skip to primary navigationskip to content


Graduate study at Cambridge is a relatively recent phenomenon. The PhD as a formal arrangement developed as a response to growing demand from domestic and international research students following the Second World War, and this demand has risen ever since.

The initial boom in student numbers of the 1940s and ’50s led to a severe shortage of College accommodation. Whilst science students spent most of their time in departments, arts and humanities students suffered from isolated accommodation in rented houses away from College. As this was a new problem for Colleges and the University, it was at first ignored.

In 1954 the wife of the then Master of Peterhouse, Mrs Burkill, intervened on behalf of graduate students against treatment that she regarded as unfair. She called a meeting that resulted in the formation of the Junior Graduate Society, later the Graduate Union Society, against considerable University opposition. In 1962 the University finally officially recognised this group as The Graduate Society, with Mrs Burkill as its President. Initially operating out of Fitzwilliam House, opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum, she provided a space in which graduates could socialize, and was at one point cooking meals daily for upwards of 150 people. ‘GradSoc‘ quickly became the social focus of graduate life, and rapidly demonstrated to the Colleges how large and valuable the graduate population had become.

In 1969 Mrs Burkill handed over responsibility of GradSoc to graduate students themselves, and by 1981 GradSoc had become Cambridge University Graduate Union – the GU. Over the ’80s and ’90s our central services altered to keep pace with changing graduate needs. Since 1991 there has been one paid, full-time sabbatical officer, the President, who must always have been a graduate student at Cambridge in the year preceding their term in office.

Now, the GU focuses on four key areas: representation, services, welfare and events. At our premises at 17 Mill Lane there is a shop and service point that provides thesis-binding, crested stationery and other product, as well as the Students' Unions' Advice Service. The GU is one of the only Students’ Unions in the UK catering exclusively to graduate students.