Written by Hannah Slack
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.
On this page
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.
When is the PhD upgrade?
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:
- Full-time – Typically full-time students must be registered on the MPhil for a minimum of nine months and must complete the upgrade before 12-18 months.
- Part-time – Part-time students must be registered on the MPhil for a minimum of 15 months and must complete the upgrade before 18-24 months.
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.
Successful MPhil upgrade
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.
What does the upgrade involve?
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.
What must I complete to upgrade?
There are typically several components to the upgrade process that the assessor/s will review in order to decide the final outcome:
- Supervisor's comments – This can be a formal report of the work you have conducted or general comments on your capability as a PhD researcher.
- Your upgrade report – A formal report you will write, detailing your project, work done and work you will do. In some fields this may also include draft work (such as a first chapter of your thesis).
- Your report viva – This is the oral examination, where you will defend your report, ideas and any work conducted.
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 MPhil to PhD upgrade report
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:
- Literature review – this will consider existing literature in both your chosen, and related fields, providing context for the new work your project will do
- Research question – the question you have chosen to answer in your research with hypotheses supported with research/evidence
- Research techniques – the methodology behind your project; an analysis of the methods you will be using to conduct your research
- Results – this can either be a chapter or a couple of short chapters displaying the work you have currently done towards your thesis objectives
- Future work – a summary of ideas or a timetabled plan of work you will be doing towards your thesis in the future
- References – a bibliography including all the sources you have used in your report, and during your research so far
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 MPhil to PhD upgrade viva
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 upgrade viva assessment board
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:
- One assessor – This will be your secondary supervisor/independent advisor. An internal examiner in a different field – but with relevant expertise – to your primary supervisor.
- Two assessors – In this case the secondary supervisor usually chairs the assessment along with another member of academic staff. In some institutions this resembles a PhD viva, as the second member of staff is external.
Some institutions have an upgrade panel, which will have more than two assessors.
Contents of the PhD upgrade viva
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.
The PhD upgrade top tips
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:
- Get ahead before you begin – If you have an idea of the field you want to do your PhD in already, begin to familiarise yourself with research (literature/books) in that area.
- Present, present and present again – There is no better way to understand your work you are doing, than to summarise and explain it to a group of peers or academics.
- Become aware of the upgrade process – Read the assessment criteria; make sure you have met any other requirements for your department such as modules and courses.
- Write as you work – The last thing you want is to come to a week before submission and have to rush your report; writing it as you go along will save you time and stress.
- Use the help offered – Universities usually put on thesis and viva workshops you can attend. Also have regular meetings with your supervisor to ensure you understand your research.
- Mock viva situation – If you are part of a research group they could read your report and ask questions they think you may be asked. This can help you prepare and calm nerves.
- Research your assessors – Familiarise yourself with your assessor’s research. Brush up on their strengths as they may ask relating questions, which won’t catch you out if you’re prepared.
Typical upgrade viva questions
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:
- Can you summarise the work in your report?
- What are the main issues/debates in your field of research?
- How do gaps in the literature tie in with your current research aims?
- How have you ensured your research is ethical?
- Specific result related questions – this is where you will defend the work you have done so far.
- Why have you used this method?
- What future research will you do to meet your project aims?
- What could you do to improve your research?
- How will you complete the project within the PhD programme time-frame?
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.
The MPhil upgrade assessment criteria
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:
- Commitment to research – you must show you are committed to completing a PhD programme, it is intense research and the assessor needs to be sure you’re invested in doing it
- A well-thought out research plan – this will include your research questions, aims and hypothesis; as well as, a plan for the direction of the future work in your project
- Sufficient skill development – DTP/CDTs usually have compulsory training days; and, departments may have technical, safety and generic research training modules you must complete
- Monthly reports/student logs – typically a student log will be a monthly report including: the research you have done that month, monthly supervisor meeting notes and supervisor’s comments
- Field awareness – it is essential as an independent researcher that you are aware of relevant research in your field; this may be done in a detailed review of relevant literature
- Research ethics consideration – usually you will be required to complete ethics modules to ensure you complete your research ethically
- Research progress – you must show you have made some progress towards your thesis aims, in the form of experimental research or literature research depending upon discipline
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.
Upgrade review outcomes
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:
- Unconditional pass – you are upgraded to PhD immediately following the viva
- Refer for further review – you may receive minor report corrections you need to make within a designated time frame; or, major report corrections requiring a full resit of the upgrade process. Resits have to be completed within six months of the initial assessment
- Failure to upgrade – The assessors review your status on the entire programme. There are two possible outcomes: withdrawal from the programme completely or remain registered on the MPhil
The MPhil degree
If you fail the upgrade but remain on the MPhil, you will need to submit a request for an MPhil assessment. You can read more about the MPhil and its relationship to the PhD here on FindAPhD..
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Last Updated: 12 October 2020