PhD upgrade: A survival guide

At this time of academic year, many doctoral researchers in their first year of study are preparing for upgrade review. As a second year PhD student (one that survived the upgrade process!) Sophie has provided some tips to help you best prepare for your upgrade and take the next step in your PhD.

So what exactly is an upgrade? (*Please note that the upgrade process may differ across universities and/or departments*). Typically the upgrade takes place in your first year (usually after a period of 9 months) and it is an assessment to move you from an MPhil to a fully-fledged PhD student in the UK. The upgrade process may involve a written report including a literature review of your given area, details of your project so far, planned methodology and future studies/plans. You may be asked to prepare a presentation to give an overview of your research so far, and you may also be required to attend an oral examination in which you will answer questions about your written report. The upgrade is usually assessed by one or two reviewers (not your supervisors).

As a second year PhD student who has survived an upgrade process, I thought I would share some tips on how best to prepare:

#1 Prepare in advance


The main component of an upgrade assessment may be to prepare a report, typically outlining background literature, your research ideas/questions and progress to date. Alternatively, some departments may ask you to submit a literature review of your given research area. Although it is easy to find this process a little daunting and there is a real temptation to procrastinate, try not to! As a first step, be sure to read the guidance from your department so you are clear on exactly what you need to do. During the first few months of my PhD, I kept a record of thoughts and research ideas. When it came to creating my upgrade report, I utilised the content in the documents and I found this really helped with writing. Remember this is your chance to shine and show how much you know about your given topic (even if you feel like you don’t know anything! you know more than you realise!).

#2 Practise makes perfect

As part of an upgrade process, you may be asked to meet with your assessors and discuss the content of your report. You may also be asked to prepare a presentation. This can be a good opportunity to really understand your research and make sure you can explain it clearly. Try practising with a friend or colleague who knows little about your research. As part of my upgrade, I was asked to prepare a short presentation. I practised this in front of my research team which gave me a chance to practise presenting to an audience but also an opportunity for feedback. My team asked me questions about my research that were similar to the ones I received in my upgrade examination. I found that really beneficial. It may be useful to keep a list of potential questions you may be asked and example answers. Searching the internet for example questions is a good idea too.

#3 Chat to your supervisor/colleagues

Something invaluable to do is to try to gain an understanding of others’ experiences of their upgrade and their tips on how to approach it. I was lucky that I had colleagues who had already been through an upgrade. They kindly informed me about the process and examples of questions they had been asked by their assessors. I found this really helpful and definitely put my mind at ease. Universities may also run workshops to help first-year PhD students prepare for their upgrade.

#4 Upgrade self-care

During the preparation of an upgrade make sure you take regular breaks. Sometimes the best ideas come once you have taken a break! It is also important to follow healthy eating behaviours to ensure you are feeling your best. Check out my previous blog for some useful tips. Before the upgrade assessment itself, it’s really important to get a good night’s sleep. Don’t be tempted to stay up late and revise your documents because it’ll be much more beneficial to wake up a little earlier instead.

Final words: Try to see the upgrade as a positive milestone where you can gauge feedback from people who may offer you a different perspective on your work. Once you’ve completed your upgrade be sure to reward yourself! It’s really important to celebrate the small wins during your studies as the research suggests that doing it regularly can make us feel happier at work in the long term!


Do you have any tips that have helped you prepare for your upgrade that you could share with other students? Or perhaps you are planning to use one of the tips mentioned in this blog? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.


Sophie Clohessy is a second year PhD student in the Applied Psychology team, WMG. Her research is investigating eating behaviours in the workplace. She has a background in Health Psychology and is passionate about healthy eating and exercise for wellbeing. You can follow her on twitter here: @ClohessyS


Cover image:  board-chalk-business-job-work-3695073 / athree23 / CC0 1.0

Image 1: idea-fantasia-thought-written-2924175 / elisarivaCC0 1.0

Image 2: group-team-feedback-confirming-1825503 / geraltCC0 1.0

Image 3: workplace-team-business-meeting-1245776 / free-photosCC0 1.0

Image 4: Mount Zirkel Wilderness, Walden, United States / bettenzCC0 1.0

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