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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 (robots and compute) 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.
How to apply
Before making your official application, please inform me of your intention to apply, so that I can let you know if making a full application would be appropriate (see the section "Contacting me" at the bottom of this webpage). Candidates should formally apply through the Department of Computing's online application system, and guidelines for this process can be found 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.
Officially, the minimum requirement for your application to be considered, is a Master's degree with a grade equivalent to a UK distinction. However, please be aware that applications to my lab are highly competitive. Therefore, to be invited to an interview, you would need to have outstanding grades, and you would need to show knowledge and interest in robotics, computer vision, and machine learning, beyond just the content of your degree's taught modules. For example, this could be demonstrated by any publications you may have, any personal projects outside of your degree, or by writing an intriguing and logical research proposal.
I am currently accepting PhD applications for entry in October 2024. Most new PhD students start in my lab in October, but a starting date of April 2024 may also be possible. Formally, there are three application deadlines: 15th December 2023, 15th February 2024, and 15th April 2024. After each deadline, applications will be assessed, 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. This funding would need to pay for tuition fees, and also your personal living costs. Some students secure their own funding, such as by self-funding, or through a scholarship provided by their home country. To determine whether or not you would be able to self-fund your PhD, you can read our information on tuition fees and living costs. Self-funded students would need to pay tuition fees for 3 years and living costs for 4 years (PhD students are not charged tuition fees for their final year).
If you require a funded position, then after we have made you a conditional offer, your application would then be passed to the department's funding committee for further assessment. There are a number of scholarships provided by College, which cover both tuition fees and living costs for the duration of your PhD. The PhD funding committee will assess all candidates who have reached this stage of the assessment, and award funding to the top-ranked candidates. The type of scholarship available to you depends on whether you qualify as a Home student or an Overseas student for tuition fees. You are a Home student if you are a UK National or you have settled / pre-settled status. Otherwise, you are an Overseas student. You can read more about your fee status here and here.
As well as these College scholarships, 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 here. However, there are other scholarships not listed here, and you should make your own enquires at home 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.
Your application should include a research proposal, detailing your personal thoughts on an interesting research idea for robot learning, which you would like to explore during a PhD. 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. And there is no need to write a substantial literature review as part of this proposal; get straight to the point! Feel free to include figures or diagrams to help you illustrate your idea.
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 image observations (rather than assuming privileged access to low-dimensional states), and which can learn everyday tasks in everyday environments (rather than toy tasks in simulated or artificial setups).
Examples of current areas of research in our lab are: (i) learning of new tasks from a small number of human demonstrations, (ii) data-efficient reinforcement learning for complex or contact-rich tasks, and (iii) teaching or commanding a robot through natural language instructions. For further ideas, you may also wish to read up on published work in the lab 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 proposed research, and a description of how each one would be answered with experiments. Demonstrate curiosity and clarity, and your proposal will go far.
Please understand that I receive a very large number of PhD applications, and there is very little feedback I can give at this stage. However, I would still like to hear from potential applicants before making a formal application. Therefore, if you are considering applying, please complete this Google Form, to let me know a little about your background and research interests. This form helps me to manage the large number of applications I receive, so please use this form and do not email me at this stage. You can be sure that I will review every response I receive through this form, after which I will email you in due course to let you know whether making a formal application would be appropriate.
If you have any administrative questions related to your PhD application, such as about your eligibility for funding, your English language test scores, or how to complete the official application, or if you would like to check the status of your formal application after submitting it, then please contact our PhD administrator, Dr. Amani El-Kholy, at email@example.com.
Thank you for reading, and I look forward to hearing from you!
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