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PhD opportunities in Computer Science (Informatics) at Edinburgh

James Cheney

This is an informal page that I maintain in the hope it will be useful to prospective PhD students interested in computer science topics at the University of Edinburgh Laboratory for Foundations of Computer Science. I don't speak for LFCS, the School of Informatics or the University, and the information below is my opinion only. The official information pages for PhD study in Informatics can be found here.


I am interested in supervising new PhD students or externally funded summer research internships on topics such as programming languages, databases, verification, or logic.

However, at the moment I do not have dedicated funding for new students. Applications are still welcome but funding decisions would be subject to the centralized University funding allocation, which can be very competitive.

If you are interested in PhD study in LFCS, please write to me describing how your research interests would align with mine and read the instructions for applying for admission and external funding.

Strong candidates for PhD study at Edinburgh typically have performed strongly in their undergraduate degree or master's degree, and already have some basic research experience such as an undergraduate honors thesis or master's thesis. To be well-suited for research topics I'm interested in, candidates should have demonstrated ability and interest in applications of one or more of the following areas:

  • Foundations of programming languages. This does not just mean familiarity with some programming languages such as C++ or Java, but that you understand the principles underlying both popular and research programming languages: semantics, types, compilation, static analysis, etc. Familiarity with functional or declarative languages that are based on clean foundations, such as Haskell, ML/OCaml/F#, Scala, or Prolog is a plus.
  • Foundations of databases. This does not just mean that you know SQL, but that you understand the principles underlying database query languages: relational algebra, rewriting, etc. and their connections to logic.
  • Logic and automated reasoning, for example, first-order or higher-order logic, theorem proving systems (Isabelle/HOL, Coq), dependently-typed languages (Agda), etc.

Research Environment

The University of Edinburgh School of Informatics brings together world-class research groups in theoretical computer science, artificial intelligence and cognitive science. The School led the UK 2008 RAE rankings in volume of internationally recognised or internationally excellent research.

The Laboratory for Foundations of Computer Science (LFCS) established by Burstall, Milner and Plotkin in 1986, is recognized worldwide for groundbreaking research on topics in programming languages, semantics, type theory, proof theory, algorithms and complexity, databases, security, and systems biology.

Programming Languages and Foundations is one of the largest research activities in LFCS, including 15 academic staff, 9 postdoctoral researchers, and 6 current PhD students, working on functional programming, types, verification, semantics, software engineering, language-based security and new programming models.

The Edinburgh Database Group is recognized worldwide and among the strongest in Europe. Topics of current interest include graph databases, XML, data integration, novel approaches to query processing and storage, data provenance, archiving and annotation. Many of these topics are relevant to scientific data management, an area in which Edinburgh has unique strengths.

For more information about study in Edinburgh and the School of Informatics, see these pages:

About PhD study in the UK

PhD study in the UK differs somewhat from in other countries. To avoid confusion on the part of prospective students from other countries I've collected some common useful information here.

Unlike in many other countries, UK PhD programs are typically 3 years focusing only on research. There is no initial period of coursework or qualifying examination prior to PhD candidacy. Also, the PhD thesis typically needs to be submitted at the end of the 3 years (or up to 1 year later); however, student funding often doesn't cover the additional time for writing up. In addition, many UK universities (Edinburgh among them) charge students from "overseas" much higher tuition than those from the UK or EU, and there are relatively few funding sources that can cover the difference. These facts have several important implications.

The 3 year duration and the higher tuition fees for overseas students means supporting yourself through teaching assistantships is not a viable option. Doing a PhD is a full-time job, so it is very difficult to support yourself through work at the same time. Therefore, unless you have significant savings, or are willing to take on substantial student loans (which I do not recommend) you should identify sources of funding. For many overseas students, the best opportunities are scholarships that you have to apply for directly; the University maintains a database of opportunities here.

You need to have a strong foundation for research before starting a PhD here (e.g. doing an undergraduate or master's research project first). It is also important to have a supervisor and plausible research topic in mind at the beginning of the program, since it may be difficult to complete in 3 years otherwise. So, it a good idea to have an informed discussion about research topics with possible supervisors when applying. This means doing some work investigating possible supervisors and their research areas, not simply sending an email asking if there are funded positions available in your interest area.

It is fairly common for supervisors to obtain funding for a specific project and then advertise (as I've done above); in that case, you should be aware that if you are awarded the funding, you are expected to work on that topic, though moderate changes are sometimes possible. In particular, this means that if you apply indicating interest in a particular project, it's good to explain why you're just the right person to work on that topic, to differentiate yourself from people who respond blindly.

Some PhD programs are so-called "1+3" programs, based on the EPSRC CDT model, meaning there is a 1-year MSc at the beginning followed by 3 years of PhD. This allows more time for coursework at the beginning to prepare you for research: although it is still a good idea to know roughly what you want to do, there is more scope for exploration and identification of a supervisor during the first year. My department currently has two programs that my research overlaps with, on Data Science and Pervasive Parallelism. Funding is typically provided (at UK/EU tuition levels) for the full 4 years; however, for overseas students the higher tuition rate still applies, and funding for non-UK students may be limited.

Last modified: Tue Sep 22 12:35:32 BST 2020 Accessibility statement