How to have a stress-free upgrade viva

In the final instalment of my upgrade top tips it’s time for the big one – the upgrade viva. This involves a grilling by a panel of academics from within your department. Their job is to ensure that you really have thought everything through and that your project will produce a good PhD thesis.

This all sounds pretty scary and you do hear the odd horror story of malicious interviewers; but remember that most will want you to pass and will be nice! Plus your viva panel will have spoken to your supervisors and seen your talk and report, so they will have a pretty good idea that you know what you’re doing. So the viva is really just about double-checking everything and raising a few points that need clarification or that you may not have thought about.

If you get asked something that you hadn’t considered then say so – don’t be that person who is clearly stalling for time and struggling to come up with an answer on the fly. You’ll look much more competent if you just admit that you’ve not considered whatever the panel is suggesting but that you’re glad they’ve brought it to your attention. It’s also ok to ask the panels’ opinions; they are there to provide a different viewpoint on your research so don’t be afraid to use them! This also goes for any asking questions you may want some input on, it is ok for you to ask them things as well as vice versa.

Interviews are always a tricky thing to prep for and this one will be no different. I guess the best advice is to look over your presentation’s Q&A and to really think about the questions that you’d ask if you were on the panel. Get some second opinions on this, especially from other PhD students and from your supervisors. They may think of tricky questions that you’d not considered.

To get you started, here are the sorts of things that I was asked in my upgrade viva:

  • To define my project. I took this to mean giving a kind of one-sentence summary, which was tricky!
  • General questions about the project’s relevance and original contribution – definitely expect to be asked things like ‘why hasn’t this been done before’, ‘why now’, ‘what will your project’s outputs be used for’ etc.
  • General logistics questions – I had to summarise my plan of work for the next two years, discuss funding sources, and broadly outline the papers I thought the project would produce and which journals I would be submitting them to. Be prepared to justify all your project’s practicalities.
  • If you’re doing fieldwork or some other money-eating activity, then expect lots of questions on why this is essential and how you’ve worked out your budget.
  • I also had to explain some of the more specialised parts of my project and methodology again. Remember that some of your panel may not be specialists in your field, so it’s worth preparing some diagrams to explain the more obscure and complex bits.

The rest of my questions were too project-specific to be of much use in this post. But note that you will be asked some probing and specific questions as well as these more general ones. So have a think about the areas of risk in your project (i.e. where things might derail) and how you’ll deal with these. As well as these potential negatives you should consider the positives, such as how you might expand and develop the core project if things work well and you find yourself with the time to look into interesting side themes.

Other than the standard ‘relax and smile’ interview advice, I think that’s all the tips I can give you. The upgrade viva is far more project-specific than the proposal and presentation but these general points should help. Just try to view it as a chance to get some extra feedback!


p.s. thanks to yet another Google image search for this post’s title image.

Writing your research proposal

So you’ve done your upgrade talk (which hopefully went smoothly after checking out my top tips), but now you have to write it all up and submit a research proposal. Well never fear because I have this covered too!

First off, see if you can get hold of a previous example. At Sheffield we were shown some old proposals (with names removed so we didn’t know who’s they were), and were given a chance to critique them. This was a great way to see what not to do. If you can’t get hold of an old proposal, then ask to be given a list of the sections that you need to include and the points to be covered. The overall structure of all research proposals will be pretty similar but each department will vary in its particular requirements.

To give you an idea, my proposal went something like this:

  1. Introduction – essentially a five-line summary of the literature gap and why this matters. I like to keep intros short and sweet, saving the detail for later on.
  2. Aim – think carefully about the wording of this and try to make it a punchy one-sentence affair. Get your supervisor to help you. If you need to, you could include a few separate research questions. But perhaps put these in a bit later on because having a really clearly stated aim right at the start of the proposal grabs the reader’s attention and ensures that they get your take-home message from the word go.
  3. Background – a condensed lit summary stressing the gap where the project fits.
  4. Justification – describing the context/ ‘big picture’ of why this project matters and expanding on where the project fits within the chain of research.
  5. Research objectives – these are almost like a ‘to do’ list of the steps that will be taken to achieve the project’s aim. Mine were things like ‘literature synthesis’ and ‘produce case study examples’. Five or six is a nice number of objectives, busy but do-able! If you have research questions, then perhaps include them right before the objectives?
  6. Research approach and methods – I took a couple of paragraphs to outline my overall methodology and the philosophical position of my project. Then I went through each research objective in turn and detailed the methods that I’d be using to do it. In this section I also briefly detailed the pilot work that I’d done, under the relevant objectives. This section is likely to be by far the longest and is also the section that will vary most between PhD subjects. So have a good think about how best to communicate what you’re actually going to do and be sure to explain your methods nice and clearly. Diagrams, flow charts and examples from the lit are great additions to this section.
  7. Intended outcomes – a list of the outputs of this research and why they are necessary. This section is really all about stressing your original contribution. Be sure to link back to your main aim.

I covered all that in around 4000 words and followed this up with appendices outlining my research timetable, budget, funding sources and anticipated programme of publication. This might all sound a bit OTT but I definitely think doing a series of tables covering these points fended-off a lot of potentially tricky questions in the viva. For almost any logistics/ practicalities question that I was asked, I could just get out a nicely presented table and it immediately looked like I was on top of things!

Spending a bit of time on things like the appendices, figures and general formatting makes a big difference. The more polished and professional the proposal looks, the easier it is to defend because your viva panel will go into the interview feeling like you’ve put the effort in and are on top of things. As always, the first impressions do matter.

Otherwise, I think the main advice I can give you is to consider the key things that you need to get across. If I were on a viva panel the things that I’d be asking about are: what are you studying (= the aim); why bother (= identifying the lit gap and the broader justification); how are you going to do this (= the objectives and methods); will this work (= methods and any pilot work along with details of the practicalities); and finally, what is the original contribution of this project (= the intended outcomes and publications). Incidentally, I was asked questions on all of these things during my own upgrade viva.

Oh and one last thing, I know you’ve written a lot of essays and reports in order to get to this point in your academic career but never forget to leave yourself time for proof-reading and editing. And make sure to get your supervisor to read through the whole thing and give you lots of comments – it’s what they’re there for!

Now get off the internet and get writing.

p.s. Thanks to a bored PhD student (presumably) who was enabled by to create this post’s title image. Clearly their research proposal wasn’t going fantastically well at the time, so perhaps they’ll be able to benefit from these tips!

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)