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Photo©Adam Higazi 2011,Tarok masquerades; new year festivities at Pil Gani, Langtang - southern Plateau State, central Nigeria

MPhil Coursework and Assessment

Assessed coursework consists of a core course, one option course, language training and a practice essay.

(i) Core Course

The interdisciplinary compulsory core course introduces students to theoretical and methodological issues in African studies, whilst at the same time conveying substantive information about the histories, cultures, politics and economies of Africa. The course comprises 36 hours of class teaching and is taught as a two-hour seminar discussion class during Michaelmas and Lent terms, with readings set in advance. Films, music, and novels are set alongside academic literature. It will provide essential background for students as they undertake the reading for their dissertations and for options courses.

We know that students will be coming from a variety of different disciplinary backgrounds. For this reason, we recommend that all students who have not studied African history read a general history of the continent: The UNESCO General History of Africa is perhaps the most comprehensive and has the advantage of being available online ( However, it has the disadvantage of being eight volumes, each at around 800 pages, and so it makes most sense to read the introductions to the volumes and chapters of particular interest. For those who prefer a single-volume history, we recommend Cambridge’s own John Iliffe’s Africans: The History of a Continent (Cambridge University Press, 2nd (2007) or 3rd (2017) edition).

The core course is assessed by a 5,000-word essay on a topic chosen from a prescribed list of questions, which counts for 20% of the final MPhil mark.

(ii) Option Courses

Option courses explore a specific theme in African studies scholarship or examine Africa from the perspective of a particular academic discipline. Such courses are usually taught across Michaelmas and Lent terms and their teaching format and structure varies according to what lecturers deem appropriate. Normally, they are taught in small seminar discussion groups (up to 15 students), for which readings are set in advance and preparation is essential. Classes can occasionally be supplemented by optional lectures, while option courses with larger class sizes may receive mostly lectures, in addition to a few seminar classes. This variation in teaching approach reflects the fact that many option courses are based in departments and faculties beyond the Centre of African Studies, giving students the opportunity to interact with students on different MPhil programmes.

Option Courses offered vary from year to year but are mostly based around Politics, History, Development Studies and Religion.

The option course is generally assessed by a 5,000-word essay on a topic devised by the student in consultation with their option course convener or assigned by the option course convener and counts for 20% of the final MPhil mark.

(iii) Language Training

When possible, all MPhil in African Studies students are enrolled for Swahili Classes at the University of Cambridge Language Centre, which is taught over 15 weeks during Michaelmas and Lent terms. Students will receive one 50 minute class per week which must be supplemented by an additional 2 hours per week of self-study. ‘Swahili Basic 1’ is a Cambridge University Language Programmes course, which means that it is open to all members of the University, both staff and students.  Students will find themselves learning with a diverse group of individuals, many of whom are likely to be PhD students interested in learning Swahili for their doctoral research. Upon completing the course students will receive a Certificate of Proficiency awarded by the Language Centre, which is recorded on the MPhil degree transcript.

Language training is a formal component of the MPhil in African Studies examination regulations, but the Course Director can grant exemption from Swahili to students who present a convincing academic case (with the support of their dissertation supervisor) to learn another language spoken in Africa. Such students may apply to study for a Certificate of Proficiency in another of the eleven CULP languages, and register for a Certificate of Attendance at the Language Centre.

Assessment of language training consists of two in-class assessments (10% each) and two exams at the end of the course in Reading Comprehension (30%) and Listening Comprehension (20%) as well as one Oral Presentation (30%).

(iv) MPhil Dissertation

The dissertation offers students the opportunity to devise, conduct and write up their own research project of between 15,000 and 20,000 words. Many students find this element of the MPhil course the most rewarding, as they enjoy the chance to work independently on a topic of great interest to them, with the benefit of expert supervision. Work on the dissertation is sustained throughout the academic year, and it is submitted towards the end of Easter term.

Students should begin their dissertation reading and research as early as possible in the academic year. On the first day of Lent term, students must submit a practice essay on a topic related to their dissertation research. Its precise form will be agreed with the supervisor, but it should aim to introduce some of the key ideas and debates that will be explored in the dissertation. For example, the essay could present a literature review or, alternatively, an annotated bibliography of relevant research sources. This essay is compulsory and a pass mark must be achieved, but the numerical result does not count in the final MPhil mark. Supervision will be offered for the practice essay, enabling students to receive advice and constructive criticism on the academic content and writing style of their work, which will help students to improve the quality of material they submit for final assessment.

The practice essay also provides a useful body of work for preparing the dissertation proposal, which is submitted in week 3 of Lent term. The dissertation proposal is not formally assessed, but is considered for approval by the CAS Graduate Education Committee. It should be 3-4 pages long and must include a title, a short literature review, a set of research questions, and a statement on their research methodology.

Work on the dissertation continues through Lent and Easter terms, and students remain in regular consultation with their supervisor. Supervision styles will vary, but it is expected that students will have about 8-10 hours of one-to-one engagement with their supervisor over the course of the year Early in the Easter term, a dissertation workshop is held, which gives all students on the course an opportunity to discuss the progress of their work with academic staff and other graduate students. Submission of the dissertation is at the end of Easter term marks the formal end of the MPhil course.

Examples of dissertation topics in previous years include:

  • The politics of homosexuality in Uganda
  • Enemies to allies? Congo and Rwanda’s dynamic relationship
  • A special place for China? How Zambia has used economic zones to attract new foreign investment
  • Boxing and sexuality in Lagos, Nigeria, 1950-1970
  • Development of the Lamu port: Connecting Kenya or a high modernist mirage?
  • Rural institutions and political (dis)order? A case study of chieftaincies in Zimbabwe
  • Ending Apartheid: 'Spoilers' and violence in South Africa's transition, 1990-1994
  • The soldier and the state in the Congo crisis: The unprofessional legacy of the national Congolese army [Published in African Security (Volume 6, Issue 2, 2013)]
  • Exploring the elements of East African hip hop culture
  • Performance and identity in Senegalese urban culture, 1930-1950
  • Education and nation-building in Tanzania, 1967-1985

Throughout Lent and Easter terms, students will continue to research and write up their dissertations in regular consultation with their supervisor. The dissertation is submitted at the end of Easter Term and counts for 60% of the final degree mark. Students are expected to remain in Cambridge until early July in case an oral examination (viva voce) is required.

MPhil Supervision

The supervisor’s role is to help students clarify and develop their own ideas. They offer advice on refining a research topic, on appropriate academic literature to read, on research resources and techniques, and on writing-up the final dissertation. They should not impose their own interests upon students, nor should students expect to be ‘spoon-fed’. Graduate students in Cambridge are expected to be able to think for themselves and to have the capacity and enthusiasm for organising their own research, while working mostly on their own initiative. The frequency of meetings with a supervisor is a matter for mutual agreement and will vary according to the stage of the dissertation work and each student’s particular needs, but a rough guideline is around 8-10 hours of one-to-one supervision over the year. As a minimum, students should meet and agree a realistic work schedule with their supervisor at the start of each academic term, and then meet again to review progress at the end of term. The expectation is that students should initiate supervisions by requesting appointments, rather than waiting for supervisors to contact them.

The MPhil office

Centre of African Studies
Alison Richard Building
7 West Road
Cambridge CB3 9DT
For a map, click here
MPhil administrator: Ms Victoria Jones
Tel: +44 (0) 1223 334396