One of the most important early stages in the life of a PhD student involves successfully completing the upgrade process. This article offers some tips on how to make the most of this challenging phase of your research degree.
What is the upgrade interview?
Many departments and institutions initially register their PhD students for a MPhil or a similar research master's degree. In order to proceed to a full PhD, which takes at least three years full-time or five to six years part-time, you have to be officially upgraded by your department.
This process involves you writing a research proposal of what you hope to achieve in the next few years, and then having a formal interview with members of your department who will judge your suitability for progressing to the next level.
When is it?
Most upgrade interviews will be held towards the end of your first year. By this time you should have mapped out your project and started work on it. The upgrade procedure can be daunting if you do not yet have a firm idea of the resources you need at this early stage, or a timetable you have set yourself up to follow. If you are still uncertain of the scope of your project, look at preparation for your upgrade interview as a positive: it may be that the upgrade interview forces you to knuckle down and develop a firm timetable for the project.
How to prepare?
The best way to prepare for your upgrade interview is to have regular, detailed meetings with your supervisor(s) because they will be able to guide you through your particular institution's requirements.
You will have to provide some documentation, usually a research proposal of a similar kind to that submitted to funding bodies. This will include a summary of the resources you will be using, people you will be collaborating with and a timetable for completion. If you have any imminent conference visits or publications then include details of those, but most people will not have reached that stage until well after their upgrade interview.
Prepare drafts of these documents and show your supervisor. Try to get as much feedback as possible from your peers as well.
You will then submit the documents to an upgrade committee who will read them and set a time for a formal interview. This will usually involve a small panel of two or three members of staff (not your supervisor) from inside your institution. One of these people could go on to be your internal examiner so it is important to impress them at this stage and also take on board any suggestions they may have. You will not be expected to have any firm conclusions at this stage, but the panel will want you to show that you have used your first year of research well and that you know what you need to do to take your project to completion.
In the interview itself
This is certainly not as formal an occasion as your PhD viva or a job interview, but it would be sensible to still think of this interview in a professional context.
The most important impression to convey is that of the manageability of your topic as a PhD project. Make sure your audience know that you have rigorously planned the next few years and that you have the time management skills to complete the work.
A PhD is a huge project but it is not designed to be an open-ended one. It must be compact enough to be completed in the time period specified, especially if you are in receipt of external funding.
Make sure you come prepared to discuss your project and take on board any comments given. There is no need to take notes during the interview as your panel will provide you with formal feedback afterwards. If you have any particular questions or worries about your topic or how you will conduct your research then raise them during the interview, but overall try to appear confident and enthusiastic.
Do not use the interview to raise any personal problems, such as difficulties in the relationship with your supervisor. You will have other opportunities to do that. Also this is not the place to discuss very narrow details about your project; your supervisor is far better placed to answer those questions.
Moving forward from here
The feedback you receive from your upgrade committee will be vital in taking the project forward and you should discuss their comments with your supervisor as soon as possible. If they have suggested tweaking your research plans or questions then give this advice strong consideration.
The next big targets to aim for are completion of the research phase, writing up and then submission, which will be at least two years away. Two years sounds like a long time but it will go very quickly, so make sure you build on the plans you outlined for your upgrade interview and stick to your timetable.
The most successful projects are usually run tightly from the start rather than being chaotic,unfocused and dragged back into shape at the last minute. So, go off and get stuck into your research knowing that your institution has given you the seal of approval to proceed.