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Preparing for (a Humanities) Upgrade & Mini-Viva

Hello, Dear Readers - welcome back to An Eddying Flight! I hope you're all doing wonderfully in this, September, the month of Academia's slow and grinding return to business after the summer break.

Exactly as suggested by the title, today's post will be a recap of my recent experience undergoing my year one upgrade and attending my mini-viva examination. I'm very happy to announce that I passed with no corrections and have officially become a PhD candidate, registered for a doctorate, rather than a PhD student registered for an MPhil. Hurray!

During the run-up to my upgrade I searched for literature and blog posts on this topic to reassure myself - because upgrade, or confirmation of status, or whatever your particular institution may call it, is the first big hurdle that must be successfully leaped on the way to gaining a doctorate, and I was nervous. I was surprised to find suprisingly slim pickings, even online. This might be because this first year ritual is a relatively new one, put in place by more and more universities over the last decade or so to try and avoid candidates crashing out of their PhD at the end, after three or six years of time, effort, and financial investment.

Whatever the reason, there was a paucity of resources, and I had lots of questions which none of the articles or blog posts really answered to my satisfaction (as far as I could find). So I'll try and answer those here, but if there are any more issues you really want to discuss, as always, drop me a line on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments below.

So, your upgrade or confirmation of status is approaching. What now?

Well, firstly, you have to get the paperwork sorted. This generally requires a big chunk of writing from you, and not just from the research you've been working on (which you provide to reassure the assessors that your work is of PhD quality) but in the form of other documents associated with actually applying to upgrade to official doctoral candidate status.

In my case, I was required to provide:

  • A 200 word contexualising statement for my fiction (this was basically a mini-synopsis of the novel I'm working on)

  • 8000 words of creative writing (an extract of the novel)

  • 1500 words of critical writing/research (with its own bibliography)

  • A formal research proposal with an indicative bibliography for thesis as a whole

This list will, of course, vary massively depending on your discipline and institution. Unless you're doing a creative PhD, as I am, it's unlikely most people will be expected to produce two separate samples of writing for their research. You'll probably supply a draft introduction chapter or perhaps a literature review. But as always, the first port of call should be your supervisors (shout out to my wonderful supervisors: I appreciate you! You complete me!).

In my case, my supervisors provided me, not only with this list, but also with a very helpful template for the formal research proposal which showed me exactly what kind of information I needed to provide about my PhD research goals, questions, methodology, etc.

It might seem a little odd to have to provide a research proposal when you're already in the middle of doing the research. Especially when you submitted one of these to get onto your PhD programme in the first place. But this is a really important way of checking in with you: ensuring that you are clear on what you're trying to do, why, and how, and that your research has grown and evolved since your initial application to do a doctorate (as it inevitably will have done, if you're going about it right). This document is far more extensive than the original research proposal, too. My application research proposal was 1500 words not including reference list. The upgrade research proposal came in at nearly 4000, (but that did include the bibliography this time).

Your supervisors should be willing to look at everything you're going to submit as part of this upgrade package, and offer you feedback. Mine gave me pointers to improve both my creative and critical work, pointed out some areas in my bibliography that were lacking, suggested I add a bit more detail on my creative element in the research proposal, and helped unpick various areas of unclear wording. During this period they will hopefully also have selected, approached, and briefed you on the assessors who will be looking at your application for upgrade and conducting your mini-viva, and a date for the mini-viva will be arranged.

Once you've revised your application materials in line with the feedback, you will need to submit them. Some people may be lucky enough to simply be able to email their documents to the correct office. Here at the OU we have to beard the dragon known as 'Post Graduate Research Manager' which is a newly launched website which almost no one really understands, and which, in my case, required me to answer several screens of questions which I hadn't been warned to expect (because, again, no one understands this computer system). There wasn't anything useful in my student handbook either so, after a brief spasm of panic, I needed to go back to one of my supervisors for help with these. In any case, once you've submitted the forms and documents, it's time to start preparing for the mini-viva.

This is the part that makes most of us develop an instant stomach-ache, I know. But it doesn't need to. Honestly.

'Mini-viva' is really a bit of a misnomer. This isn't truly a shorter version of the Viva Voce grilling you're going to have to undergo once you've finished and submitted your thesis. It's much, much nicer and far less formal than that. The point really seems to be to offer an outside perspective on your work at this early stage, offer useful advice and constructive criticism including book recommendations, and get you to think about and articulate less developed areas of the research.

I underwent my mini-viva online, via MS Teams. This was a very good thing, because I also went into it with a 38.8 fever, headache, nasty sore throat, and a persistent cough. A negative Covid-19 test two days earlier had assured me that this was only an unlucky summer cold and so I should surely be able to power through it (Morgan Freeman Voiceover: Dear Readers, it did, of course, turn out to be Covid). But despite this, I genuinely enjoyed the mini-viva. It was effectively a long, wonderful, friendly chat with two super intelligent people (one within my discipine of Creative Writing, and one within the cognate discipline of English Literature) who had read my work with great attention and wanted me to talk about it in great detail. It lasted roughly an hour and if it hadn't been for the sore throat I could happily have kept on for another hour after that.

Of course, this could just be my experience. I am a certified Weird Human, and your assessors and project will obviously be different. But since this is an area that my supervisors, fellow PhD students, and just about every resource I found online also all agree on, I think it's safe to promise you that if your mini-viva is traumatic then something has gone wrong with it. It's not a grilling. It's an opportunity to learn, and you should be able to enjoy it.

How to prepare, then? What kind of questions will they ask and what can you do to get ready?

My biggest tip is to ask one of your supervisors to sit in on your mini-viva and take notes on the discussion. This was recommended to me by the OU Director of Research Degrees at an induction event all the way back in October of 2021 and I'm so glad that I made a note of it. Although your supervisor will absolutely not be allowed to be involved in the mini-viva, having them there is reassuring. And, crucially, although you will be making notes of your own, if you're anything like me you will get excited and miss out huge chunks of what's said. I personally found afterward that I'd written down all the comments and questions from my examiners... but completely failed to record about 80% of what I said in reply. Having my supervisor's objective and complete notes to compare to my own in the aftermath was vital.

In the run-up to the mini-viva, I asked my supervisors if I should re-read some of the books and articles that I'd referenced in my critical work, or try to cram in a lot of new reading. They told me that the examination would be on the work I'd submitted, and the best 'revision' would be to re-read that and invest some time in sustained thought about it.

This was excellent advice. Not only did refreshing my memory help boost my confidence: it gave me the chance to imagine what specific questions these particular sections of work I had submitted might bring up in the minds of my assessors.

I made myself some notecards. Nothing fancy or extensive, just brief bullet-points, key words to prompt me. I wrote these in response to questions I thought the examiners might ask:

  • How would I summarise the main points of my research?

  • Why have I chosen to do this specific research?

  • Why do I think this research will matter to others?

  • What literature/writers have influenced the creative and critical work the most?

  • What works/authors did I intend to read next?

  • Are there different areas related to the original research that I intend to explore further?

  • How has my research changed since I began working on it?

In the event, because I had already done the thinking I barely needed to glance at my notecards, even when these topics came up. The information was nice and fresh in my mind. In addition, though, the assessors asked me a lot of other questions which pertained very specifically to my writing, and can be summed up in the following headings:

  • How have other elements (such as fairytale archetypes and the Gothic) shaped the work you're doing?

  • How will you address certain technical challenges (portraying non-linear time, dual narratives) inherent to what you've set out to do in your writing?

  • Can you explain how these two areas of your research (Romantic/Pre-Raphaelite art and writings and theoretical physics) connect to the genre (timeslip) of your creative work?

  • Tell us what kind of scholarship you've found on perceptions of time and your plans to investigate this further?

  • Various detailed questions on the creative and technical choices I'd made/would make in my creative work and why, and how I saw these playing out.

I was surprised by how deeply the discussion went into my creative work, because I'd expected to have to defend my critical writing much more (my supervisors had said this would likely be the case, but I'm still insecure about research and academic writing, so that's what preyed on my mind). But I didn't find that the examiners asked me anything that I, as the author of the work they were responding to, wouldn't have been expected to be able to answer. They certainly made me think; they didn't in any way attempt to make me panic or curl into the fetal position!

It seems to me that the best prep for the mini-viva is to re-read the work you've submitted with the most objective eyes possible and imagine what questions you would ask if you were going to be examining this upgrade.

What areas would intrigue you, or tempt you to dig in further? Where would you point out things that hadn't fully been explained or explored? Can you see the potential for the research to move in new directions, or would you recommend further reading?

Even if the specific questions you've envisaged don't crop up in the mini-viva, the time and effort spent in deep reflection about your work will pay you back in terms of confidence and eloquence on the day.

Now that my first full academic year as a Post Graduate Researcher is complete, and my upgrade and mini-viva are behind me, I have a sense of security and fulfilment in my PhD journey that I didn't before. I've defended my research (however informally) for the first time, and at some level this has helped me to accept that it, and I, belong here. I hope your experience with this academic milestone will be just as positive. I wish you the very best of luck!

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