University of Cambridge

Opportunities for graduate research in visual science at Cambridge

Research on visual perception has been carried out at the University of Cambridge almost continuously since the seventeenth century. Those who have investigated vision here include: Isaac Newton, Thomas Young, James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Rayleigh, Kenneth Craik, William Rushton, Fergus Campbell, David Marr and Alan Hodgkin. Today there is a thriving community of visual scientists, spread across the Departments of Experimental Psychology, Physiology and Zoology and drawn together by regular meetings of the Kenneth Craik Club. Our experimental work is carried out on the University's biological sciences site on Downing Street, but close at hand are mediaeval streets and college courts that would still look familiar to Newton and Maxwell.   colour-mixing top
Maxwell's colour-mixing top,
c. 1854

Topics currently of interest to the Vision Group in the Department of Experimental Psychology include:

  1. Colour perception, colour anomaly and the possibility of tetrachromatic discrimination in female heterozygotes;
  2. Contrast adaptation, the mechanism by which the visual system adjusts to the depth of modulation of colour or lightness within a scene;
  3. The perception of lustre and gloss;
  4. Perception at the extreme margin of the visual field, some 100 degrees from the line of sight, and the relationship of this limit to the mysterious cone rim of the retina;
  5. Cone dystrophy and similar clinical conditions;
  6. The 'glint' of the eye - the virtual image formed by reflection at the convex surface of the cornea and conjunctiva;
  7. Visual masking and short-term visual storage;
  8. The limits to our ability to distribute attention across the visual field and to make fine comparisons of separated stimuli;
  9. Field studies of visual ecology: the relationship of trichromacy to fruit signals in natural environments.
  10. Perceptual genetics: inherited variation in psychophysical discriminations.

You can gain a feel for our research by consulting the list of the laboratory's recent publications (, but we are always ready to venture into new topics.

The lab is well equipped with computer-controlled displays, and with computer-controlled optical systems, as well as the calibration equipment that is needed for reliable work in visual science. The group uses mainly psychophysical techniques, but there are possibilities of collaborations with other biological departments, and candidates wanting, say, to pursue an interdisciplinary PhD in the molecular genetics of vision or in the ecology of primate vision should certainly contact us to discover what is feasible. We should also welcome candidates wishing to do serious historical research in the fields of sensory theory or experimental psychology.

Fig. 2   An experiment in progress on binocular lustre, the metallic quality seen when a given surface reflects different amounts of light to the two eyes. Such a situation is simulated by presenting two arrays on a computer-controlled monitor and delivering them to opposite eyes via a mirror haploscope. In the Cambridge laboratory we prefer to measure the subject's performance rather than to rely on phenomenological judgements. So here the task is to report which of the four quadrants of the briefly-exposed display contains a disc that is lighter in one eye than the other. These experiments are part of the PhD research of M. Formankiewicz. Click on the photograph for an enlarged view.

The Department of Experimental Psychology provides graduate students with formal training in statistics, experimental design and research methods. Detailed guidance on the methods of visual science is given within the lab on a day-to-day basis, and there are frequent seminars on visual topics. Students are expected to begin on their chosen research project shortly after arriving in Cambridge. It is in the need for an early choice of research area that the Cambridge system most notably differs from that of a North American graduate school: candidates do not spend an extended period conducting research projects in different labs or taking courses in a large range of fields, but begin research at once under the guidance of their supervisor. It is not permitted to take on part-time paid work while doing research for a PhD in Cambridge, but there are opportunities to earn a little extra income by demonstrating in practical classes and (in the second and third years of a PhD) giving 'supervisions' to small groups of undergraduates on behalf of particular colleges.

Procedure for Application and Sources of Funding.

Full details of how to make a formal application to the Department and to the University are given on the Department's web site (, but informal enquiries about graduate research on vision can be directed in the first instance to Professor J. D. Mollon, Department of Experimental Psychology, Downing St., Cambridge CB2 3EB, United Kingdom ( Although deadlines are introduced by funding bodies, applications for actual admission as a graduate student can be made throughout the year, and it is possible to start research in January or in April as well as in October.

For candidates applying from the United Kingdom, the Department has a small number of quota studentships awarded annually by the Research Councils. If you wish to be considered for such a studentship, be sure to apply to the Department before February 15 in a given year. For local candidates, it is possible to apply for a Domestic Studentship in Easter Term (see

For candidates applying from overseas, three major sources of awards are the Gates Cambridge Trust (, the Cambridge European Trust and the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust. For details of these and related funding sources see:

Clare College
Clare College, from King's Backs in January. Photo by Michelle To, formerly a PhD student in the laboratory. (Click on the image for an enlarged view.)

Cambridge is a federation of autonomous colleges, and most of the colleges offer a small number of studentships linked to particular disciplines or to particular countries of origin. To find out about these, you may need to delve deep into the web sites of individual colleges. Access to all these separate sites is available from the central web pages of the University of Cambridge ( However, once a year in November, information on such awards is conveniently collected together in a special number of the Cambridge University Reporter ( This webpage is especially valuable if you are searching for funding.

A useful annual handbook that lists sources of funding for both home and overseas students is 'The Grants Register', published by Palgrave. In general, it is a good idea to make multiple applications: different funding bodies apply different criteria, and you will increase your chances by searching hard on the web for alternative studentships for which you are eligible.

We do accept self-funded students from overseas, but in these cases it is usually necessary for the candidate to come to Cambridge for interview. An interview may not be necessary if you have secured a major scholarship in your own country: in this case, the Department's Admissions Committee may rely on the selection process of the awarding body.

Last modified August 2 2008