Five Top Tips for Upgrade Success

All PhD students have to do an upgrade review. Read below for blogger Ellie’s top tips for your upgrade success.

Apart from your thesis, your upgrade report is one of the most important pieces of work you’ll need to do for your PhD. At Warwick, in your first year you’re registered as a Research Masters student, and it’s only after your upgrade that you’ll be upgraded to a full PhD student status. But, there’s nothing to worry about with this piece of work and its accompanying review meeting. Here are my top 5 tips for upgrade success.

A girl with long brown hair writing into a notebook. There is a laptop in front of her.

Know what your reviewers want

Your upgrade involves a written report, varying between 4000 and 10,000 words depending on your department, plus an hour or so long meeting with two reviewers (usually two related academics within your department). These reports and meetings can vary massively between departments and even between individual reviewers, so it’s important to know exactly what is required of you. For your report, follow your department’s guidance – they usually have information on their website or even hold an information session for you.

For the review part, you’ll find out who your reviewers are prior to the meeting. These meetings can vary wildly – my meeting was quite a rigorous viva-style defence of my work, but my fellow course mate had to prepare a 15-minute presentation of their work. So, once you know who your reviewers are, send them an email introducing yourself and asking if you need to prepare anything specific. Knowing what to expect will make your upgrade a lot easier to prepare for.

You’re not meant to know everything

Your upgrade usually takes place around one year (or part-time equivalent) since you started your work. Rest assured, you are not expected to know everything by this time. The upgrade is not a viva (although in my personal experience it really felt like one). You’re not meant to know all the answers at the point, but you are meant to be asking the right questions. This is the ideal place to be at the one year mark – an idea of the literature of your subject, a good set of questions you want to ask, and an idea about how you’re going to answer them.

Nobody wants you to fail

In preparation for your upgrade, you’ll have heard the various outcomes available: a pass, a resubmission, a recommendation to complete the research at an MRes level, or a withdrawal. This sounds incredibly scary, but in reality the outcomes are very flexible and are designed to ensure the right course is taken for you. It is highly unlikely that you will be asked to withdraw, and it is very rare to hear students at Warwick ‘failing’ their upgrade. It’s even more important to remember that NOBODY WANTS YOU TO FAIL. The upgrade review is not there to catch you out and show up your inabilities, it’s there to ensure you have everything you need – the guidance, the skills, the support – to complete your research. If things aren’t quite in place, the upgrade is an opportunity to review and revise your plans to ensure you’re most likely to succeed. It’s not a bad thing either if you’re asked to resubmit – I did and it really helped me clarify what I was doing.

Use it as an opportunity

Following on from this, it’s important not the see the upgrade as a test, but rather as an opportunity. Your first year is often filled with lots of different readings, ideas, and plans, and so writing the report is a good chance to sit down and take stock of everything you know and where you’re up to. It helps you get your ducks in a row for when research really ramps up during second year. It’s also a great chance to have other people look at your work and give you their thoughts. Your reviewers will be subject experts in a related field and will have lots of experience and advice. Use this opportunity to tap into that: ask them about potential ideas you have, what they think the best approach for a bit of research is, or if they can recommend any papers you may have missed. The review meeting feels like it should be the reviewers asking you questions, but you can turn this around. Ask them questions too – it’s a rare opportunity to have two (often senior) academics really focus on your work and give it attention. Use that time wisely.

Look Smart, Think Smart

This may sound very daft, but my last piece of advice is about how you present yourself. This mantra of ‘look smart think smart’ helped me through many years of exams – I felt that if I wore something smart I would take the day more seriously and it really helped me concentrate. I’m not saying you have to do the same, because the most important thing is for you to feel comfortable in yourself. But, this is probably the most formal situation of your PhD, apart from your final viva, and you should really treat it as such. Presenting yourself well and showing that you care about the event is important, it shows your examiners that you care about your work too. It may also give you confidence to talk about your work with gravitas, and that’s important too.

So, those are my top tips for upgrade success. Do you have any others you’ve found are helpful? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.

by Ellie

Ellie King is a Second Year PhD student in Warwick Manufacturing Group. She has been at Warwick since 2014 in the History department, and has recently moved faculties to research applying user experience to the museum sector. Ellie is partnered with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. You can connect with her on LinkedIn here, or follow her on Twitter @ellietheking

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: