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:
- use methods that work and which you are capable of applying
- be do-able within a 3-4 year PhD timeframe
- produce a worthwhile and publishable piece of research
- 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.
(This post’s photo was shamelessly pinched from a Google image search)