I am one year and one month into my PhD, and next month I have my Upgrade examination.
At many – although not all – UK universities, new PhD students are registered as Masters (MPhil) students in the first instance. After 12 to 18 months, they submit their work to date and their plans for their research to a panel of assessors. Provided their plan is reasonable and feasible, they are ‘upgraded’ to PhD student status and this upgrade is backdated to the date they began their studies.
This procedure was not always the norm. When I described it to my grandfather (the same one) he said that this was not the case when he was supervising (some 50 years ago or so now), and that it sounded like a sensible system for both the student and the institution.
I plan to complete my upgrade before Christmas – an early Christmas present to myself, if you will. I submitted my written report to my assessors last week; the examination consists of my giving a presentation and taking questions, followed by a viva. As I submitted my report, I asked for some advice on the viva from the Twitterati.
One common themes in the replies was to be yourself, relax and enjoy it. One colleague gave the practical suggestion
wear a bowtie and no rickrolling in your presentation. Worked for me
More specific advice was to be aware of why you are doing your research, something that it is easy to lose sight of.
Another point was to be sure of the basics. This is something I am going to have to specifically prepare for. I have a tendency to over-complicate simple, background questions and get myself flustered – something that happens more when I feel under pressure. I struggled to write (and re-write, and re-write) the introduction to my report. As I complained to my lab-mate, how am I supposed to write the introduction when my assessor wrote the book on the topic?
The purpose of the transfer examination, according to my student handbook, is to confirm that the student
- Understands the problem – I do, a lot more than I did one year ago!
- Is aware of the associated literature – Check, Papers is my new best friend.
- Has demonstrated capability to conduct the research – Only my assessors can confirm this one. I am reasonably confident I have demonstrated something.
- Has a realistic research plan and schedule – That my schedule is realistic depends critically on that old adage of the non-linear nature of research.
- Is of PhD calibre
My work this year was largely an extension of one of my MSc projects. I have studied statistics, and programming, and how to combine the two. The sentiments expressed by students in the first few weeks and months of their studies remind me of myself one year ago, and I am happy to be more settled now. The plan for the shape of my thesis seems clearer than it did twelve months ago, but I am a touch intimidated by the unknowns (both the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns) that I will encounter over the next two years. Provided, of course, that I manage to
update upgrade my status.