Status upgrade

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.

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20 Responses to Status upgrade

  1. Ewan Smith says:

    I’m sure you’ll find the "upgrade examination" useful – when I had mine it was set-up like the end viva would be, only with 2 internal examiners, and although it went on for over 3 hours and my "experiments to do" list got longer by the minute, I definitely feel that the process made the last 2 years of my PhD more doable and the final viva less imposing – that only lasted 1.5 hours 🙂
    Good luck!

  2. Bob O'Hara says:

    Has demonstrated capability to conduct the research

    Do you need a special baton for that?
    Don’t worry about the unknowns. Let them sort themselves out. I’t not as if you’re the first person to go through the process.

  3. Kausik Datta says:

    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.

    This is important to master – a lesson that will remain with you for the rest of your scientific career. But you will undoubtedly do that with time. Don’t worry yourself unduly.
    One of my professors used to say that there are always two ways to conduct a viva voce examination: one tests either the student’s knowledge, or the student’s ignorance. This is something the student cannot control or prepare for. So, as Bob said, the best defence is to allow things to sort themselves, and not worry about the unknown/uncontrollable variables. You’ve already received a very sound set of advices from people. 🙂
    All the best. Hoping to see a more jubilant and triumphant update in the near future!

  4. Erika Cule says:

    Ewan - Thanks for pointing out the (potential) usefullness of the transfer process. I have heard from other students and also from my supervisor that the viva can be useful. One of my assessors is from outside my department and it is likely he will have a different perspective on my work.&nbsp;I&nbsp;hadn't thought about the upgrade exam being a useful preparation for the viva, I will bear that in mind.</p>
    Bob – It was more the last point that mystified me

    Is of PhD calibre

    Isn’t that something that is not known until the thesis is submitted? Whilst I see your point, for me, ‘not being the first person to go through the process’ doesn’t stop me worrying!
    @Kausik – My grandfather used to maintain that the aim of a viva (or an interview) is to establish what the student doesn’t know, which is why questions continue to be asked until the point is reached at which the student no longer knows the answers. This is concerning and comforting at the same time. (And, I, too, hope to be in a position to post a triumphant update soon!)

  5. Eva Amsen says:

    Does everyone start as MPhil, or only people who don’t have a mastes degree? In Canada you start as MSc for the first 1-2 years and then reclassify to a (total) 5+ year PhD, unless you already have a MSc, then you start straight into a 4+ year PhD.
    Unless [sigh] you have a MSc degree from Europe, which are shorter than the 3 year Canadian MSc degrees – then you have to start in the MSc program anyway… When I was getting ready my own transfer exam I was so scared that I wouldn’t pass, which would mean I would have to stay in the MSc program, even though I already had TWO MSc degrees. If that had happened, and there was actually a good chance of it because my project wasn’t going very well and didn’t seem like it would be 5 years worth of material, I would have dropped out and left science altogether. But I passed, with my crappy project, which started going better soon after. The day after my exam, I was back in the lab extra early. Not out of sudden motivation, but so I could sneak out at lunch time for an afternoon rehearsal for a singer-songwriter’s DVD release party where I played in the orchestra. That concert was about as important to me as the exam that week, and I was equally worried about not making the rehearsal as I was about passing the exam, so it got my mind off things and that probably helped a lot!
    So schedule some kind fo crazy project for the same week (that obviously doesn’t require work before the exam) – it worked for me!

  6. Mike Fowler says:

    It’s worth remembering that your examiners will probably have had their own PhD (candidate) students going through the same process, with the associated uncertainties that occur after only 1 year of ‘research’ in a PhD project. Which is generally very little research, and quite a lot of figuring out the problems you will eventually research.
    So, they”ll create an exam appropriate for the conditions, something quite different to a final viva.
    Good luck. If you start to feel flustered, take a couple of deep breaths and think to yourself "Just stay cool, Jim". This is a misquote from "Requiem for a dream" that I always find useful.

  7. Richard P. Grant says:

     No, I think you can judge quite quickly whether a candidate is of PhD calibre. At least, one assumes your supervisor wouldn’t agree to this if you weren’t…
    It’s more about potential than achievement at this stage.

  8. Erika Cule says:

     @Eva, as far as I understand the regulations depend on your institution (and even on the department). In my department every PhD student registers as an MPhil student in the first instance, whatever their background. I do already have an MSc, my program is 1+3 (1 year MSc + 3 years PhD). I am registered as an MPhil student despite my starting the PhD being conditional on having passed the MSc. As for scheduling some crazy project, I haven’t done that, but I do have some plans for the evening after the viva.
    Mike - Good tip with the quote. Odd choice of movie to think about to keep one calm, though.&nbsp;</p>
    rpg – I had hoped that if a student wasn’t of PhD calibre, they wouldn’t have made it this far. I am setting aside the imposter syndrome especially for the viva.  
    Thanks for all the advice everyone, it is useful to hear from those who have been through this process (from both sides). 

  9. Bob O'Hara says:

    @rpg – I had hoped that if a student wasn’t of PhD calibre, they wouldn’t have made it this far. I am setting aside the imposter syndrome especially for the viva. 

    That’s an important point – if you weren’t of PhD calibre, your supervisor should be making noises about it.
    These sorts of assessment are a bit odd: they’re probably necessary to catch the occasional student who is floundering, but for most students it’s just rubber stamping that they’ve got this far. But from the student’s perspective it’s a big thing: the threat of failure hangs over them.

  10. Mike Fowler says:

    Erika, try the book. Much more soothing.
    I suppose that another important safety net aspect of this 1st year viva is to make sure the student is receiving appropriate supervision at a relatively early stage. If not, it can possibly be remedied before things go too far wrong.

  11. Erika Cule says:

    Mike thanks for the tip - the book could hardly be less soothing than the film.&nbsp;</p>
    Bob – I think that the ‘safety net’ thing was what my Grandfather meant when he voiced his approval of the upgrade system. If all is going well, then passing the exam should not be problematic, but as the one taking the exam it is difficult not to view it as a hurdle and to be anxious about not making it. 

  12. steffi suhr says:

    I don’t remember my upgrade viva, although I am sure I must have had one…. then again, I dove straight into a campaign of 5 research cruises within the first 16 months of my PhD – a cruise every couple of months, barely time to turn things around in the lab – so I guess it’s no wonder I can’t remember anything…? Wouldn’t necessarily recommend that approach, though.
    I’m sure you’ll be fine Erika – and don’t worry about the calibre.

  13. Austin Elliott says:

    Hah!  I’m so incredibly old that I managed to go through the system without having to have an upgrade viva!!. Don’t think they started in most places (at least in the UK) until the early to mid 90s. So the first viva I ever got (and indeed the only one) was the PhD interrogation. Though now I come to think of it, some advance practise might have been quite useful…
    As I recall, in my Dept we were the first PhD student yr group (starting 1983) to have to give short talks on our work to the Dept at the ends of PhD years 1 and 2. Prior to that the only thing students did was a full-length seminar once they’d actually submitted their PhD thesis.
    Ah, the Good Old Days…. errm…

  14. Stephen Curry says:

     Good luck with the viva, Erika – I’m sure you’ll be fine. I don’t remember having one myself though I did have to give a talk at the end of my first year (not very productive) about what I was going to do for the remaining two. 

  15. Erika Cule says:

    Austin - More like ahead of your time. From talking to a PhD student who started this year (and from the IC website when I was checking the details for this blogpost) it seems that students starting at IC from this year onwards will be registered for a PhD directly, with some formal progress-checks en route.&nbsp;</p>
    Stephen – Thanks for the good luck wishes, much appreciated! 

  16. tiurma simanjuntak says:

    It sounds that MPhil and PhD so easy to get at your institute. I wonder about ‘upgrade examiner, are they killer and rude?..i wonder about your viva, is it really useful for human mindkind ? Is there any value that makes you could get along with others without gaps?
    so many question about PhD programme right now…

  17. Erika Cule says:

    Hi tiurma
    Just to be clear, the exam I am describing in this blog post (which I will take next month) is not the exam to get the degree (MPhil or PhD). For practical purposes, it is a progress check at the end of the first year of study to make sure that the student has a reasonable and realistic plan for the research. 
    I don’t know how fierce the upgrade examiners will be. One examiner is from my department; the other is from a different department. The examiner from a different department is likely to offer a fresh perspective on my research but I find it less easy to prepare for his questions. 
    The purpose of the viva is not to present research findings (although the student does normally present the work they have done in the first year). The ‘usefulness’ of the research will be assessed in the degree viva, after the thesis has been submitted. 
    If you have a lot of questions about the PhD programme, you could always ask someone at the institution you are thinking of applying to what the procedures are there. 

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