Rat Race: The Upgrade Process

Academia is full of daunting processes and challenges, and perhaps the most significant I have faced so far this year was the upgrade.

In the UK, the majority of universities require their humanities PhD students to go through an upgrade process, either in their first or second year. The student is initially enrolled as an MPhil student, before being ‘upgraded’ to PhD status, having demonstrated both the viability and impact of their project to a board of assessors. Before the upgrade, the candidate works on a portfolio of documents, which are submitted to the examiners, who then assess the work and discuss it with the student in an interview, which resembles the viva.


I had very limited knowledge of what to expect, and had heard numerous horror stories in the run up to my own upgrade. I heard about students who had repeatedly been asked to resubmit, and others who had failed outright. With so much of your academic career riding on achieving the PhD, the upgrade seemed to be a significant barrier to achieving that goal.

However, my own upgrade was, in the end, a really useful and enjoyable experience. In this post, I will attempt to dispel the myth of the upgrade, by providing some straightforward advice about what to expect, and what you need to prepare. Of course, this advice is only based on my own experience, and some institutions run things slightly differently.

What to Prepare

1) A research proposal – this will most likely become the skeleton of the introduction. Obviously, the content of this depends on your project, but should include a brief historiography, and demonstrate what you are researching, why it needs researching, and how to plan to do it.

2) A chapter structure – this is not set in stone. At all. My own structure has changes multiple times both before and since my upgrade.

3) A bibliography – this does not need to be exhaustive, but should demonstrate your knowledge of various areas of work that will influence your work.

4) A timetable – I found this the hardest to produce. As someone who approaches work in a very fluid way, predicting how I would structure my time for the next three years proved a challenge. However, this is, like the structure, not set in stone. It is simply an exercise to help you think about how long you should spend on each element of the PhD, and to show the examiners that your project is achievable in the three year period.

5) A writing sample – this is usually a draft of a chapter of your thesis, but can also be a piece of related writing. I was working on a research project at the V&A when I was writing mine, which was related to my PhD research, but would be spread over my chapters. I was therefore allowed to write an essay based on this work.


What to Expect

1) To be questioned about your proposal – these questions could be very simple points that you can easily explain, but which didn’t quite come across in your writing. Alternatively, they could be quite significant things you hadn’t considered. Don’t be put off by big questions you haven’t considered yet. Of course there are elements of your research you haven’t thought of yet, which other intelligent, experienced people will.

2) To be given suggestions of how you could improve -these will be constructive comments, so it is important to take them as such. The assessors are trying to help you, they aren’t pointing out things you may have missed for fun! Be receptive to any comments they make.


You will normally be informed of the outcome of your upgrade at the end of the meeting. Usually, there are three options for the results. Either you will pass without amendments, pass with minor amendments, or you will be invited to resubmit. Very rarely, candidates will not pass. If this is the case, it is simply because your research project is unsuitable for PhD level research. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are not capable of writing a PhD in the future.

Overall, nobody expects you to know your research inside and out at this stage. You’re undertaking a PhD to learn, not to show off what you already know. The upgrade is an integral part of that process, allowing you to gain feedback from a wider audiences of academics, who will be engaging with you work at a deeper level than anyone other than your supervisor probably will until you are assessed. So, my advice is to make the most of the opportunity, and to approach the experience as a useful learning process and exciting challenge, rather than as a problem to be overcome.

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1 Comment

  • starr August 04, 2013 02.19 pm

    Thank you for this information. I will start my MPhil this fall in London (I am USA student)
    and really looking forward to it but was not clear on what to really expect. This is your objective but it is a good view point.
    Thank you.


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