Synthetic Biology (EPSRC and BBSRC Centre for Doctoral Training) | University of Oxford
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Synthetic Biology (EPSRC and BBSRC Centre for Doctoral Training)

About the course

The EPSRC and BBSRC Synthetic Biology Centre for Doctoral Training (SynBioCDT) is a four-year doctoral programme that offers training in the new field of synthetic biology, the ‘engineering of biology’. This centre is a collaboration between the universities of Oxford, Bristol and Warwick. Applications are encouraged from students with a wide range of academic backgrounds, including engineering, biology, biochemistry, physics, plant sciences, chemistry, statistics, mathematics and computing.

This doctoral training programme combines the fundamental understanding of biological systems with the principles of engineering, so as to create the next generation of industrial and academic leaders in this nascent field. The CDT focuses on the design and engineering of biologically based parts, novel devices and systems, as well as the redesign of existing natural biological systems across all scales for molecules to organisms.

SynBioCDT builds on the multidisciplinary expertise offered by the research environment at the Universities of Oxford, Bristol and Warwick to provide training to cover all aspects of this extremely broad remit, including not only individual cells, but also self-assembled biomimetic systems, engineered microbial communities and multicellular organisms.

The training programme has been created in partnership with industrial, academic and public-facing organisations and includes responsible innovation, transferrable skills and outreach activities. SynBioCDT will endow you with the necessary skills to fulfil the potential of synthetic biology and to have a strong impact in this area.

The first seven months of the course are devoted to acquiring advanced theoretical and technical skills that form the backbone of synthetic biology, drawing from the engineering, mathematical, physical, chemical and biological sciences through a combination of intensive lecture courses and project work. Each taught module lasts for either one, two or three weeks and is assessed using a method appropriate to the course, for example, presentations, group assignments or assessed written work. This will be complemented with relevant research and communication skills training throughout the four years of the programme.

After completion of the taught training phase, two exploratory research projects of ten weeks duration each are undertaken, at least one of which will be in the institution to which the candidate is admitted (Oxford, Warwick or Bristol). The DPhil project then follows, also based primarily in the host institution.

Graduate destinations

The Synthetic Biology CDT will produce internationally excellent researchers with key skills desired by prospective employers in the nascent field of synthetic biology.

Students graduating from the CDT will be ideally placed to progress into many different scientific careers, including multidisciplinary research in both academia and industry.

Multiple applications

In applying for this programme, you may submit further applications for up to two of the following associated programmes without paying an additional application fee.

You may only apply to one programme from Group B under this arrangement without paying further application fees.

Group A
Group B
Biomedical Imaging (EPSRC and MRC Centre for Doctoral Training)DPhil in Biochemistry
Interdisciplinary Bioscience (BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership)DPhil in Condensed Matter Physics
Synthesis for Biology and Medicine (EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training)DPhil in Engineering Science
Systems Biology (EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training)DPhil in Plant sciences

For instructions, see Applying for more than one course in the Application Guide.

Changes to the course

The University will seek to deliver this course in accordance with the description set out in this course page. However, there may be situations in which it is desirable or necessary for the University to make changes in course provision, either before or after registration. For further information, please see our page on changes to courses.

Entry requirements for entry in 2016-17

Within equal opportunities principles and legislation, applications will be assessed in the light of an applicant’s ability to meet the following entry requirements:

1. Academic ability

Proven and potential academic excellence

Applicants are normally expected to be predicted or have achieved a first-class or strong upper second-class undergraduate degree with honours (or equivalent international qualifications), as a minimum, in physical sciences (eg engineering, physics, plant sciences, chemistry, statistics, mathematics, computing) or life sciences (eg biology, biochemistry) with the capacity to develop strong mathematical skills. 

For applicants with a degree from the USA, the minimum GPA sought is 3.5 out of 4.0.

If you hold non-UK qualifications and wish to check how your qualifications match these requirements, you can contact the National Recognition Information Centre for the United Kingdom (UK NARIC).

No Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or GMAT scores are sought.

Other appropriate indicators will include:

References/letters of recommendation 

Your references will support intellectual ability, academic achievement, motivation and ability to work in a group.

References should generally be academic, though one professional reference will be accepted out of the three references required overall.

Written work produced by the student

Written work is not required.

Research proposal

The research proposal should be in English and written in the form of a 1,000-word essay.

This will be assessed for your research interests and your reasons for applying to the course, as well as how your background and experience relates to Synthetic Biology.  It is not necessary to provide a detailed research proposal, but you should give a brief description of the area in which you wish to carry out research.  This need not be specific, if you have not yet decided on your preferred topic or area.  Your proposal will be assessed for coherence, evidence of motivation and understanding of the proposed area of study.  

Performance at interview(s)

Interviews are normally held as part of the admissions process for all suitably qualified applicants following initial assessment by the Programme Directors. Interview panels usually consist of three members, including a Programme Director and and academic expert in the areas relevant to the student. Interviews last for around 30 minutes and include questions and exercises to ascertain the level of mathematics and biology obtained by the applicant to date. If necessary, interviews will be held via telephone or Skype for non-UK based candidates.


Although publications are not required, a strong publication record may advantage an application.

2. English language requirement

Applicants whose first language is not English are usually required to provide evidence of proficiency in English at the higher level required by the University.

3. Availability of supervision, teaching, facilities and places

The following factors will govern whether candidates can be offered places:

  • The ability of the Doctoral Training Centre  to provide the appropriate supervision, research opportunities, teaching and facilities for your chosen area of work.
  • Minimum and maximum limits to the numbers of students who may be admitted to Oxford's research and taught programmes.

The provision of supervision, where required, is subject to the following points:

  • The allocation of graduate supervision is the responsibility of the Doctoral Training Centre  and it is not always possible to accommodate the preferences of incoming graduate students to work with a particular member of staff. 
  • Under exceptional circumstances a supervisor may be found outside the Doctoral Training Centre.

Where possible your academic supervisor will not change for the duration of your course, however it may be necessary to assign a new academic supervisor during the course of study or before registration for reasons which might include sabbatical leave, maternity leave or change in employment.

4. Disability, health conditions and specific learning difficulties

Students are selected for admission without regard to gender, marital or civil partnership status, disability, race, nationality, ethnic origin, religion or belief, sexual orientation, age or social background.

Decisions on admission are based solely on the individual academic merits of each candidate and the application of the entry requirements appropriate to the course.

Further information on how these matters are supported during the admissions process is available in our guidance for applicants with disabilities.

5. Assessors

All recommendations to admit a student involve the judgment of at least two members of academic staff with relevant experience and expertise, and additionally must be approved by the Director of Graduate Studies or Admissions Committee (or equivalent departmental persons or bodies).

Admissions panels or committees will always include at least one member of academic staff who has undertaken appropriate training.

6. Other information

Whether you have yet secured funding is not taken into consideration in the decision to make an initial offer of a place, but please note that the initial offer of a place will not be confirmed until you have completed a Financial Declaration.

The taught component of the programme is held within the University of Oxford Doctoral Training Centre (DTC). The DTC provides excellent facilities specifically designed to promote interdisciplinary study and currently houses seven programmes of study with multiple seminar rooms available. All students have individual study spaces with access to a desktop computer and appropriate IT support. Social break-out space is provided and there is a small well-stocked library.

The DTC provides opportunities for all cohorts to come together regularly for both academic and social purposes.

The short projects and DPhil projects are hosted in a range of departments across OxfordBristol and Warwick


There are over 1,000 full graduate scholarships available for courses starting in 2016-17. Full scholarships will cover your course and college fees and provide a grant for living costs. Information about the full range of funding available can be found in the Fees and funding section.

For over 70% of Oxford scholarships, nothing more than the standard course application is usually required. If you fulfil the eligibility criteria and apply by the relevant January deadline, you will be automatically considered. Use the Fees, funding and scholarship search to find out whether you are eligible for scholarships which require an additional application. If you are, the tool will include links to full details of how to apply.

Divisional funding opportunities

There are many different funding opportunities for students studying in the Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences (MPLS) Division at Oxford. Funding covering fees and living costs is available for a substantial number of doctoral training programmes. Research Council and other funding opportunities are also available for doctoral programmes in MPLS subjects.

Departmental funding opportunities

Additional funding opportunities may also be offered by your department. Department scholarships are included in the funding search tool, with links to further information. More details on funding opportunities may also be available on the department’s website.


Annual fees for entry in 2016-17

Fee status

Tuition fee

College fee

Total annual fees

(including Islands)

The fees shown above are the annual tuition and college fees for this course for entry in the stated academic year; for courses lasting longer than one year, please be aware that fees will usually increase annually. For details, please see our guidance on likely increases to fees and charges.

Tuition and college fees are payable each year for the duration of your fee liability (your fee liability is the length of time for which you are required to pay tuition and college fees).

Following the period of fee liability, you may also be required to pay a University continuation charge and a college continuation charge. The University and college continuation charges are shown on the Continuation charges page.

Students admitted by the University of Oxford are liable for 12 terms of fees. Students admitted by the University of Warwick or the University of Bristol are enrolled at the University of Oxford for three terms in the first academic year of their programme and are liable for three terms of fees at the University of Oxford.

For more information about tuition fees, college fees and fee liability, please see the Fees section of this website. EU applicants should refer to our dedicated webpage for details on the impact of the result of the UK referendum on its membership of the European Union.

Additional information

There are no compulsory elements of this programme that entail additional costs beyond fees and living costs.  However, please note that, depending on your choice of research topic and the research required to complete it, you may incur additional expenses, such as travel expenses, research expenses, and field trips. You will need to meet these additional costs, although you may be able to apply for small grants from your department and/or college to help you cover some of these expenses.

Living costs

In addition to your tuition and college fees, you will need to ensure that you have adequate funds to support your living costs for the duration of your course.

For the 2016-17 academic year, the range of likely living costs is between £970 and £1433 for each month spent in Oxford. Full information, including a breakdown of likely living costs in Oxford for items such as food, accommodation and study costs, is available on our Living costs page.

Please consult the University of Warwick website or the University of Bristol website for further information about living costs while studying at these institutions.

Before making a formal application applicants are encouraged to submit a copy of an up-to-date CV for assessment using the contact details provided on this page. You are not expected to make contact with an academic member of staff prior to submitting your application.

The set of materials you should send with an application to this course comprises:

  • a research proposal of around 1,000 words
  • a CV/résumé
  • three references
  • official transcripts detailing your university-level qualifications and marks to date

References should generally be academic, though one professional reference will be accepted out of the three references required overall.

Whilst you must register three referees, the department may start the assessment of your application if two of the three references are submitted by the course deadline and your application is otherwise complete. Please note that you may still be required to ensure your third referee supplies a reference for consideration.

For continuing Oxford graduates

If you are a current Oxford graduate on an eligible graduate taught course and you are using the readmission form to apply for this course, you are permitted to re-submit the following documents from your previous application:

  • English proficiency scores, if appropriate.

If you are permitted to reuse any references, you should indicate which you wish to reuse in your application form and we will add these to your application after you submit.

If you are permitted to reuse other documents, like your transcript or written work, you must upload your own copies of these files to your application.

For further information on the readmission process and your eligibility to use this process, see our guidance for continuing Oxford graduates.