So they want you to do an upgrade talk?

This post has been re-published on the British Society for Geomorphology’s excellent Postgraduate blog

So I said in my last post that I’d share some top tips for upgrading. First things first – let’s look at the presentation.

A lot has been written about giving a good presentation, so the first thing I’d advise you to do is a few interest searches to look for tips. I’d also suggest that you get chatting to other students in your department and see what the upgrade talk was like for them. We were very lucky this year at Sheffield because the PG Forum organised an upgrade evening, where 2nd and 3rd year PhDs talked us through their upgrade talks and what did and didn’t go well. Even though none of these guys are studying anything to do with my project, I still found this very helpful.

Another thing I’d suggest you do if possible is to go along to any upgrade-like talks that might be going on in your department, e.g. Masters students presenting their projects or potential new members of staff giving a talk to the department as part of their job interview. This will really help you to identify key dos and don’ts as well as getting you thinking about what does and doesn’t work in a powerpoint presentation.

This last point is key; so many presentations are just really badly formatted and hard to follow. Think confusing picture backgrounds and multi-coloured text, or big blocks of writing that you don’t have enough time to read, or mysterious graphs that are never explained. I’m sure you’ll have come across all of these powerpoint sins at some point!

I can’t stress enough that you should just pick a simple slide format and try to minimise the words and maximise the images. Also, including something to make you a bit more memorable (within reason) might be a good idea. For example, I explained my methodology in terms of a cocktail recipe. Just a suggestion!

The methods slide from my upgrade talk (the receipe if for an 'Iceberg' cocktail, ratio 2:1:1)

The methods slide from my upgrade talk (the receipe if for an ‘Iceberg’ cocktail, ratio 2:1:1)

Once you have your slides made and you’re happy with what you want to say then you need to do three more things:

  1. Show it to your supervisor(s). You hear some horror stories of people making last minute changes without approval then facing an angry grilling by their supervisor in front of the whole department!
  2. Rehearse it a couple of times to make sure you can get through it on time. No one likes talks that overrun into the tea break.
  3. Do a trial-run in front of a couple of other PhDs. I ran through mine with two other icy guys, which was nice practice. They suggested some edits to my slides and asked me a few questions that I hadn’t thought about. Pick people who will ask hard questions – gives you time to work out some good answers before the real deal.

When it comes to the day of the talk, the best advice is to remember Douglas Adams and DON’T PANIC! Wear something you feel confident in, talk slowly and don’t be afraid to respond to questions with something like “That’s a really good question, I don’t know but I’d be interested to talk to you later about it”. No one expects you to have all the answers yet. You’re only just starting out after all!

Remember to think of this as a chance to communicate your research to the department and to start getting them excited about you and your project. So enjoy it and don’t be afraid of the questions, they’ll probably be interesting and useful. Good luck!

(p.s. the headline picture for this post comes from another wee Google image search)

Oh no, it’s time for the MPhil to PhD Upgrade!

I realise that I’ve been a bit lax with the up-keep of this blog recently; my last post was two months ago! But I do have a pretty good excuse for my internet silence – at Sheffield, May is the month of MPhil to PhD upgrades.

For those of you who are uninitiated into the world of postgraduate bureaucracy (you lucky sods); when you start a PhD you are not officially a PhD student. Oh no, the university gives itself a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card by registering you an MPhil (Master of Philosophy) student for your first year. An MPhil is only a one year degree, after which the university can make you graduate, whereas a PhD is nominally three years but can go on a lot longer. So once you’re registered as a full PhD student the university and your supervisors are generally stuck with you for 3-4 years minimum.

This is where the upgrade process comes in. Upgrade, or ‘confirmation’ as it’s officially called, is the point at which the university decides if they are going to play the ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card, or if you and your project a promising enough to keep around for a full PhD. In my case because I’m funded by the university itself, this process is also the point at which they decide if I am worth continuing to fund for a further two years.

For us in the Geography Department at Sheffield, upgrade takes the form of a talk, a research proposal and a mini-viva. The talk is a chance to tell the department all about your project and the research you have done so far. The audience also get a chance to ask you some questions. About a week after the talk you hand in a research proposal, which explains your project in more detail, summarises the Q&As of your talk and details the logistics and budget of your proposed research.

I have been through these first two stages over the last couple of weeks and am now faced with a three week break before my mini-viva. This final stage involves a grilling from a panel of academics, from within the department, who will have seen your talk and read your proposal. Their job is to ensure that you have thought everything through and that what you are proposing to do will:

  1. use methods that work and which you are capable of applying
  2. be do-able within a 3-4 year PhD timeframe
  3. produce a worthwhile and publishable piece of research
  4. be cost-effective and that you’ll be able to secure the necessary funding

They don’t want much do they!

Once you’ve been through the mini- viva, you’re sent a letter detailing the changes that need to be made to your proposal in order for it to be accepted. Some lucky people get no modifications, but the vast majority will receive a few corrections and tweaks. At Sheffield we get a couple of months to adjust the proposal before resubmitting and, hopefully, clearing the upgrade process.

So in short, this is the upgrade process as it is here at Sheffield. It’s largely just a hoop to jump through but it can be a make-or-break moment and certainly helps to get you really focused in on your PhD project. Most universities do something very similar, so be prepared to face one at some point if you’re thinking of doing a PhD.

Over the next few weeks I’ll share my personal top tips for getting through each stage of the upgrade process unscathed – the talk, the proposal and the upgrade viva.


(This post’s photo was shamelessly pinched from a Google image search)