# Information for Prospective PhD Candidates Mark van der Wilk, November 2022 **[Update September 2023: I have moved institutions, and am now at the CS dept in Oxford. While this guide still links to the Imperial websites, its overall procedure is still correct. I recommend applying to the CS dept DPhil and/or the AIMS CDT, if you want to work with me.]** ## Our Research See our [website](https://mvdw.uk) and [research overview](https://mvdw.uk/research-overview/) for all details. Three research questions are central to our research group: - How do we find general patterns that allow generalization beyond the training set? I.e. how do we find inductive bias, rather than building it in? - How can we create neurons that automatically assemble their structure, with as little global communication as possible? - How do we use predictions to build decisions-making systems that are safe and reliable? We explore solutions that develop deep learning in a different direction than the "scale up" approach that is common today. This builds towards a different vision of what deep learning could look like. One where training a model needs 1) less data, 2) less human intervention, and 3) less energy. While we explore many paths to these goals, we take significant inspiration from Bayesian statistics, and particularly from Bayesian model selection (underappreciated in ML). So far, this has led to methods for selecting inductive bias (e.g. invariance), as well as identifying causal direction. Bayesian uncertainty estimation may also help to inspire new learning rules, which do not require communication across a whole network like backpropagation does. Overall, many topics contribute towards better answers to these three questions, including: - Bayesian model selection & Neural architecture search - Causality - Out of distribution generalisation - Geometric deep learning and invariances - Meta-learning - Continual learning - Local learning rules - Approximate Bayesian inference & uncertainty quantification - Gaussian process models, Deep GPs, and relations to Neural Nets - Bayesian optimisation & experiment design - Generative modelling, semi-supervised learning, self-supervised learning - Capsule networks - Model-based reinforcement learning - Connections between Bayesian inference and generalisation error bounds ## The PhD and our Research Group It's great that you're interested in joining our research group. A PhD is a journey where you develop your understanding to the boundary of human knowledge, and beyond. This is a significant undertaking that usually takes 3-4 years. This makes the research groups you apply to an important choice. I would say that the most important criteria in choosing a group are 1) how well _your_ research interests fit with those of the group and the prospective supervisor, and 2) whether the group feels like a supportive and pleasant place to work. The people in the research group you join will be the people who you brainstorm with, who you whiteboard maths with, who you will code up projects with, and who will give you constructive feedback on your work. So it's important to have an environment that you're happy with! In our group, we aim to understand existing machine learning methods, and develop new methods that work *reliably* and *without human supervision*. Our research is motivated by a wide variety of problems, from improving the reliability of large-scale neural networks, to more statistical problems where data is scarce. We also work on more applied problems, most often through collaborations with domain-experts at Imperial and beyond. We started in 2020, and we currently consist of myself, 3 PhD candidates fully supervised by myself, and 3 who are co-supervised. There is a nice mix of expertise and perspectives (e.g. from Bayesian statistics to deep learning engineering), and motivating applications (biology to robotics). The aim is to have a group with a diverse collection of expertises that overlap roughly around taking inspiration from probabilistic inference. To widen the expertise that we can learn from, we also collaborate with researchers at Imperial, in the UK, and internationally. To get an impression of who we are and what we do, I recommend that you look at: - [the overview of our research](https://mvdw.uk/research-overview/) [1], - [members of the research group](https://mvdw.uk/people/) [2], - and perhaps a few of our [publications](https://mvdw.uk/publication/) [3]. If you like the look of our research directions, the next step is to develop your research proposal (tips below), and to send in your application to Imperial College. During the interview process, we will have the opportunity to chat informally as well, and you can meet some of the current group members. <!-- ## Admission Requirements The two most important things when applying to a PhD are: - Your research proposal, and how well it fits to the research of the group you are applying to. - Evidence of a strong academic background, with particularly strong mathematical skills. A strong mathematical background is usually demonstrated by a first-class (or equivalent) degree in information or electrical engineering, physics, maths, or computer science. A background in e.g. linear algebra, probability, statistics, and optimisation are particularly important. You can demonstrate alignment with my research interests in your research statement that outlines **1)** what problem you are interested in, **2)** why this problem is interesting or important, and **3)** what techniques you think will be useful or necessary for reaching your goals. --> ## Application Process ### In short In principle, all you need to do is follow the [Department of Computing application process](https://www.imperial.ac.uk/computing/prospective-students/phd/) [4]. Application deadlines are in October, December, and February. Make sure you choose the correct programme to apply to. As noted in the instructions [4], the general PhD is titled "Computing Research". You should choose this, unless you specifically want to apply to one of the CDTs (see below). It's generally a good thing to apply early, since I only recruit 1-2 students each year. However, if you are reading this in January, do not assume I have filled all spaces already. You may reach out by e-mail to check. ### Getting in Touch If you have any specific issues with the application, then do get in touch. To draw my attention to your e-mail, please use the subject "PhD Inquiry" (I may miss it otherwise). Please do read the tips on here carefully though. Unfortunatly, I cannot give feedback on research proposals before you apply. If you provide a short summary of some of your research interests, I can give an impression as to whether this fits within the group. If you do send an e-mail, please include a CV, a transcript of your courses, and a draft of your research proposal (if you have it already), and of course, the specific question you want answered. I do try to respond to all inquiries, but sometimes I do miss some due to large volumes of e-mails. **The best way to get your application noticed is to submit it through the [Imperial website](https://www.imperial.ac.uk/computing/prospective-students/phd/) [4]**. If you send in an application, you will be considered. ### Research Proposal As part of your application, you will need to write a research proposal. This proposal is an outline of something that you would like to investigate. However, we will not hold you to what you write, and many PhD candidates work on completely different things to their original proposal! So the proposal is not meant to be a detailed plan of exactly what you will do. The goal is more to determine **1)** that your reserach interests fit with the group so we can support your journey, and **2)** that you are curious in a targeted way. With "targeted", I mean that you appreciate how your proposal fits in the field, why the open problem is important, and that you have some idea about the technical obstacles that you will need to overcome. Good proposals include: 1. An identification of one or more open problems that you want to work on, and an understanding of why this is important to the field. 2. A suggestion on how the broad problem can be broken up into specific sub-problems, with some measure of success. 3. An understanding of the technical obstacles, and some idea of a first approach on how to solve them. In terms of length, I would aim for about 3 pages. A bit less is fine. More is also fine, as long as you keep it targeted on what you want to do. Keep in mind that a research proposal is not a literature review! You may include a short motivation for why you are interested in the PhD ("personal statement"). This is also a good place to mention any scholarships [5] that you may be elegible for. If you do include this, I advise to take the space to say what you want to say. Short is sufficient, because we are not asking for a motivational essay. My guidance of 3 pages does not include this section. ### Interview Once we receive your application, you may be invited for a formal interview with myself and another academic. During the interview, you will have the opportunity to tell us about yourself, and to discuss your interests and what you want to work on in your PhD. This discussion will largely be based around your research proposal. We will also assess your technical knowledge, usually by discussing a paper that we will send you a few days before the interview. In some cases, I may ask you to meet some of the current group members as well. ### Post-interview Usually, we will interview several candidates around the same time. After interviewing all candidates, I will get in touch to let you know whether I think I could act as your supervisor. If so, we can discuss any questions and considerations that you have. I can also arrange for you to meet current group members, for you to get a first-hand idea of what the PhD is like. Most applicants will also be applying for funding, which is a separate decision that is made centrally by the department. However, this does not require any separate applications. If I do not think I can act as your PhD supervisor, I may be able to recommend other researchers. Applying for a PhD can be a difficult process. Since I only have a very limited number of spaces, it is common that I cannot take on excellent candidates. So I do recommend that you apply to several places. ## Funding The CDTs and departmental PhD programmes both have funding available for accepted students. If you are accepted in the process described above, you will automatically be considered for funding. The department keeps a [list](https://www.imperial.ac.uk/computing/prospective-students/scholarships/) [5] of all scholarships available. Do take a look there to check what scholarships you may be eligible for. In some cases, applicants may have already found their own external funding before applying. This is but good thing (although rare), since it removes the hurdle of this separate funding process. However, the most important consideration is still the research fit, which is assessed in the usual interview process. External funding sources: - Commonwealth PhD scholarship [6]: For students from commonwealth countries who otherwiese could not study. ## PhD Programmes and CDTs When applying for a PhD, you can choose to apply through two different routes: - The main departmental PhD degree (_Computing Research_ in the application). - Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) e.g. [StatML](statml.io) and [AI4Health](ai4health.io). The CDTs provide a more structured PhD, that includes a cohort of fellow-students, a teaching programme, and perhaps some structure to get you started on your projects (e.g. "miniprojects"). The main departmental PhD does not provide as much structure, and so it is more up to you to determine how you structure your early years. Both routes do lead you to the same destination. You will develop your skills, collaborate on projects with the group, and make your reserach contributions to the field. Do consider the information on the CDT website and consider whether the set-up appeals to you. **You can apply to both routes.** ## Good luck I hope this answered some questions about the process. Like I said at the start, do [get in touch](https://mvdw.uk) if you have any questions. To summarise: 1. Take a look at our [research](https://mvdw.uk/research-overview/) to see whether you're interested in it. 1. If so, think about what you want to research, and prepare a research proposal. 2. Follow the [Dept of Computing instructions](https://www.imperial.ac.uk/computing/prospective-students/phd/) [4] and submit your application. 3. We invite certain candidates for interviews. We are looking forward to receiving your application! ## References & Links [1] Overview of the group's research: https://mvdw.uk/research-overview/ [2] Research group members: https://mvdw.uk/people/ [3] Our publications: https://mvdw.uk/publication/ [4] Instructions for applying to the Dept of Computing at Imperial College London: https://www.imperial.ac.uk/computing/prospective-students/phd/ [5] Available scholarships: https://www.imperial.ac.uk/computing/prospective-students/scholarships/ [6] Commonwealth PhD scholarship: https://cscuk.fcdo.gov.uk/scholarships/commonwealth-phd-scholarships-for-least-developed-countries-and-fragile-states/