The PhD upgrade is when new doctoral students who are initially registered for an MPhil transfer to the status of a PhD candidate. The process is common in the UK, but sometimes occurs in other countries too. It usually involves a formal exam or ‘upgrade viva’ towards the end of the first year.
The PhD upgrade is an important stage in your PhD. This page looks at the MPhil to PhD upgrade in more detail, explaining the examination process and assessment, and offering a couple of tips to guide you through.
Most PhD students begin their programmes registered for a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) degree. As its name suggests, this is a Masters-level research qualification. Once you have met the academic requirements of your chosen institution you will be upgraded from MPhil registration to the status of a full PhD candidate.
This process can have several different names, depending upon your institution: It may be referred to as a 'confirmation review', 'MPhil upgrade', 'PhD upgrade' or 'PhD transfer'. These usually all refer to the same process.
The MPhil upgrade process described on this page is common at UK universities. Other countries may have a similar type of assessment or 'confirmation' process for students part-way through a PhD. You can find more information in our guides to PhD study abroad.
Different institutions will have different regulations for the length of registration on the MPhil and time of completion of the upgrade. It is best to check directly with your prospective university.
There are different regulations for full-time and part-time students:
Most institutions offer students two chances to pass the upgrade assessment; the initial assessment and a resit. The resit must be completed within six months of the initial assessment.
If you transfer onto a PhD by upgrading successfully from the MPhil, this doesn't normally mean you will be granted an MPhil qualification. The standalone MPhil is a separate research degree with its own assessment process, you can search for MPhil vacancies on FindAMasters.
Your upgrade will normally be conducted by a panel of assessors. This will probably include the person responsible for administering your PhD programme (the Graduate Director or Graduate Tutor) as well as other experts from within your department or research group.
Your PhD supervisor will usually be present at the upgrade exam but won’t be one of your assessors.
There are typically several components to the upgrade process that the assessor/s will review in order to decide the final outcome:
These components are all in place to ensure that the assessor(s) can make an informed decision as to whether you will be able to successfully complete a PhD thesis.
The most important task you will complete ahead of your upgrade will be the preparation of an upgrade report. This will reflect the work you have done so far and make a case for your topic’s potential as a full PhD project.
The contents of the report will vary depending upon your institution, department, and discipline; however, usually you will be required to cover most of the following:
Make sure you check your university and department’s standard referencing style, as it may be different to one you have used in previous degrees.
The PhD upgrade viva is an oral presentation, defending your work and research ideas. The viva allows your department to ascertain that you meet all their assessment criteria and will be able to complete PhD research to a high standard in the allotted time-frame.
This PhD upgrade presentation will be different to your final PhD viva (defending your entire research project) – it is typically much shorter in duration – usually 30-60 minutes is scheduled, rather than 2-3 hours (sometimes more).
The procedures for the upgrade viva assessment board differ between institutions and disciplines, but usually the board will be comprised of one or two assessors:
Some institutions have an upgrade panel, which will have more than two assessors.
The most important thing to remember in the viva, is that you need to show your topic and ideas are manageable as a PhD project. As projects are time-limited (especially funded ones) – but open ended – you must have a plan of how you will achieve your research aims in the allotted time. You also need to show that you are on track to do so. The MPhil upgrade exam is designed to test this.
The assessors will have read your report and will typically flag up things they are unsure of or are interested in and want to learn more about.
The viva gives you a chance to discuss your work, defend what you have done and talk through future ideas with academics, giving you the opportunity to get input from other researchers in different fields.
Although the upgrade viva is typically more informal than the final PhD viva, you should prepare for it in the same way; as a formal professional interview or assessment.
It may seem like a daunting process to you, considering a PhD, but worrying about the assessment processes.
There are a number of things you can do in preparation:
Some of the questions at your MPhil upgrade will obviously be related to your specific discipline (and project). Others will be more general, aiming to assess the progress and prospects for your PhD. You will probably be asked some or all of the following:
Remember that your MPhil viva is there to check your progress, not to test your final PhD. Your supervisor will be there to help you prepare. They will read drafts of your report and can offer advice on questions you may be asked.
Each university and department will have different assessment criteria you must meet before you can upgrade to PhD student status.
Some institutions may require you to take specific modules or safety courses in order to move on to PhD research. However, there are a number of typical criteria the assessors will be looking for:
All these above points will be used to analyse whether you will be able to complete: novel research, effectively, to a PhD standard, in the allotted time-frame of your project
Make sure you check research ethical guidelines in line with your research, as some experiments require ethical approval. For example, animal testing and psychological experiments involving human participants.
The assessment criteria are used to decide whether you can upgrade to PhD status or not. The departments Graduate Director will oversee your assessment and update your final result.
Usually there are three possible outcomes to the upgrade review process:
Last updated 12/10/2020