So what is the upgrade panel?

‘The upgrade panel’— ‘the most frightening thing’ labelled by some new PhD students. So, what is ‘the upgrade panel’? Is it really something scary? Is there a possibility that someone would fail it? How can I be ready for it? Do I really need nine months to prepare for that? This week, blogger Ivy gives you all the answers you need.

By Ivy Zhuo

An exterior of a building with blue sky, pavement and some bushes.
The Doctoral College, located in University House, is the body which awards ‘upgrades’ to students. Image: University of Warwick.
A row of trees with red leaves with a small lake in the background.
Image: Ivy Zhuo.

As many of us have realized, during our 1st year of PhD study, although we call ourselves PhD students, we are actually registered as MPhil students. It is only after we pass ‘the upgrade panel’ can we be officially recognized as a PhD student at Warwick.

The upgrade panel is usually made up of 2 panellists, who are the experts (normally professors from your very own department and invited by your supervisor) in your research topic, your supervisor(s) and you. It happens around nine months from the time you start your PhD, or eighteen months if your part time. However, the exact time is quite flexible. You could request to do it earlier or later, but normally no later than the end of your second year.

What will happen during the panel?

An upgrade report of around ten thousand words describing your own research project shall be submitted around two weeks before the panel. This report will then be forwarded to the panellists to read and comment on. Before the upgrade, the two panellists will reach a consensus on whether to upgrade you, advise to rewrite, or fail you. In some panels, the decision will be announced to you at the beginning of the meeting and for some, at the end. But whatever way it is, do concentrate on the discussion, since this is a valuable chance to hear experts’ view on your research. You’ll probably find you enjoy this discussion, really getting into the detail of your research with some experts.

A tree with orange leaves on Library Road on the University of Warwick campus. You can see the university library in the background.
Image: Ivy Zhuo.

During the discussion, the panel will focus on your report, in the form of question and answer. You will need to defend your research by answering panellists’ questions. There will also be time for you to get your own questions answered. Generally, you supervisor(s) will not be involved in the discussion, as they are mainly there to support you mentally.

How can I be ready for the panel?

No worries, no pressure and no rush.

I have never heard of anyone failing their upgrade panel. But I did hear one case of a student being upgraded after resubmitting the report and another case of a student quitting before they even got to upgrade. Therefore, if you do not quit, you will survive it. S o, you get around nine months to prepare for this big event. Nine month seems to be long, but it could pass in a blink of eye. To refine your research project, which you’ll enjoy doing for the next three years and write around 80,000 words for it, needs a lot of reading, thinking, planning and writing, and discussing with your supervisor(s), all in a circular way. One circle may take around one or two months. Therefore, you would need around 9 months to go through several circles to produce a satisfying plan for your PhD study. 

Now, I am sure you understand why the upgrade is there for you.  It’s nothing scary, but beneficial for a smooth PhD journey! First year may be tough with it, but first year will be worthwhile with it!

If you want more information on the Upgrade, read our post here about five top tips for upgrade success. However, it’s important to remember that every PhD is different and just because your friends and making lots of progress, it doesn’t mean you have to be. Read our post on why no two PhDs are the same.

Has this post dispelled all the upgrade myths? Are you feeling a lot more confident now, or do you still have some questions? If so, please get in touch via twitter @researchex or Instagram @WarwickLibrary. You can also speak to your Academic Support Librarian who may be able to give you further help on your research journey.

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