In this episode I talk to a range of PGRs from the University of Exeter about their experience of the upgrade process, where student’s progress is assessed to enable a change in registration from MPhil to PhD. Here they share what the upgrade involved, how they prepared and what their upgrade viva or presentation was like.

This episode features:

  • Jo Sutherst, PGR in Art History and Visual Culture. You can follow Jo on twitter @JoSutherst.
  • Steve Burrows, PGR in Marine Biology. You can follow Steve on twitter @Steve_D_Burrows.
  • Merve Mollaahmetoglu, PGR in Psychology. You can follow Merve on twitter @mervemolla, and listen to her podcast PhD: addicted to research
  • Aoife Maher, PGR in the Centre for Rural Policy.

If you are preparing for your upgrade, you may find these blog posts useful:

We will be running a question and answer panel for University of Exeter PGRs on Wednesday 24th February at 2pm. You can book your place on My Career Zone.

You can access the University of Exeter policy on the Upgrade, and the temporary policy for COVID-19.

Music credit: Happy Boy Theme Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) 
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License 
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/ 

 

Podcast Transcript

 

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Hello and welcome to R, D and the In-betweens.

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I'm your host, Kelly Preece, and every fortnight I talk to a different guest about researchers development and everything in between.

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Hello and welcome to the latest episode of R, D and the In Betweens.

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For this episode, I'm gonna be talking to three of our PGRs at the University of Exeter about the process that at Exeter we call the upgrade.

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I've heard it variously called the transfer. The confirmation, whatever your university calls it,

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it's the process through which your candidacy or your status is upgraded from MPhil to PhD or insert other acronyms here,

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depending on what kind of research degree programme you're on. Before we start,

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I want to just say the caveat to say obviously the advice being given in this episode is very specific to the processes at the University of Exeter.

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And you should absolutely if you're listening from other institutions, go and find out more about the specifics of the processes at your institution.

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Although there may be similarities with how we do this at Exeter to there will inevitably be differences.

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And in fact, as you'll see throughout this episode, there are even differences within the university,

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depending on the college and discipline that you're in. And without further ado, I'm going to hand over to our PGRs.

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First up, we've got Jo Sutherst. Jo's been on the podcast before talking about being a distance based researcher.

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And Jo is based in the Department of Art, History and Visual Culture in the College of Humanities.

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So can you tell me a little bit about the process of preparing for the upgrade?

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So for my upgrade, I had to submit five pieces of work in advance, which was a time plan of a page,

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an abstract, thesis chapter plan, a project proposal and a writing sample of between five and six thousand words.

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Then once those have been submitted and had a good look at, then there was the upgrade viva.

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So for me, I started work on these things really early.

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So my initial deadline was the beginning of May 2020.

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It did subsequently move slightly because of the pandemic.

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So I started back in December, started to put these documents together,

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and I had regular meetings with my supervisors and I regularly submitted work to them to have a look at and to critique and to give feedback on.

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And then I also as part of my preparation, spoke to people, particularly in things like shut up and write about what their experiences have been,

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what kind of things people were trying to do or having to do, and how they were finding it,

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how they prepared particularly for the upgrade over what they did to prepare for that and ask lots of questions.

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And I think the important thing about the upgrade preparation is that.

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You try to or I tried initially to fit myself into a box that I only did to look a particular way, and a few of us fell into that trap,

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particularly things like the time plan and the chapter plan, because at the end of the day, your work's unique.

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So it needs to fit your project and not what you think is a checklist of what needs to be in each of those items.

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So it was essentially that the main thing is starting early and just keeping on top of regular submissions and regular feedback.

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Thanks so much, Jo. That's a really helpful overview of how you prepared for your upgrade.

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So now could you tell me a little bit about the upgrade itself?

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Yeah. So I'm from humanities, from art history, and visual culture. And each of us, each discipline has its own requirements.

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So the biggest part of the upgrade. The upgrade for myself.

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Was the writing sample between five and six thousand words.

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Although I submitted nearly six and a half thousand words, because if I had cut it, it just didn't make sense.

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So I think you just have to realise that that's a guideline for the number of words, and that's quite important.

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It's actually a really, really supportive process,

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although at the time you think it's quite stressful and if you've never done anything like it before, it can feel really stressful.

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Add into that lockdown pandemic. It all comes to feel like a really big task, but actually it's really supportive.

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And it's really good to see your whole PhD laid out in front of you.

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The plans that you had at the start actually down on paper and just see it all start to come together.

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And it's absolutely amazing to talk through your plans, your work, your research questions, the stuff that you've already written.

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So good to talk to other people, other academics who'll give you a completely different viewpoint on a particular point or say to you,

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like, in my case it was they picked out certain things that got these things are really key.

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They're really unique and they're really exciting. And they're things that I thought was exciting.

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But you sort of think you need to go a particular way as well at parts. But to have someone else go, you know, that bit that that's a nugget.

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You know, that's really, really good.

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It's so good for your confidence and actually is quite an exciting and really supportive, great, fantastic process.

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But before you get there, you think, oh, my goodness, it's really stressful.

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Thanks, Jo. So next, that we're going to take a completely different perspective or certainly in terms of discipline on the upgrade process.

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We're going to hear from Steve Burrows. Steve is a PGR in bio sciences in our College of Life and Environmental Sciences.

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So, Steve, how did you prepared for your upgrade? The main part, obviously, was the upgrade document.

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So that was the general outline and background of my projects subject.

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And then an outline of my plan thesis structure.

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So it's just going through the ins and outs of what methods that was used in, why I was using them,

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and what the four chapters that I hadn't completed, what I had planned and why I was doing about it, where it was basically.

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And so for the. So I had to prepare a documents that prepared.

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I think it was a 25 minute PowerPoint presentation that I had to send to them beforehand.

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And that was a basic like basically going through the content of the upgrade documents.

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And then there was the gantt chart. So that was like a planned timeline for the project.

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So what I plan to deliver at what times throughout the PhD

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Thanks, Steve. And what about the upgrade and the upgrade, viva itself? Yes,

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So it was kind of the most stressful part was kind of a build up to those.

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So you prepared this document for such an amount of time and you kind of build up in your head.

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There's this great milestone that's coming up. And so it gets a little better.

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It's a little bit like anxiety inducing. And it's kind of that's kind of the worst bit.

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And then it happens. And then you, as you're going through the talk with the assessors,

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it turns in to more like more of a conversation after you do the actual presentation.

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It's a lot more conversational and you realise that they're you know, at least in my experience, it was very constructive.

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And I definitely gained a lot from it. But in terms of preparing for the actual presentation itself, a lot of my preparation.

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Well, I mean, outside, just making sure that I knew everything.

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Well, as much as I could about the background and the different methods and techniques that I was using,

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the most beneficial thing for me preparing was actually explained like going through the

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presentation and having a conversation with people that weren't necessarily in my field

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So whether that was other PhDs or postdocs, that would just listen to me.

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And. After it's after I gave them the presentation,

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they'd have different questions and there'd be there'd be a few curveballs and that I wouldn't necessarily be able to predict myself.

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And so it kind of helped me become. It helps you become a little bit more adaptable kind of which

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Yeah, I find that really useful. And this or any particular advice you give anyone who's got the upgrade coming up?

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So like I said before,

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that the main advice would be just to go through that process with friends or colleagues not necessarily in your fields or maybe like tangent,

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like somewhat connected, but not directly. And they'll.

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Least it was my experience they'd kind of produce situations that you can learn from

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that are going to be similar to what you're going to come across in the upgrade

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For the things that I'd recommend being OK with saying that you don't know something that was really that was really liberating,

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liberating in a way because it just it just takes the stress off a little bit.

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You know, you're only human. You're a student still and you're still you know, you're still learning.

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And so it's important to know that it's OK to say that you don't know that the ceiling is not going to crash in on you.

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If you do, you know, it's not the end of the world. I didn't understand.

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And it was like, say, my experience was very constructive and there was very much okay with hearing that.

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I think I've said it once or twice. And it's, you know, it's completely okay to say that.

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Another tip probably I have is if. Because it's so I talked about the anxiety builds up before you go into the upgrade

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And I'm quite an anxious person as it is.

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One thing I would recommend is it's kind of just look after your own well-being beforehand and understanding that the anxiety it.

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You know, it it does play a part in, you know. Quotation marks like performance on the day.

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So taken up things like meditation and things like that, I found very beneficial to dealing with those sorts of situations, throughout the PhD as well.

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So I can highly recommend that. And it's really there's loads of different apps and stuff like that that you can

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download and get into it quite easily if you got the student version of Spotify.

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And I'm pretty sure you get the Headspace app free with that.

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I can't recommend that enough if anyone's. If that resonates with anyone else.

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Next, we have Merve Mollaahmetoglu 
 who is a PGR in psychology, talking about her experience of preparing for the upgrade.

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It must have been about a year ago. I think. I started preparing for it.

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Yes. For me, it was sort of thinking about the upgrade report, which was the biggest part of the process in my case.

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So now, you know, it's different requirements for different disciplines, but in psychology and probably other STEM disciplines as well.

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The report is quite an important part and it involves writing a literature review.

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And usually you'll be asked to write up about an empirical study and its results, at least one study.

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And then also talking about future plans. I think that was a key part of the preparation of the upgrade reports.

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And I worked closely with my supervisor to work on a report, basically writing up the results of my study,

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writing a literature review and thinking about future studies and sort of what's stage.

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So I had some other studies that I was working on, but that weren't completed. I was kind of writing up about.

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Okay, so when do I expect to complete this? What stage am I at

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And I think that was a really useful thing to include because it shows that you're

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thinking about all these different stages and you have a clear plan for going forward.

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So what did the upgrade process actually involve for you in psychology? What did you have to submit?

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And did you have a viva? Yes, of course.

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As I said, the upgrade involved from me writing a report which consisted of a literature review, at least one.

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empirical study and talking about future studies. I think it was meant to be about 10000 words at the time, roughly about that.

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And then I also had a viva a mini viva

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They call it. Which sort of lasted about, I think up to an hour.

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And it was sort of, you know, talking about your reports, asking you questions about why you chose that specific area of research,

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you know, justifications or research questions, any clarifications of methodological considerations.

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And then discussing plans for future studies.

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And for me, but I think in most cases, it also involves the examiners giving you a bit of feedback about what you should be doing next.

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You know, in some cases, they might say, oh, you know, we think that you should really focus on X, Y, Z.

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In my case, they said, you know, it might be best for you to focus on writing up your studies for publication.

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You know, maybe rather than doing any more studies, because we sort of had plans for a couple of studies in place already.

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So that was one of the recommendations from my upgrades in terms of, you know, going forward, with my PhD

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Yeah. That sounds like a really supportive and fruitful process.

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Is there anything that you wish you knew before you started preparing for the upgrade or worrying about it?

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Is there anything that I wish I knew? But I think in terms of tips, I would say, you know, the upgrade sounds sounds like a scary thing.

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It's one of the first milestones of a PhD. They say it might be quite daunting, but actually it's not something that's there to catch you out.

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But it is that sort of you know, if there are any problems early on in your PhD about your studies or, you know, anything to do with, you know,

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your working relationship with your supervisors, you know,

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it's sort of an opportunity to highlight these issues and figure out how you can address them.

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So, you know, I wouldn't necessarily worry if things are not necessarily going well with your PhD.

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It doesn't mean that the upgrade will be and will be a bad process as it will be a process where you can highlight any of those issues.

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And the examiners, you know, you can sort of work with the examiners and your supervisors to come up with a plan of how to address,

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you know, how to address any issues and how you can progress on with with the PhD basically.

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So, you know, even if you submitted a report and, you know,

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the outcome could be that they ask you to resubmit the upgrade report with some changes, that's not necessarily a negative outcome per se

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So, you know, I would just say it's sort of an opportunity to to discuss your research, talk about your research and to improve it.

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So I would sort of remind people that it's a helpful process for you.

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It's not a process to punish you or anything.

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Finally, we have a Aoife Maher  who is a PGRin the Centre for Rural Policy.

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So Aoife. Can you tell me a bit about how you prepared for your upgrade? Sure.

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So my upgrade was originally scheduled for January 2021 and I made the decision to up the amount of hours.

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I'm doing something as I'm doing my PhD part time and it was certainly moving forward, which I felt quite frightening, quite dramatic.

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So it was suddenly a real focus of my mind. So obviously there was a real back and forth between myself and my supervisory team to get my submission

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into shape where we were all happy with that and being a good reflection of where I got to so far.

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And so that was quite a lot of.

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Yeah, tinkering with that and making sure I was really comfortable with the content and where things I had included or hadn't included.

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And I was just sort of comfortable with the literature around as well to know

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why certain things were included and were important and why things weren't.

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I also when I was really knuckling down to prepare for the actual day, I found a really good blog by the Open University.

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And they had listed four questions for people who were preparing for their vivas

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And so I use those to try and prepare for the upgrade interview, even though some of them weren't applicable, obviously, because I did not work.

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But it really helped me to sort of focus on what sort of questions I should be thinking about and what sort of questions I might be asked.

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I also reread my submission for the upgrade viva the many,

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many times and tried to persuade anyone that I needed to read it and talk to me about it, even if they didn't know anything about it.

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But that was still really helpful.

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Still points out some of areas or places where I haven't been clear enough in what I was explaining, what I was doing.

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And then I suppose the other things I did to prepare were practical so I printed out, the submission so I had it to hand, I could write notes on it.

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And also, I was kind of because I did my upgrade on Zoom, I could cheat a bit

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And I had a little cheat sheet of all the key things that I wanted to talk about in the upgrade meeting, which I'm not sure I should really admit to.

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But I think in the in the spirit of sharing my fellow PhD students, that was really helpful to just have like keywords.

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I wanted to make sure I talked about when I was talking about my actually my plan to do my research.

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And what was the upgrade itself like? So my upgrade, I was invited to an interview with a panel from my department.

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And it was all an internal colleagues who were carrying out my upgrade interview.

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Which was nice as two of them. I knew well, actually met in person before the pandemic.

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And one person who I didn't know well, but who was also in the department.

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Really nice. So that was. Yeah.

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Quite comforting. And then the other thing was, I didn't have to prepare a presentation or anything like that,

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which I think at this stage was quite helpful because that meant we could just get straight into talking about the documents that I'd submitted.

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So I submitted a project plan and 8000 words.

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So for some people, that might have been a literature review that later bits of it would end up all over that final thesis.

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But because of how my initial stages of research has all been affected by the pandemic, I'd tried to present a full chapter methodology chapter.

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So quite a lot of discussion than I thought would be focussed on that chapter.

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Actually, I think that the discussion, which was really helpful,

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I think more of it was on how I'm going to move forward and how I'm going to tackle my research next.

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Yeah, I found the whole process, even though I've been really nervous about it.

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I found a really supportive and challenging but in a in and really helpful way.

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So colleagues on my panel gave me lots of ideas of other literature to look at that might help and might form part of my conceptual framework.

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And we also talked a lot about my research and how to deal with.

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So as part of my research, I'm trying to work out why some people don't want to grow horticultural crops.

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Some people who are existing farmers and we talked a lot about the problems of exploring a negative in research,

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and it felt really helpful to sort of be able to brainstorm some of those issues and be able to acknowledge that.

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And for some of these issues, I don't have all the answers now, but that's right.

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And I can see where the research will lead me. So that was really helpful.

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And I also was told that I'm trying to do too much in my PhD, which I know is a very common theme.

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So I'm going to take that on board as well.

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Yeah, even though it was a nerve wracking experience ends up being much more supportive and like, really enlightening process.

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And yeah, I suppose I hadn't been anticipating that.

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So I was quite keen to come on and talk to you about how you how beneficial I found the process really to encourage other people about to go through.

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It doesn't have to be a frightening, challenging experience.

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It can be a positive, challenging experience. Thank you so much to Jo

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Steve Merve and Aoife for sharing their experiences with me for this podcast.

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Hopefully it's given you a little bit of insight into what the upgrade is like.

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And also a little bit of reassurance that this is a supportive process that's going to really help you move forward with your research.

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A couple of blog posts and things have been mentioned in the episode.

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I'm going to link those in the show notes and also a booking link for the question and answer panel that I'm running on preparing for your upgrade.

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On Wednesday, the 24th of February for University of Exeter PGRs

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And that's it for this episode. Don't forget to like, rate and subscribe and join me.

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Next time we'll be talking to somebody else about researchers development and everything in between.

 

 

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