelines for this process can be found by clicking here. In the "Academic Programme" field, you should select "Computing Research PhD" (do not select "AI and Machine Learning PhD 4YFT"). In the "Proposed research supervisor" field, you should enter "Edward Johns", and in the "Proposed research group" field, you should enter "The Robot Learning Lab". In the "Proposed research topic field", you should enter a title of your choice, based on your research proposal.

Application timeline

I am now accepting PhD applications for entry in October 2021. Most new PhD students start in my lab in October, but starting dates of January 2022 or April 2022 are also possible. Formally, there are three application deadlines: 6th November 2020, 8th January 2021, and 19th March 2021, although applications are usually still accepted after the March deadline. You may make your application at any time of the year, but you will not be notified of any progress until after the deadline by which you apply. Once this deadline passes, applications will be assessed by our admissions committee, and some promising candidates will then be invited to an interview. Applications may stay in the system for several weeks or months after the deadline, and may be combined with applications from the next deadline, before any interviews are conducted. If we decide to make you an offer after your interview, then this will be conditional on you securing funding for your PhD. Some students secure their own funding, but most require a funded position, and in this case your application would then be passed to the department's funding committee for further assessment.

Funding

For students seeking a funded position, there are a number of scholarships provided by College for both British and non-British students. Following Brexit, EU citizens are now funded with the same College scholarships as all non-British citizens. The PhD funding committee will assess all candidates who have reached this stage of the assessment, and award funding to the top-ranked candidates. All College scholarships cover both tuition fees and living expenses in London for the duration of your PhD.

 

There are also a number of external scholarships, which you may be eligible for depending on your nationality. Some examples of these external scholarships can be found by clicking here and looking under "External funding organisations". However, there are many other scholarships not listed here, and you should make your own enquires based on your nationality. If you have already been awarded an external scholarship, or if you are able to self-fund your PhD through other sources, then you should indicate this on your PhD application form.

Research proposal

Your application should include a research proposal, detailing your thoughts on a new way in which computer vision or machine learning could be used for robot manipulation. This will be used as part of our assessment of your application, and will also form the basis of discussions should you be invited for an interview. If you were to receive an offer, your actual PhD may vary from this proposal, based on my guidance and recent developments. So, rather than being a precise plan for your PhD, the proposal is your chance to showcase your curiosity, creativity, and your ability to rationalise your ideas clearly. Your proposal will be assessed primarily by me, so please write it with a specialist audience in mind. You are free to decide the length and format of your proposal, but I recommend being concise and writing no more than four pages.

 

Research in my lab focusses primarily on robot manipulation from visual observations, and so your proposal should broadly be in this field. In particular, we are interested in real-world robot learning problems, which deal with high-dimensional image observations, and the practicalities of real-world data collection. We do not typically work on simple low-dimensional tasks or purely simulated environments, such as the standard Gym or Atari reinforcement learning benchmarks. The best proposals I receive are those which combine learning-based methods (such as imitation learning and reinforcement learning) with classical methods (such as optimal control and vision-based state estimation).

Examples of current areas of research in our lab are: (i) data-efficient model-based reinforcement learning for real-world robot manipulation, (ii) transferring control policies trained in simulation over to the real world, (iii) learning of new tasks from a small number of human demonstrations, (iv) visual state estimation for object grasping and interaction, and (v) visual scene understanding for planning multi-stage tasks. For further ideas, you may also wish to read up on published work in the lab by clicking here.

 

Try to be creative in your proposal: rather than simply describing background theory and existing methods that have already been published, I encourage you to be brave and describe a new idea you have been thinking about, even if it is preliminary or speculative. Of course, you are not expected to be an expert in the field yet, but you should show that you have sufficient motivation to read around the subject and learn about the state-of-the-art, and sufficient creativity to propose novel ideas which address limitations of existing methods. I suggest that, as well as describing your proposal at a high level, you include a list of specific questions which you aim to answer through your PhD research, and a description of how each one will be addressed. Be curious, and you will go far.

Contacting me

Before making your application, please do get in touch with me via email at e.johns@imperial.ac.uk, with a brief description of your background, experience, and research interests. I can then let you know whether your research interests align well with those of my lab. So that I know you have read this webpage, please use "PhDApp2021 Xyz Xyz" for the email's subject line, where "Xyz Xyz" is your name. If you have any administrative questions related to your PhD application, such as your eligibility for funding or your English language test scores, or to check the status of your application, then please contact our PhD administrator, Dr. Amani El-Kholy, at a.o.el-kholy@imperial.ac.uk.

Thank you, and I look forward to hearing from you!

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