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Department of Plant Sciences

This Research and Teaching Concordat is for Research Fellows and Postdoctoral Research Associates at the Department of Plant Sciences.


Background to the Department

The Department recognises the essential research contribution of Fellows and postdoctoral scientists and welcomes the support they give to undergraduate teaching and postgraduate training. This document provides an introduction for Senior Fellows, Junior Fellows and Postdocs to the Department and to the Cambridge system, and defines the contribution they can make to teaching in addition to their research programme, and summarises the ways in which the Department can promote their career development.
Senior Research Fellowships: Independent Fellowships, allowing individual research groups to be established usually over five years, some renewable over three years. These include Royal Society University Research Fellows, Gatsby Fellows, BBSRC David Phillips Fellows and some NERC Fellows.
Junior Fellowships and Postdoctoral Research Associates: three to five years, usually fixed term. These include Dorothy Hodgkin Fellows, Marie Curie Fellows, College Junior Research Fellows and Postdoctoral Research Associates.



Plant Sciences at Cambridge includes the Department of Plant Sciences (24 research groups) together with colleagues at the Sainsbury Laboratory (4 research groups). Of the Department's research groups, 13 are based at the Department's Downing Site, two are based at the Botanic Garden, three are based at Cambridge Conservation Research Institute in the David Attenborough Building and six are based at the Crop Science Centre - a collaboration between the University and NIAB. The Department makes a major contribution to the Global Food Security IRC, Synthetic Biology IRC, Energy Transformations IRC and Cambridge Zero.
The Department is currently funded by more than 98 research grants with a value of around £57m from a diverse range of sponsors, including UKRI constituent Research Councils, principally as responsive mode funding via BBSRC, NERC, EPSRC and the Royal Society, and targeted funding via GCRF and Newton Fund; charitable bodies such as The Leverhulme Trust, The Gatsby Foundation, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and The Isaac Newton Trust; government funding eg DEFRA, FCDO; European Union funding; the Human Frontier Science Programme; industrial sponsors. There are around 60 Postdoctoral Research Associates in the Department, 3 Junior Research Fellows, 7 Senior Research Fellows and 46 Assistant Staff. There are approximately 95 Postgraduate students based in the Department, and at the Sainsbury Laboratory, Crop Science Centre, NIAB and BAS. Research excellence was recognised in the 2014 REF submission from the School of Biological Sciences by the volume of staff identified as researchers of world-leading or international status, as well as a supportive Strategic Research Review in 2019. A recent Learning and Teaching Review acknowledged the excellence, enthusiasm and commitment of staff, and commended the learning support given to students and the introduction of new teaching initiatives.



The Department's primary site is located on the Downing Site, with a dedicated team for managing and resourcing facilities. These include a state-of-the-art Plant Growth Facility and Algal Innovation Centre  situated at the Botanic Garden, adjacent to the Sainsbury Laboratory. There are experimental glasshouse facilities maintained by Botanic Garden staff. The Crop Science Centre also has plant growth facilities and external crop trial plots can also be accessed via NIAB. Van runs transport plant material and equipment between the sites.
The Department has one large lecture theatre, a small lecture theatre, a seminar room, a teaching laboratory, two supervision rooms, a write-up room and a Departmental library. The Herbarium, containing major collections of international significance and more than 50,000 type specimens is situated in the Sainsbury Laboratory. A programme of office and laboratory refurbishment has been completed in recent years, with an investment in computing clusters and their support. Other centralised facilities include autoclaving, workshop and stores. There are also some facilities for maintaining plant growth and algal cultures on the Downing Street site. The Department also has a confocal microscopy suite, as well as mass spectrometry (GC-MS, IRMS) and gas exchange/fluorescence equipment for plant (eco)physiology. A vibrant tea room provides the focus for daily scientific exchanges and occasional social events.



The Department has a Resources Committee, chaired by the Head of Department, which administers departmental research and equipment funds and co-ordinates a mentoring programme. A Biological Safety committee monitors and gives approval to any new projects using genetic modification. The Equality, Diversity and Wellbeing Committee work to support and recognise the achievements of members of the Department, respecting minorities, gender identities and cultural diversity, as well as unconscious bias, in the workplace. Contract research staff, professional services staff and postgraduates each have individual organisational committees and are represented on the Departmental Staff Committee, which meets on the first Tuesday of each Term. The Department also organises termly Heads of Group mornings to discuss forthcoming research grant submissions, as well as informal Heads of Group lunches to advance key strategic issues. There is a annual Departmental Research Day, normally held in December, at which Senior Research Fellows will be asked to contribute.
At postgraduate level, the Departmental Postgraduate Education Committee is managed by a Graduate Administrator is responsible for admissions and reviews termly assessments from postgraduate students and their supervisors. The Teaching Committee, managed by the Teaching Administrator, co-ordinates teaching delivery and receives and reviews the termly reports from each contributing course committee, as well as examiners' reports. A Teaching Associate also organises demonstrating and supervisors for undergraduate classes, often undertaken by Fellows and Research Associates.
The Departmental Administrator Catherine Butler co-ordinates ordinates the team facilitating overall Departmental administration. This includes HR, finance, reception, undergraduate and postgraduate support, devising and implementing strategic planning relating to teaching, research and facilities in conjunction with the Head of Department, Deputy Departmental Administrator, Principal Technician and Departmental Committees HR Issues and overall Departmental administration, including line management and external representation. The Deputy Departmental Administrator and Accounts Manager Del Hawtin coordinates the activities of the Finance Team as well as providing external research grant costings and submission with the central Research Office Organisation and Finance Offices, as well as external auditing. The Accounts Office maintains reporting on accounts and budgets, and submission of expenses claims etc.
Consumables not obtainable through the stores have to be purchased via the University accounting system (CUFS), following University competition procedures. Dik Jeffrey in the Stores can initially help with processing orders. Principal Technician Marcus Jarman co-ordinates requirements for specialised laboratory installations, equipment or space requirements whilst Richard Fieldsend deals with computing issues. Safety is co-ordinated by Professor John Carr, with the assistance of Sue Aspinall Departmental Safety Manager.


What to expect from the Department

Senior Fellows, as Research Group Heads, have privileges and consequently some of the responsibilities of University Teaching Officers (UTOs: Professors, Readers and Lecturers). The privileges include opportunities to apply for research grants and for quota PhD Studentships allocated to the Department, to bid for space, to build up a research group and to participate in academic staff meetings and discussion sessions. In return they will normally be expected to make some contribution to teaching (e.g. lectures in Part II or postgraduate series, supervision and assessment of Part II research projects and Part I demonstrating, on an unpaid basis) and to examining, and to help with various aspects of "research administration" (e.g. safety).
Shorter-term Fellowships usually depend on sponsorship by a senior colleague in the Department, within whose research group the Fellow may also be accommodated ('hosted'). These Fellows are under pressure to deliver research results in a shorter time frame, and this limits the contribution that they can be expected to make to the Department generally.
Postdoctoral research associates are usually supported by a Research Council grant, or research grant from a Government Agency or Industry, and are important members of each Research Group. Whilst their research efforts and outputs are primarily targeted towards the needs of fulfilling the specific aims of the research grant, we welcome their contribution to helping the supervision of PhD students, Part II practical projects or demonstrating practical classes, for which payment is made on the basis of experience and expertise, whilst payments for supervisions can be claimed directly from Colleges.
College JRFs may be expected to undertake specific teaching duties for their Colleges, but it is also hoped that through their association with Research Groups they will undertake teaching duties, where applicable, with Part II project students or through supervisions.
  • Career prospects: The Department cannot make any commitment to support Senior Fellows beyond their Fellowships. However, the Fellows will be welcome to apply for vacant University Lectureships.

  • Space: Some laboratory space will be retained for allocation to Senior Fellows. In some cases, Senior Fellows will be accommodated within the space of an established UTO (their 'host').

  • Equipment: Senior Fellows have the same rights of access to Departmental equipment as UTOs. The prospective Fellow should define the equipment (some will be Departmental and some may belong to individual UTOs or other Fellows) to which s/he requires access; this is particularly critical for shorter-term Senior Fellows. It is in both the Department's and the Senior Fellow's interests to ensure that projected use of equipment is examined in detail before the candidate accepts a Fellowship.

  • Supervision of PhD Students: Senior Fellows are required to attend the Staff Development course on Supervision of PhD students run by the University. They can compete for Research Council Quota Studentships allocated to the Department, but will need to ensure that they are on the BBSRC approved lists before doing so; names of candidates for supervisor status should be submitted to the Research Councils (via the Head of Department) when their Fellowships are confirmed. Senior Fellows need to consider the timescale for supervision (3-4 years), and ensure there are adequate space and facilities available for the student.


Career development and support

The Department will appoint two mentors for each Senior Fellow, who are allocated by the Head of Department after discussion with the Research Committee and the individual Fellow.
The Centre for Personal and Professional Development facilitates learning opportunities for all university staff, enabling them to achieve their potential and contribute to the provision of excellent teaching and research in the University. The CPPD runs numerous courses that include Educational Development, Professional Development, IT skills and languages. These are free and open to all members of the university. They are advertised in CPPD brochures and on their website and from the department by e-mail. There is also a dedicated Careers Advisor for postdoctoral members of the School of Biological Sciences or email Programme for principal investigators. Additional documentation, including a Universities UK VITAE Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, can be found as a briefing for staff development.
Other courses are available from the Postgraduate School of Biological Sciences, which looks after the educational and career needs of Postgraduate students and early career researchers in the Faculties of Biology, Clinical Medicine and Veterinary Medicine and in their affiliated institutions.
Full training in supervising underPostgraduate students can be obtained though both Postgraduate school courses, as well as from additional educational resources posted on the electronic database Moodle which is used to support all teaching resources.
Training in safety is compulsory and at some time during the first year of joining the Department, all new staff must attend a safety course (usually in the first or second week of October, and occasionally repeated on an ad hoc basis).
Career development useful resources:

What the Department expects in return

We hope to provide a supportive environment for the development of research careers, with Fellows and Research Associates participating in individual Research Group meetings, as well as "supergroup" meetings in closely related subjects (e.g. Epigenetics, Ecology, Evolution and Development, Metabolism, Molecular Biology of Photosynthesis). Participation (and perhaps organisation) of Departmental seminars (Thursday 13.00 in term time) also leads dissemination, discussion and development of research themes.
The Department maintains a friendly, supportive, informed and enthusiastic environment for our undergraduate students, which is particularly important for recruitment into more advanced degree programmes (e.g. second year IB Plant and Microbial Sciences, and final year, Part II). The support of fellows and postdocs is vital to this continuity. Senior Fellows will be expected to make some contribution to Departmental research administration, and within the portfolio of undergraduate teaching (see below) and Tripos examining. We believe that this can enhance job prospects and career development, although if problems do arise when this teaching commitment impacts excessively on a research programme this will be reviewed with the Senior Fellow and his/her mentor and the Head of Department. A Senior Fellow may be asked to help with teaching/examining in the ways listed below. These duties are unpaid (but payment for any undergraduate supervisions given can be claimed from the relevant Colleges). More junior Fellows and Post doctoral researchers may be asked to contribute to some aspects of this teaching support, for which payments may be available for certain duties. It is the policy of the Department to encourage post-doctoral scientists to develop their careers by acquiring teaching experience in at least some of the following ways:

Part I (first and second year undergraduate) practical courses

Junior fellows and Postdocs are welcome to demonstrate practical classes for 1st and 2nd year students (Part IA NST Biology of Cells, Physiology of Organisms and Evolution and Behaviour; Part IB NST Plant and Microbial Sciences and Cell and Developmental Biology). Practical classes normally run from 10.00 or 11.00 to 16.00 or 17.00. and depending on the subject, demonstrators should aim to undertake one day a week. Demonstrators assist a Senior Demonstrator (normally a UTO/Senior Fellow) who will ensure that you are familiar with the principles and equipment before you start. Demonstrators (Postgrads, Postdocs and Junior Fellowships) are paid by the Department on an hourly basis at University defined rates.

Part II (third year undergraduate) projects

Part II Plant Sciences students are required to carry out a research project of 12 weeks duration in either Michaelmas or Lent Terms. Established Senior Fellows (i.e. after two years in post) should supervise research projects to the same degree as UTOs. Post-doctoral scientists usually take responsibility for much of the day-to-day supervision of students working on topics closely related to their own interest. In addition to the training in overseeing a research project, supervisors receive up to a maximum of 8 hours per project which can be reclaimed from the student's college upon completion of the reporting system (CamCors) assessments.

College supervisions

Colleges are responsible for providing small group (usually 2-5 students) tutorial teaching for one hour each week in each subject. Because of the numbers of students taking the major biomedical courses there is always a demand for supervisors to take these groups for IA Biology of Cells, Physiology of Organisms and Evolution and Behaviour (first year), and IB (second year) Plant and Microbial Sciences (PMS) and Cell and Developmental Biology (CDB). Generally supervisors take on groups for part of the year - and the Department of Plant Sciences helps to co-ordinate supervisions for our IB PMS and for the Lent Term plant component of the IA Physiology course in blocks, so as to ensure consistency in interest, expertise and enthusiasm. The department maintains supervision resources to help individuals obtain the balance between remedial work and extension in each supervision. Colleges pay supervisors at a rate per hour/student. The rate per student and the number in the group will vary. The Teaching Administrator is the point of contact for supervision work organised withing the department, whilst the Mailing Lists for College Directors of Studies or course organisers is often used to seek supervisors in specific subjects.


Senior Fellows can be expected to lecture, usually in Part II Modules closely related to research interests, but also at Part IA or Part IB, particularly if an associated host UTO is taking a sabbatical or leave of absence.


This will normally involve marking answers based on Part IA, IB or II that the Senior Fellow has given. On occasion, a Senior Fellow may be invited to be a Part I examiner.

PhD advising and supervising

Senior Fellows will be expected to act as Advisors to 2 or 3 PhD students. This is an important role and helps to develop academic careers and broaden research supervision expertise. PhD progression and supervision is co-ordinated and guided by the Departmental Postgraduate Education Committee (PGEC), with formal advisors and assessors providing a support network for supervisor and postgraduate throughout. For more details on Postgraduate supervision, see below).

Postgraduate recruitment, funding and monitoring of progression

This Department provides a framework to ensure that postgraduate students (PhD and MPhil), their supervisory teams and the Department of Plant Sciences work well together during graduate studies. A Concordat provides a qualitative summary of opportunities and expectations for postgraduate students and their supervisors, and is not a substitute for the detailed explanations formally provided within key documents, which include:
The Department recognises that graduate students within the Department are drawn from a variety of backgrounds and countries, and are supported by a number of funding mechanisms, which differ in the level of support for fees, subsistence and consumables, and the period of support also varies (between 3 and 4 years for completion). Historically, UKRI have operated a rigid rule that PhD submissions must occur within a 4 year period following registration for all postgraduates within an annual cohort (both UK and overseas), to preclude sanctions being imposed on individual Departments.

Postgraduate administration system

To co-ordinate admissions, progression and completion, the Postgraduate Administrator monitors routine reporting of progress towards thesis submission, and uptake of additional training opportunities within the Department and Graduate School of Life Sciences. The framework for monitoring training and progression is formally co-ordinated through the Postgraduate Education Committee (PGEC), and regular termly reporting via CAMSIS, and annual mechanisms (reports, seminars) to monitor progression to facilitate timely completion within a maximum of 4 years for typical PhD programmes, but supervisors must recognise the length of funding (3, 3.5 or 4 years) for various scholarships must to be factored into the overall progress towards completion.
In their first year, each postgraduate must complete a brief review and project proposal within their first 6 weeks, and give a first year seminar and complete a substantial first year report within 9 months. The report is examined by viva with the Departmental Postgraduate Advisor and PGEC Advisor, and the outcome determines whether the student progresses to full PhD registration with the agreement of the Supervisor. Masters' students by Research (MPhil) undertake a similar monitoring progression and submit a short thesis summary at 9 months. In second and third years, PhD students give a formal presentation to their associated Research Supergroup, which is assessed by the supervisory team, as well as a thesis and write up plan at the start of their final year of funding. A third year poster should be presented at the Departmental Research Day, and a final year thesis plan submitted.

Recruitment and funding sources for postgraduate scholarships

Summaries of potential research projects are posted on the Departmental website, and cross linked via Research Group and Research Theme. Those for the NERC Doctoral Training Programme (C-CLEAR DTP) also co-ordinated centrally by the DTP. The Postgraduate Administrator, with advice from the PGEC Chair, monitors formal applications to the University via the Gradsaf portal. The Department tries to ensure that all applicants should initially have approached a potential supervisor to discuss a mutually agreed research project. The Postgraduate Administrator will pass the application papers to the potential supervisor, and if the applicant is deemed suitable, they should contact a member of the PGEC for assessment and to arrange the appropriate form of (remote) interview (e.g. Skype or Zoom, if not in person). If after interview, both agree to recommend acceptance, the application, with scores for various attributes based on academic performance and background, should be returned to the Postgraduate Administrator who will then enter the decision on CamSIS.
Students can apply throughout the year, but to be considered for various funding schemes the GAF must be submitted by particular deadlines, and usually no later than 7th January; please see the 'Graduate Funding Competition' document. The criteria for University funding are extremely stringent (e.g. for PhD only those scoring 26 or more out of 30 will be considered).

Sources of postgraduate support

UKRI and SBS DTP Schemes: We are contributing to intermediary co-funding of SBS DTP awards to sustain an equivalent BBSRC cohort, which will hopefully be fully restored in 2022. Currently, these awards are being co-ordinated through individual Departments, although a future BBSRC scheme will probably operate recruitment more centrally. Awards from the NERC C-CLEAR DTP system can be focussed around Climate Change and Environmental Processes, of Biology and Conservation theme.
The Cambridge Trusts and Gates Scholarships offer highly competitive awards for the strongest applicants. The Trusts offer a range of awards generally for international students, some of which are targeted towards specific overseas countries. The Gates awards are normally processed in two cohorts, one for US applicants, and one for other overseas applicants. Each Department prepares and submits a ranked list of their gathered field, based on supervisor assessments and interview scores. Some deadlines are as early as December 3rd each year.
International government scholarships- some applicants will approach holding, or about to apply, for a national award, and may need formal acceptance through the Postgraduate application process for their scholarship to be approved. Occasional self-funded overseas applicants will also apply, and the procedure for acceptance should be as stringent as for those considered for Trusts' awards.

Supervisory teams

Expert and informed supervisory teams, (including the primary supervisor and any co-supervisor, as well as Departmental and PGEC Advisors), are appointed to assess research progression through both formal meetings, and informal interactions. The supervisory team should ensure that appropriate health and safety advice and training has been provided and can also direct to appropriate authorities offering welfare guidance at Departmental or College level when required.

Facilities for research

Each supervisor initially confirms that the research programme can be supported using existing group funds. As far as possible the Department will ensure that modern analytical approaches can be undertaken, or accessed, through the provision of wet-lab bench space as and when required. Within the physical limitations of existing buildings, the Department will endeavour to offer appropriate quiet office areas which allow access to relevant literature, data analysis and focus for drafting of reports, publications and theses.

Departmental financial support

The Department recognises the differing levels of resource provision across contrasting funding schemes. When possible, the Department will use appropriate Trust Funds and reserves to support research engagement and more equable allocation of resources in response to reports of need, provided that research promise is being fulfilled. Financial resources are provided each year to promote Graduate Forum activities to promote social inclusion and build bridges between research groups and across the postgraduate cohort.

Intermission and leave to work away

For periods longer than two weeks: a non-medical intermission is an authorised break from study for such things as maternity or paternity leave, family emergencies and internships or placements; a medical intermission is a complete break from study for medical reasons. Applications seeking approval made via CamSIS, and the period of registration may be extended by the length of an intermission, although a graduate stipend may be limited to part of that period.
Students may also apply to undertake research away from Cambridge (e.g. fieldwork), or for health and welfare reasons (such as during the Covid-9 pandemic). A fieldwork fund is maintained by the SBS and funds allocated with advice from the PGEC, after completion of an application form with appropriate health and safety assurances.


College membership

As an employee of the University you are not required to be a member of a college. Whereas, there are some benefits to being associated with a college, there can be demands placed upon your time to undertake College / supervision duties. Colleges provide research fellowships, and more recently postdoctoral College Research Associates Schemes, sometimes with office accommodation, for which there is an expectation that teaching will be undertaken. They can also provide a stimulating academic environment in which to meet researchers from other faculties. The colleges have different requirements for numbers of teaching fellowships and research fellowships so it is advisable to check their websites to look for advertisements for any research fellowships (which are in open competition), whereas teaching fellowships and CRA status are more usually offered to individuals who have already carried out college supervisions.
College memberships useful resources: