Supporting future pioneers of computer science

When Jurgen van Gael joined London-based start-up Rangespan – a company which develops analytical tools to help retailers grow and optimise their online range – he found his combination of scientific and practical experience to be crucial for making an impact in the start-up environment.

Jurgen is one of the 200 PhD students that Microsoft Research has been supporting in Europe since the launch of its PhD Scholarship Programme in 2004. The highly competitive programme supports PhD Scholars at research institutions across Europe, in research areas ranging from core computing to biological and social sciences.

Besides funding, PhD Scholars benefit from close collaboration with researchers at Microsoft. In addition to their academic supervisor, each scholar has a co-supervisor at the research lab. Regular lab visits are encouraged and about half of the scholars pursue a 12-week internship in one of the Microsoft Research labs, especially in Cambridge, Redmond or Bangalore. Such close collaboration provides the students with a good understanding of industry perspective on R&D and the needs of the business sector.

This is summed up by Gael’s testimony: “The Microsoft PhD Scholarship gave me as much freedom as I wanted to perform my doctoral machine learning research. In combination with regular advice from some of the world’s most influential researchers, I not only learned a valuable set of scientific skills but also how to connect my research matter in the real world.”

An essential part of the programme is the annual PhD Summer School in Cambridge where students are exposed to cutting-edge research in areas much broader than their own and are provided with basic training on topics such as entrepreneurship and presentation skills. This training helps them to showcase their research work in the most effective way. The school also represents a fantastic opportunity for networking, not just with other PhD students, but also with researchers from Microsoft and collaborating universities.

Good education and life-long learning are fundamental for the success of research and innovation. We believe that the next generation of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs must be equipped with the knowledge and skills required for pioneering research and sustained technological development. High-technology industry helps to bring the benefits of such research to the general public. Collaboration between academia and industry is vital for this:

  • Industry represents a source of substantial independent R&D funding and activity;

  • It’s a disseminator of most market-ready innovations;

  • It’s the best source of information on market needs and developments

Why is Microsoft investing in PhD students? The programme facilitates lab research and enables deep and long-term collaborations with leading research organisations in the region. For Andrew Blake, Laboratory Director at Microsoft Research Cambridge: “PhD Students are essential as they are willing to try out new research projects. Working with them increases our ability to explore new ideas and contribute to the sustainability of the research lab.”

Collaborations with a number of research organisations in the region, such as Max Planck Institutes in Germany and the University of Edinburgh in the UK, are so strong that both sides have engaged more deeply in the connection by jointly funding a number of scholarships.

Today, almost 80 PhD Scholars have completed their studies, many of them moving on to very promising careers in academia and industry – some, of course, continuing with Microsoft, working in research labs or product teams. Jamie Shotton, past scholar and now senior researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge says: “The quality of supervision from my Microsoft Research Cambridge co-supervisor was extremely high. Being on the programme opened up great opportunities for me: I did three internships, one of which was co-hosted by Microsoft Research Redmond and the Robotics Studio team. That gave me experience of both academic work and product development.”

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