‘Upgrading’ to a PhD (re-blog)

This month I thought it would be useful to write about the ‘upgrade’ process which happens around a year after starting a PhD, in order to try and demystify the process for new PhD students and those considering a PhD. I wrote a short piece for jobs.ac.uk about my experience, in the hope that it might give a useful insight to others. Here’s the post I wrote:

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Recently I reached a significant milestone in my doctorate; my research was formally recognised by my university as being good enough (hopefully) for a PhD! I have just completed my institution’s ‘upgrade’ process and have been officially confirmed as being ‘on track’ to achieve a PhD- after another couple of years of work, that is.

The upgrade is unique in that it is generally the only formal assessment you will be required to do after starting your PhD but before your viva. This process is called something different at every institution- but is usually referred to either as the ‘upgrade’ or ‘confirmation’.

It’s an important milestone, as the judgement made by your institution determines whether or not your work is of a standard worthy of a PhD. If not, you are not allowed to continue with your research project and cannot ‘progress’ to a PhD. However, in this situation it’s likely that you would be awarded an MPhil degree for the work you had already completed.

The upgrade usually consists of a written element and a presentation on your research which is made to an examiner. This is supposed to be similar to the final viva, in that you will need to justify and defend the choices you have made in doing your research.  At my institution, we did the presentation to an examiner in an open session, where anyone interested in your research could come along and ask questions.

Personally, I found the upgrade a time-consuming and stressful process. I’m a naturally impatient person and I wanted to have it over and done with so that I could concentrate on other things. Also, despite the fact that I’m generally confident about my work and my supervisors had said there was no cause for concern, I was intimidated by the prospect that my university could turn around and tell me that what I had done so far wasn’t good enough, and wasn’t worthy of a PhD.

However, in hindsight the upgrade process was both useful and productive. I had found drafting and re-drafting my written report frustrating, but in doing this I was forced to refine my justifications of the decisions I made in the research. It made me stop and reflect on the progress I had made in my first year, and required me to start making the arguments that I’ll need to make in my viva about the value of my research.  Also, some of the questions that I got from my examiner after the presentation were really useful in giving me ideas for where I could take my research in the future, and helped me to reflect on aspects of my data which I had not previously considered.

All in all, I’m really pleased to have the upgrade behind me. I’m glad that I can now move forward, and that my research (and I- it’s hard to separate them sometimes) have been deemed good enough. A colleague of mine pointed out that the reason that he felt great about it was because passing the upgrade is a validation of your work, and there aren’t many times where you get this officially!

For those of you who are concerned about the upgrade, try not to worry too much. Even though everyone had told me that it would be straightforward, I worried and prepared and moaned about it anyway- but it really was fine in the end. Have confidence in your work and faith in your ability to justify what you’ve done. And for those of you who have recently passed the upgrade, take this opportunity to celebrate. In the PhD you don’t get many formal milestones, so make the most of the chance to enjoy your achievement, and reflect on everything you’ve learned so far.