The upgrade hurdle – get over your perfectionism and pride!

The upgrade is the stage where you transform from a MPhil/PhD candidate to a pure MPhil or PhD candidate. The process of this seems to vary between institutions. At the Institute of Education, we have to submit a 10,000 word document plus a project plan/timetable, a record of our training and future training suggestions. The 10,000 word section consists of, generally speaking, some of the literature review, some of the methodology and the research design. We meet with a panel of two people and discuss the project. My upgrade meeting is probably in Mid-November which is around 6 weeks from the submission date.

So it all sounds simple enough, except I found it exceedingly challenging. Which is good because as my name suggests, I like a challenge although this has been my greatest PhD challenge yet and I have to say I needed a good few days recovery time, mentally and physically, after submitting it.

The thing that makes it so difficult is that you are writing for your upgrade panel who are two academics in the institution who do not know your work and may know you only a little bit. You are trying to convince them that your project is at a PhD level, that you as an individual are capable of a PhD and that your research plan is realistic and manageable.

Putting this document together, especially the literature review involved multiple attempts. I started and threw out the document and wept regularly. This because what I was writing was interesting and nice, but actually, for a stranger, it would not make any sense as to how it fitted with the project – actually, this is a habit of mine as my writing in my first year tended to not make complete sense to my supervisors either. They said it was interesting, but could not read my mind, so did not know how it fits into my project. To be frank, I was literally aimless for quite some time and did not have any research questions until trying to do this upgrade document.

This is how I structured my upgrade document:

  • Title
  • Abstract – here I summarised the concepts I will be drawing upon, the exact sample I am using, so the reader can get a feel for the population under investigation, that it is mixed methods, that I am using the National Child Development Study and I summarised the three phases of data analysis. I am not collecting any data, only using existing data, so made this clear. I also tried to explain very briefly my aims and how my project both fits in with existing work as well as how it is unique.
  • Introduction – Here I focused more on the actual topic, why my study of higher education and lifelong learning fits into what exists already, so it was a very brief background summary of the topic.
  • A list of the gaps, the research questions, the aims – I put these at the beginning, within the introduction so that the reader can see them straight away
  • Literature review – but structured using ‘the gaps’ as headings – now this is the bit that was causing me the greatest of difficulty, but I eventually laid it out by the gaps my project was seeking to address. So I have identified four gaps. Two substantive and two methodological. So I decided to only include information and write about these gaps. I used each ‘gap’ as the section heading. As written in a previous post, I hate the phrase ‘literature review’, but I did use it for this document as it is a standard expectation to have in a proposal I suppose. One of my identified gaps also allowed me to write a bit about the concepts I’m using and the theoretical framework. So I did not have a special section for this. And a couple of my gaps meant I could write about methodological stuff too, so therefore my methodology section was to some extend integrated throughout.
  • Research design and pilot analysis – Because my data is all pre-existing, I have no data collection stage. So leaping to this is what I had to do. My actual pilot/training/experiment in analysis was done long before I decided upon my research questions, so I stated this in the document as I didn’t want to give the impression that I was oblivious to the incoherence of the document. Even though the methodology bit is my favourite bit of any project, this is my least developed and I ran out of steam and time to do it. So I wrote a couple of sentences to say this, well I didn’t say I had ran out of steam, but rather I said that I aimed to work on this and to finish a draft by December. I laid out my timetable here in a table. In this section too, I wrote about the dataset I will be using. But rather than regurgitate known stuff about it, I really tried to make it specific to my project and my project plans.
  • I didn’t make a proper conclusion or round up which perhaps I should have done, but I felt that the abstract and introduction did this.
  • Training taken and planned – I just laid out each of my three years training in a table.
  • References

I was going to put some of the items in an Appendix, but actually, because the document is quite short, I just integrated it all throughout. My analysis section is probably a bit too long and i have gone over the word count because of this, but a lot of it is in tabular form so the reader can skip over it. But I was keen for them to get a sense of what my data looks like so they can see what I am working with.

My supervisor had suggested I include an outline of my whole thesis but I ran out of steam, so instead will take the time between now and the upgrade meeting to do this.

I submitted the document with the general feeling that there are problems with my document, but throughout I wrote sections as if speaking to the reader to tell them that “I know this bit needs development…I am aware of key authors but I have not yet tackled it…We can then discuss it in the actual upgrade meeting…”. I submitted knowing it could be better. I submitted knowing that some bits are not clear and that my academic writing it not all nice and perfect. But I submitted in the spirit of knowing that it is meant to be a constructive meeting.

If I ‘fail’, we get 3 months to resubmit. So although that would be annoying, I do not necessarily feel it will be psychologically damaging as the idea is to make sure the project is right for a PhD.

So it is one hurdle to get over, but an important and useful one. The process of doing it was very useful as it really sped me up as I had been feeling that I had not really achieved much in the first year, but now I see that although the literature review is incomplete, as is the methodology, I can see what needs doing now and I feel that preparing for the upgrade meeting will really help me to understand more clearly what my project is all about and what I hope to do. So I am quite looking forward to the meeting, although have a funny feeling of embarrassment that so many intelligent professors will be reading my slightly crappy work. But that is just pride and wanting to be perfect. I will just have to get over it!

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