School of Life Sciences

Research Degrees

Researcher in greenhouse labs

Join a thriving research community

Our School provides a stimulating environment for research training and offers opportunities to take up postgraduate studies through Masters by Dissertation (MSD), MPhil and PhD research programmes.

By carrying out your research degree with our School you will be part of a thriving and intellectually stimulating community of academics and research students.

Expertise in our School covers a broad range of important life sciences areas across four research groups; from the impact of climate change on plants and marine ecosystems, to new treatments for cancer and the underlying genetic causes of neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

With us, you will be supported through your research journey with access to our ‘state of the art’ laboratory and field facilities, funding for professional skills development, and supervision and mentoring to help you take the next steps into an advanced professional career.

Explore our postgraduate research degrees
Why choose us?
  • Choose from a range of courses, from a one year Master of Science by Dissertation (MSD) to a three year PhD, and part-time options.
  • The University offers Proficio, an innovative professional development scheme for doctoral students, unique to the University of Essex
  • Join our lively, friendly and supportive research environment, working in our state-of-the-art labs

Our research degrees

Your options

Master of Science by Dissertation (MSD)

The Master of Science by Dissertation (MSD) involves a minimum of one year of full-time research or two years part time followed by production of a dissertation, which you will discuss in your viva.

Students enrolled on an MSD programme can upgrade to an MPhil or PhD subject to satisfactory progress.

Explore our MSD degrees


An MPhil involves a minimum of two years of full-time research or four years part-time followed by the production of a thesis.

If you are progressing satisfactorily you can choose to change to a PhD in your second year, or you may wish to continue in your MPhil pathway and complete your work as planned.

Explore our MPhil degrees


A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree consists of a three-year (full-time) or six year (part-time) programme followed by the production of a doctoral thesis.

You will defend your thesis during an oral exam known as a viva. Following the first submission of the thesis for examination, the viva will take place within 2 months. Depending on the examination outcome, correction period time can vary between 2 to 6 months.

All PhD students are initially registered as MPhil/PhD students and are transferred to a PhD degree in the first half of the second year, subject to satisfactory progress.

Explore our PhD options

Part-time options

A research degree can be a significant commitment, particularly if you are thinking of a PhD. For many this can be a significant barrier to undertaking further study.

All of our research degrees can be undertaken on a part-time basis, in which the standard time for study is doubled. An MSD is two years, an MPhil is four years, and a PhD is six years.

While this may seem like a greater commitment than a full-time course, it means that you have greater scope to fit your research around other life commitments, such as caring responsibilities or employment.

Explore our part-time research degrees

Next steps

Research topic

If you are thinking of studying a research degree, then your first decision will be what your research topic will focus on. It must be related to your previous studies or career experience, as you will need to have some background knowledge for your research.

Some researchers take inspiration from their undergraduate or Masters degree research project or a module they particularly enjoyed. If you have been working in a related career for a few years, then you may have spotted a problem or gap in knowledge that a PhD thesis could address.

You do not need to come up with a thesis title, but it is helpful to have a short list of two or three potential topics ready before you begin looking for a supervisor.

Find a supervisor

Whatever research degree you choose to do, you will be supervised by at least one of our academic staff. Your supervisor will be an expert in your chosen field and will act as a guide and mentor throughout your research journey.

You can browse our academic staff, review their research interests, and see recently published papers. Or you can look through our research groups to quickly identify experts in your field.

Once you have identified a potential supervisor, and completed your research proposal, please send an initial email to the Graduate Administrator; If you are struggling to identify someone who would be a suitable supervisor, then we will also be able to help with this process.

Research proposal

Your research proposal is an important part of your application. It should be around 500 to 800 words (2 pages max) and should cover the following points:

  • A brief introduction and rationale for the research
  • Your aims and objectives
  • Brief details of the methods or techniques to be used
  • Any budget details (e.g. for consumables, research field trips), if known.

Consumables, bench fees and additional costs

Undertaking a research degree in the life sciences can involve costs beyond the standard tuition fees. For example, if you are carrying out research in plant sciences then you may need to purchase plants or specialist fertilisers, if you are working on an environmental science area then you will need to visit relevant sites on field trips.

If you are a self-funded student, then you will need to cover these costs yourself. Many of these costs are known as “bench fees” and will need to be paid through the academic year. Your supervisor will help you work out these cost estimates as part of your research proposal. Bench fees vary from student to student as they are entirely dependent on the type of research you are carrying out, so you may find there is a difference between your costs and those of your peers.

Students who are studying as part of a studentship typically have these costs covered as part of the studentship funding.


Once you have completed your research proposal and collated any other documents you may need, you will be ready to apply online through our postgraduate application portal. If you have everything ready to go, then the process should take around 20 minutes.

When applying you will need to specify the research degree you are study (i.e. PhD Biomedical Science) and the month/term you wish to join us in (October for Autumn Term, January for Spring Term, or April for Summer Term). If you are an international student who requires a visa then please ensure you get your application submitted as soon as possible, as the visa process can take several weeks to complete.

We aim to review applications as quickly as possible and will get in contact by email if we have any queries. You will also be contacted by email to arrange an interview as part of the application process, this may be held on Zoom or in-person.

If you are having any problems with the application portal, please email the Graduate Administrator (

Robyn Emmerson, standing outside in one of the squares at the University of Essex, with some green plants visible over her shoulder.
"My degree has given me the perfect opportunity to combine my interests in genetics, epigenetics, and how plants respond to their environment. I also enjoyed the academic freedom I had; I was able to propose new directions for my work while being guided by very supportive supervisors. I was able to work with world-leading researchers and had the opportunity to learn a unique skillset. I now have a network to help me find opportunities, as well as the skills to not only do a job, but bring a new perspective to the research."
Robyn Emmerson PhD Biological Sciences student

Projects and studentships

Funded studentships

Throughout the year we may advertise funded PhD and MSD studentships. Details of any available opportunities are listed below. For further information, please contact the Graduate Administrator at

Habitat Connectivity and Coastal Natural Capital

Applications are invited for a fully funded (UK Home student fees only) 12 month Masters-by-Dissertation studentship that will study the role of habitat connectivity in assessment of natural capital in coastal ecosystems. The area of focus will be the Blackwater and Colne estuaries in Essex and their associated habitats (intertidal flats and salt marsh, seagrasses, oysters beds and subtidal sediments).

Applications accepted up to 22 March 2024: Given the tight time scale, please send a c.v. and cover letter explaining how you meet the requirements ASAP to Professor Graham Underwood (

Masters by Research (MSD)

Year of Entry: 2024-2025

Country: Candidates eligible for UK Home Student fees

Department: School of Life Sciences

Further information is available here.

Doctoral training partnerships in Advanced Research and Innovation in the Environmental Sciences

Master of Science (MSD) projects in the School of Life Sciences

We are providing exciting opportunities for research projects, towards a Master of Science by Dissertation (MSD) in the School of Life Sciences.

These are one-year postgraduate degrees that typically start in October but other start times can be negotiated with the project supervisor(s) (overseas applicants should allow additional time for visa processing). These opportunities do not come with any funding. Further information on fees and funding is available here.

To start the process, email your CV to the supervisors directly or email the Graduate Administrator to suggest another project within the area of interest of one of our groups or members of staff.

Each of these opportunities falls under one of our research groups.


Protein structure and mechanisms of disease group

  • "Dissecting the role of cell polarity regulation in breast cancer" - Dr Metodi Metodiev
  • "Understanding the molecular defects arising from mutations in human rhodopsin responsible for Retinitis Pigmentosa" - Dr Phil Reeves
  • "Structure and Function of Human Androglobin, a unique multi-domain hemoglobin associated with ciliogenesis and spermatogenesis" - Dr Brandon Reeder
  • "Globin-induced cell toxicity: Investigating what makes globins such as cytoglobin, neuroglobin, myoglobin and hemoglobin cytotoxic or cytoprotective as a response to cell stress.” - Dr Brandon Reeder
  • "Using electron flow pathways in model globins to better understand and control cellular oxidative damage." - Dr Brandon Reeder
  • "A metagenomic analysis for new Lassa-fever related viruses in wild animal samples" - Dr Stathis Giotis
  • "Dissecting the role of interferon stimulated genes in SARS-CoV-2 cell entry" - Dr Stathis Giotis
  • "Understanding the interaction of ACE-2, cytokines and SARS-2 virus" - Prof Nelson Fernandez
  • "Comparative study of trophoblast phenotypes and invasion in pregnancy: a model for cancer?" - Prof Nelson Fernandez
  • "Generation of a novel cell therapy vector to treat pancreatic cancer" - Dr Andrea Mohr
  • "Cytokine mediated tumour progression" - Dr Andrea Mohr
  • "The role of DNA-damage response factors in apoptosis induction in cancer cells" - Dr Ralf Zwacka, Dr Andrea Mohr
  • "Targeting Mycobacterium tuberculosis heme peroxidases for drug discovery" - Dr Jonathan Worrall
  • "Copper storage in infectious diseases" - Dr Jonathan Worrall
  • "Using serial femtosecond X-ray crystallography to investigate enzyme mechanism" - Dr Jonathan Worrall
  • "Back to the future - Ancestral reconstruction of enzymes for biofuel production" - Dr Jonathan Worrall
  • "Targeting antibiotic resistance provided by efflux pumps in Gram-negative bacteria" - Prof Vassiliy Bavro
  • "Exploring the structural membrane proteome in Mycobacteria and Salmonella" - Prof Vassiliy Bavro
  • "Design and production of barnacle-inspired biological adhesives" - Dr Nick Aldred and Dr Phil Reeves
  •  "Structure-Function studies of bacterial electron transfer systems" - Dr Marcus Edwards
  • “Exploiting bacterial secretion mechanisms for the development of novel protein purification systems" - Dr Marcus Edwards
  • "Rewiring bacterial electron transfer pathways through protein engineering” - Dr Marcus Edwards
  • “Structure and mechanism of an electron-bifurcating [FeFe] hydrogenase” – Dr James Birrell, Dr Dimitri Svistunenko
  • “The mechanism of CO2 reduction by nickel-containing CO dehydrogenase” – Dr James Birrell, Dr Dimitri Svistunenko
  • “Is free radical formation on E. coli bacterioferritin a part of the mechanism or collateral damage?” – Dr Dima Svistunenko, Dr James Birrell
  • “Cryogen-free Rapid Freeze-Quench studies of protein states rapid change in fast reactions by EPR spectroscopy” – Dr Dima Svistunenko, Dr James Birrell
  • “Electron Paramagnetic Resonance spectroscopy of tryptophan radicals in proteins “ – Dr Dima Svistunenko, Dr James Birrell

Genomics and computational biology group

Plant productivity group

Ecology and environmental biology group

Our research groups

What can we offer you?

Professional skills development

Whether you are planning to remain in academia or will move to senior roles in other sectors, you will be expected to hold a range of skills beyond research. Both the School and the wider university offer opportunities for you to develop these professional skills through courses and experiences that you can take part in during your time with us.


Proficio is the university’s unique development scheme for postgraduate research students.

Depending on your degree type you will have access to a pot of funding (ranging from £1000 to £2500 per person for fulltime students) which you can use for a range of professional skills courses. Many of these courses are offered by the university, but if you identify a suitable external opportunity then you may be able to use some of this funding to cover costs. Courses range from personal management and research methods, to impact and professional conduct.

Some of your Proficio funding is ringfenced for conference attendance. Academic conferences are an essential part of your research degree as they help you build your professional network and showcase your research. You can use this money to cover attendance costs such as travel or registration fees.

School of Life Sciences Postgraduate Training Programme

This programme starts in Week 1 and continues throughout the year. We have created this training programme to help students bridge the gap between undergraduate and postgraduate study or help those who are returning to academia from fulltime work become familiar with advanced study.

Taking part means that you will join in with tailored scientific training sessions, covering topics of common importance to all life sciences research students including scientific writing, ethics in research, statistics training and preparing for the viva as well as more research project specific training courses.

Pint of Science festival

This annual festival sees expert researchers head out of their labs into a variety of pubs within Colchester.  Diverse discussions on topics such as how TOWIE-style Botox filler effect the ability to read emotions, why we desire antibiotics, and the gender pay gap, will fill the busy barrooms.

The nationwide festival is a grassroots non-profit organisation that aims to bring cutting-edge research to the masses. This international celebration sees thousands of scientists speaking to the public in over 500 cities across 24 countries.  Founded nine years ago by two UK researchers, the festival brings a unique line-up of talks, demonstrations, and live experiments to the nation’s local pubs.

At the University of Essex the organisation of this festival is managed by postgraduate research students, with several life sciences research students working as members of the committee in the past. This helps you build your organisation and outreach skills and is a great activity to have on your CV due to its international recognition.


Throughout the year our School advertises funded research degree studentships which often come with an approved title and supervision team. The amount of funding can range from covering Home student fees, to a doctoral stipend in line with UKRI rates (which change each year), or a combination of both.

Funding can come from different sources, such as UKRI DTPs (e.g. ARIES DTP) or from the School itself.

If you are a self-funded student then we may be able to support you in seeking external funding, such as reviewing applications for travel bursaries or early career researcher fellowships.


Whatever your field of research, you will have access to the facilities and equipment you need to carry out your work.

Our facilities include our onsite greenhouse, used for plant science research, and a new aquatic ecology facility with controlled-environment aquaria for marine invertebrates and fish, coral-spawning tank, large-scale freshwater mesocosms, marine vessels and access to several UK/overseas aquatic and terrestrial field sites. We also have extensive facilities for biomedical and biochemistry research including a ‘state of the art’ bioimaging suite. Our facilities are ably supported by our excellent technical team.

As one of our postgraduate research students you will also have access to our secure PGR study room. This quiet workspace has computers and desk space freely available for your use on a 24/7 basis, with no advanced booking needed.

Regular supervision

Your research progress will be overseen by your supervisor, who will act as your guide and mentor throughout your degree.

You will have regular meetings with your supervisor to discuss your progress and highlight any issues or successes you are experiencing, to ensure that you are continuing on track as expected. Although a three-year PhD may seem like a long time it will pass very quickly, and these meetings will reduce the risk of you falling behind.

If your research topic is interdisciplinary then you may have a co-supervisor from another department, who will be able to offer further guidance and support and help you bridge the gap between the two research areas. We have particularly strong research links with the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Actuarial Science and the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering so you may find that your supervisors have collaborated together previously.

In addition to meeting regularly with your supervisor, you will also have twice-yearly panel meetings with your supervisor(s) and an external academic expert in your field. This gives you an opportunity to receive more expert guidance during your research.

Beyond academia

Undertaking a research degree does not mean you have to follow a career path in academia. Although many of our graduates want to become lecturers and researchers, a research degree can open doors in many other careers.

Completing your research degree can make you eligible for senior leadership roles in the life sciences in both the private and public sectors, for example with Public Health England or companies such as Astra Zeneca. Some graduates combine their research and other professional skills to start their own companies, while others move into specialist communication areas such as science journalism and academic publishing, or to lead campaign teams for major charities.

School mentoring scheme

The School of Life Sciences is committed to supporting research students at all stages of their careers. The mentoring scheme aims to support individuals at various stages of their professional or personal development.

Mentors will provide support, give advice and guidance on career or personal development, and provide opportunities to reflect on progress. New postgraduate research students will be paired with suitable mentors based on relevant research areas. You may even find you return to become a mentor yourself in the future!

Departmental activities

Our School runs various departmental activities and events throughout the academic year. As one of our postgraduate research students you will be able to take part in these activities.

Research seminars

We run an active research seminar series each academic term, which is hosted on Colchester campus. We invite expert speakers to deliver a short talk on their research to an audience that ranges from undergraduates to fellow academics, followed by a Q&A session.

Many of our speakers are external academics from other institutions, but we do also invite new staff members and our research students to present as well. These events give you a chance to practice your oral communication skills in a smaller group, and can help you with networking with experts in your field.

Cohort building event

The cohort building event brings together postgraduate students and postdoctoral scientists from all the diverse disciplines within the School to promote interdisciplinary knowledge and exchange of techniques.

The event often comprises talks from each of the seven research groups, an interactive session on networking, an alumni presentation, a motivational lecture by an eminent guest speaker and the opportunity to attend a careers workshop to provide targeted careers advice.

Best Scientific Article Award

The purpose of the award is to encourage postgraduate research students to submit manuscripts for publication in peer-reviewed journals. The prize will consist of a certificate signed by the Head of the School and the Dean of the Faculty and a financial award.

Graduate Laboratory Assistant

PhD students have the opportunity to work as a Graduate Laboratory Assistants upon successful completion of relevant training.

Graduate Laboratory Assistants contribute to the School’s teaching programme by providing support to academic staff in the provision of teaching and learning to help students meet their learning outcomes.

These roles are paid an hourly rate, and help you develop your teaching and supervision skills with support from lecturers.

A sample being held up to the light in a lab
Our research

Our research covers the whole spectrum of biology – from the cell right through to communities and ecosystems. Our dedicated research groups bring together experts for collaboration research projects that deliver real-world impact.

See more
Get in touch
  Graduate Administrator