Optical Biology MPhil/PhD

London, Bloomsbury

The Optical Biology PhD programme will train future research leaders to answer fundamental questions in biology by exploiting and developing state-of-the-art optical techniques. The programme brings together life scientists, physicists, chemists and computational scientists at UCL, with world-leading industrial and academic partners, to deliver an integrated training programme in the most advanced optical methods and analysis tools.

UK students International students
Study mode
UK tuition fees (2024/25)
Overseas tuition fees (2024/25)
4 calendar years
6 calendar years
Programme starts
October 2024
February 2025
May 2025
Applications accepted

Entry requirements

A minimum of an upper second-class UK Bachelor's degree in cell biology, physics, chemistry, engineering or a closely related subject, or an overseas qualification of an equivalent standard.

The English language level for this programme is: Level 3

UCL Pre-Master's and Pre-sessional English courses are for international students who are aiming to study for a postgraduate degree at UCL. The courses will develop your academic English and academic skills required to succeed at postgraduate level.

Further information can be found on our English language requirements page.

If you are intending to apply for a time-limited visa to complete your UCL studies (e.g., Student visa, Skilled worker visa, PBS dependant visa etc.) you may be required to obtain ATAS clearance. This will be confirmed to you if you obtain an offer of a place. Please note that ATAS processing times can take up to six months, so we recommend you consider these timelines when submitting your application to UCL.

Equivalent qualifications

Country-specific information, including details of when UCL representatives are visiting your part of the world, can be obtained from the International Students website.

International applicants can find out the equivalent qualification for their country by selecting from the list below. Please note that the equivalency will correspond to the broad UK degree classification stated on this page (e.g. upper second-class). Where a specific overall percentage is required in the UK qualification, the international equivalency will be higher than that stated below. Please contact Graduate Admissions should you require further advice.

About this degree

This is the first UK PhD programme offering multidisciplinary training in the major advanced light-based methods that are transforming all areas of biomedical research. It will also offer students outstanding opportunities to undertake internships and training with our industrial and academic partners, promoting their career development and providing them with attractive post-PhD prospects.

Who this course is for

Inquisitive, smart, adaptable and ambitious applicants.

What this course will give you

Optical Biology is an interdisciplinary field which involves developing new optical technology for studying the interaction of light (i.e. photons) with biological organisms, tissues, cells, and molecules in order to solve fundamental open questions in biology.

We are committed to being part of a positive and inclusive research environment. We believe scientific excellence must be accompanied by an improved work environment and career support for trainees.

This programme will offer students outstanding opportunities to undertake internships and training with our industrial and academic partners, promoting their career development and providing them with attractive post-PhD prospects.

Academic Partners: Hokkaido University, Institute for Genetic Medicine; Max Planck Institute of Cell Biology and Genetics; University of California, San Francisco (UCSF); Yale University.

Industrial Partners: Andor Technology; Coherent; Eli Lilly; 3i; Newport; Spectra-Physics; Nikon; Perkin Elmer; Scientific Volume Imaging; Zeiss.

UCL has invested heavily in world-class facilities for biological observation across scales. These advanced imaging centres `Super- Resolution and Light Microscopy, `High-Content High-Throughput Screening, `Deep and Light-Sheet Imaging, and `Bioimage Informatics - are paired with specialised technology development laboratories that also provide teaching and training facilities. Students will be able to take advantage of this and will learn from experts in the field.

The foundation of your career

The unique identity of this programme lies in its combination of world class biomedical researchers partnering with outstanding engineers, physicists, chemists and computer scientists from academia and industry to create the first, wide-ranging and cohesive optical biology training programme. It will equip students to tackle major biological problems across scales, by training them in the use and development of optical methods and applying them in a range of model systems. Career development is supported by 'career transition placements' provided to facilitate the transition from PhD to the next workplace destination.


Our unique programme will enable PhD students to achieve their full potential, challenging them intellectually, while providing the technical and personal support required to ensure their success. Hand-picked PhD committees and our emphasis on building and maintaining a strong sense of cohort, in addition to integration with the wider student body, will all serve to create a highly supportive environment. At the end of their training, students' career progression will be supported along multiple paths via 'career transition placements' ensuring the students successful transition continues to their next destination in industry or academia.


There are plenty of networking opportunities open to students on the programme these include:

  • Meeting with external seminar speakers, including a student-invited speaker
  • Through internships at our academic or industrial partners
  • Via the student-organised annual symposium
  • By attending national/international scientific conferences

Teaching and learning

A supportive and inclusive environment, where students have access to a wide range of training in soft and academic skills, as well as access to training from other programmes.

A bespoke Optical Biology PhD programme induction timetable and a bespoke Optical Biology tutorial series, together with access to cell biology tutorials and other training events from partner PhD programmes and the UCL Doctoral School represent some of the training events associated with this doctoral programme.

You will do an examination to upgrade from MPhil to PhD.

Contact hours are agreed between the supervisor and the student.

Research areas and structure

The programme consists of a first year of mentoring, cohort building and skills training. During the first year students also complete rotation projects in between two-four different laboratories before deciding which to select for their PhD work.

Rotations provide students with experience in different areas of biology and different optical techniques, after which they select their PhD project for Years 2-4. Training continues in Years 2-4, but is tailored towards individual student needs. Training throughout the programme includes;

  • Literacy, especially writing for diverse audiences
  • Presentation skills 
  • Personal attributes, particularly assertiveness people-related skills social networking skills dealing with difficult situations 
  • Bespoke training in optical methods and cell biology
  • Internships with industrial or academic partners
  • Additional funding following completion of the PhD for career development

Research environment

The programme will be based at UCL, a world-leading environment where many major advances in optical techniques for biology have been developed, including ultra-fast 3D 2-photon microscopy, targeted 2-photon optogenetics, low power super- resolution imaging and whole-brain optical mapping.

Year 1

The First Three Months

Students are introduced to the core concepts and basic practical skills required for optical biology. Optical training (lectures, workshops and practicals) includes:

  • optical theory
  • confocal microscopy, 2-photon and 3-photon microscopy, light sheet microscopy
  • super-resolution imaging (including appropriate fluorophores and genetically encoded probes)
  • TIRF
  • optical tweezers
  • adaptive optics
  • 1-photon and 2-photon optogenetics (including optogenetic probes)
  • fluorescent reporters and fluorophores (excited state spectroscopy)
  • photolysis
  • strategies for developing new photochemical ligands to probe biological structures
  • construction of a light sheet microscope

Analysis training includes:

  • MatLab and Python programming
  • quantitative analysis methods
  • application of advanced statistical methods including machine learning techniques

The training in optical techniques and analysis methods will be complemented by research talks showcasing applications of optical techniques to biological problems.

Rotation projects

In January of Year 1, students begin a minimum of two and a maximum of four short (6-8 week) rotation projects in laboratories of their choice. After a minimum of two rotations, students can decide on a project/laboratory for their PhD work.

Professional and Transferable Skills Training

Professional and transferable skills training is embedded in Year 1 and emphasizes effective written, oral and multimedia communication, as well as data analysis skills.

PhD host lab selection

Following laboratory rotations students will choose a host laboratory for their PhD work. Each student will be assigned a PhD committee consisting of three members of the programme, for the duration of the PhD.

Committee Meeting 1

In May – June of Year 1, each student provides a short, written PhD proposal and presents a 15-minute talk to the committee outlining their proposed project. The committee provides feedback on the plan and identifies any additional training needs.

Years 2-4 | Structured Mentorship and specialist training

During years 2-4, students meet with their committees on an annual basis. Additionally, they may approach the director, co-directors, programme tutor or student mentor at any time for confidential advice or to express concerns. Students may also undertake 3-month internships in industry or academia.

Committee Meeting 2 (second year)

MPhil to PhD upgrade meeting. In August of Year 2, students meet with their management committee to discuss progress with their project, as well as identifying further skills training.

Committee Meeting 3 (third year)

March of Year 3. Review of progress and training needs, and initial discussion of post-PhD career plans.

Committee Meeting 4 (Final year)

December of Year 4. Discussion of thesis content and plans for thesis completion in September. Detailed discussion of post-PhD career plan.

At the end of Year 4, students can participate in fully funded career transition placements in industry or academia.

This programme is possible to study part-time with a maximum duration of 6 years.


Year 1

-  Required attendance at Optical Biology tutorial programme; delivered three times a week between October and the middle of December.

- First lab rotation: the rotation is usually 3 months for full-time students, but can be extended to up to 6 months for part-time students.


- second and third lab rotation

Year 3-6

- PhD research in laboratory of the student's choice, thesis preparation and submission


Throughout the course of their PhD, and if relevant to their research projects, students can opt to take internships with the industrial or academic partners of the Optical Biology Programme. In addition to these internships, an extra three months of funding is available to support a 'career transition placement'. This placement is taken once the PhD is completed and provides a stepping-stone to the next phase of a student's career.


Details of the accessibility of UCL buildings can be obtained from AccessAble accessable.co.uk. Further information can also be obtained from the UCL Student Support and Wellbeing team.

Fees and funding

Fees for this course

UK students International students
Fee description Full-time Part-time
Tuition fees (2024/25) £6,035 £3,015
Tuition fees (2024/25) £34,400 £17,200

The tuition fees shown are for the year indicated above. Fees for subsequent years may increase or otherwise vary. Where the programme is offered on a flexible/modular basis, fees are charged pro-rata to the appropriate full-time Master's fee taken in an academic session. Further information on fee status, fee increases and the fee schedule can be viewed on the UCL Students website: ucl.ac.uk/students/fees.

Additional costs

No additional costs.

Reimbursement will be made towards visa costs, the health surcharge, and reasonable relocation costs for Wellcome funded students.

For more information on additional costs for prospective students please go to our estimated cost of essential expenditure at Accommodation and living costs.

Funding your studies

The Wellcome funded 4-year PhD studentship in Optical Biology is a fully funded programme that provides:

  • A highly competitive stipend:

          Year 1: £25,954
          Year 2: £26,572
          Year 3: £27,190
          Year 4: £27,808

  • PhD registration fees at the UK student rate
  • Research expenses
  • Transferable skills training
  • Travel costs (including registration fees and child care or other caring responsibility cost)
  • Transition costs at the end of the studentship to help you move to the next stage of your career
The Optical Biology programme is also open to students with funding from different sources ('aligned' students). These students have funding source specific terms and conditions, including funding source specific stipends, but have access to the vast majority of events and embedded training on the OB programme.

For a comprehensive list of the funding opportunities available at UCL, including funding relevant to your nationality, please visit the Scholarships and Funding website.

Next steps

Information about the Optical Biology programme can be found at https://opticalbiology.org/. Prospective students can also contact the Programme Tutor or the Directors with questions about the Programme. Shortlisted prospective students will have the option to attend an on-line pre-interview session to help them prepare for the interview and where they can talk to current members of the programme.

Please note that you may submit applications for a maximum of two graduate programmes (or one application for the Law LLM) in any application cycle.

UCL is regulated by the Office for Students.