PhD Blog: Surviving your PhD Upgrade
By Merve Mollaahmetoglu
“The upgrade is not there to catch you out, but to help you stay on course”
First of all, what is an upgrade? An upgrade is an internal examination process that PhD students are required to go through around 9-18 months into their programme to demonstrate that their research to date matches the standards of a PhD programme.
This may sound quite daunting. It can be more helpful to think of the upgrade as an opportunity to get feedback on your project from researchers other than your supervisors, and to check up on your progress. If there are any problems with your research project, for instance the research question, methods or analyses, these can be identified and addressed at the upgrade stage rather than later on.
As one of the first milestones of a PhD, completing the upgrade process can be a real confidence boost against the very common imposter syndrome. I personally felt surer of my research project and plans after my upgrade.
The upgrade process:
Although the procedures vary from university to university and from discipline to discipline, the upgrade usually involves writing up a report on your research to date.
As part of my PhD programme in Psychology, I was required to complete my upgrade within 18 months of starting my PhD and to submit a report containing a brief literature review, one completed research study and a discussion of my plans for future studies. I personally enjoyed seeing all my PhD work to date coming together in the upgrade report, and it really helped me to think about my PhD as a whole by setting out my plans for future studies.
The upgrade process may also involve giving a departmental talk on your research project. This is a great opportunity to showcase your research to fellow students and academics and get ideas from people who may not be in the same research area. Unfortunately, my departmental talk is postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19. This may be the case for most people at the moment, unless they are giving the much-dreaded Zoom talk…
The upgrade viva:
The final part of my upgrade involved a ‘Mini Viva’, where examiners asked me questions about my research in the upgrade report. This involved questions about the rationale for choosing my area of research, clarification of methods and implications of my findings. This was a really useful process as my examiners helped me identify areas to clarify for my thesis write-up.
At the end of your Mini Viva, the examiners might also give you recommendations for the next stages of your PhD, for instance whether your future study plans are feasible and whether you should make any changes to methods of future studies.
I found the Mini Viva a really helpful exercise to talk about my research and answer questions about it on the spot. You can think of this as a preparation for the Viva that you will complete at the end of your PhD.
The outcome of the upgrade:
There are a number of possible outcomes from the upgrade process although this may change according to the institution. These generally include upgrading to PhD with or without minor modifications to the upgrade report; or resubmitting your upgrade report with major changes. Recommending that students continue on the current MPhil programme (without progressing to a PhD) is also an option, although this is usually considered after someone has resubmitted their upgrade report. So even if you need to resubmit, this may not necessarily be a negative outcome.
Asking for support:
Whilst going through the upgrade process, your supervisors’ input will be invaluable. It can be very helpful to practice a mock viva with your supervisors ahead of the upgrade viva. You may also find it helpful to talk to other PhD students in your department who have completed their upgrade to learn about their experiences.
Overall, I found the upgrade process to be a really useful mechanism to confirm that my PhD was on the right track. I dedicated a considerable amount of time to writing my upgrade report and this is now a piece of work that I have written towards my PhD, and for a paper, so that is a bonus! All in all, the upgrade can be a positive process; think about it as an opportunity to discuss your research and to improve it. The upgrade process is not there to catch you out, but to help you stay on course and address any issues that may arise early on in your PhD.
For more information about the upgrade process see below:
Merve Mollaahmetoglu is a PhD student funded by the SSA and the University of Exeter, investigating rumination as a risk factor and treatment target for alcohol use disorders. Other research interests include the use of ketamine for the treatment of substance use disorders. Follow Merve on twitter @mervemolla
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