21 September 2008

Someone mails me to ask what it is like to do a PhD in machine learning in Cambridge. With my first year of graduate school behind me I have a thing or two to say about the program here. So to all aspiring Cambridge graduate students: listen up!

Overall I think Cambridge is an amazing place to be. It’s like Disneyland for academics. There is so much stuff going on that every day I am disappointed about which talks I had to miss because there was another one going on at the same time. There are so many machine learning people around that I haven’t even met them all. The ones I meet frequently with are

Needless to say there is plenty of opportunity to talk to people about machine learning. Each group has different accents and if you’re interested in applying you might want to evaluate what kind of machine learning you want to do first. If pure machine learning or neuroscience is your thing, you’d probably fit in well with David’s or our group. If you are more into applications the other engineering or computer lab groups would be a better fit. If learning theory is your thing, you’ll also find people in the computer lab that do this kind of stuff. If you’re more into theory the statistics laboratory would probably suit you well. Finally, if you don’t mind a 45 minute train ride to London you will find yourself having access to the Gatsby unit, the UCL machine learning guys and probably many others I haven’t met (Imperial College, … ?)

Life in Cambridge is good too; the colleges will provide you with a place to stay, friendly people to have dinner with, social events and tons of sports to choose from. Cambridge is also very friendly towards foreigners and I’ve noticed that in grad school probably more than 70% of the people are internationals.

As far as I am concerned, there are two big turn-offs in Cambridge. The first is the application process itself. The whole thing is completely outdated and you will find yourself being accepted by a professor in February but only getting official letters about it in June or so. The whole process is slow and when you get all your US offers mid April you will find yourself completely in the dark with respect to your Cambridge status. I also found funding much more fragmented than in the US; a lot of people who get funding offers a few weeks before the academic year starts (we’re talking September here). The other thing is graduate level classes: Cambridge does not have graduate level classes at the level that a big American university will organize them. Given my interest in machine learning I’ve been to a couple of statistics classes in the part III maths program which I found to be comparable to the lower level graduate classes in the US. So my advice for anyone who hasn’t taken any graduate level machine learning classes is to first go to the US for a one or two years Master program or check out the programs at UCL or Edinburgh and then apply to Cambridge.

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