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Upgrade Advice

What to include in your Research Proposal

A formal Research Proposal, with a working dissertation title, will be approximately 2,500 words long, and contain two appendices:

a) a preliminary chapter plan and timetable for the research and writing up, max 1500 words

b) a bibliography (not restricted by a word count) of works and research materials to be consulted.

The Research Proposal will help you to clarify a number of considerations crucial to the design of a successful research project (it is essentially the first draft of your dissertation introduction). You will need to show:

  • central research questions you plan to address and what kinds of answer you are looking for;
  • the ability to situate your work within the existing scholarship and to show how your research engages with this body of research, methodologies or ideas;
  • what methods you plan to use;
  • what your source-base will be (printed primary sources, major secondary works, manuscripts, etc) and where you will be consulting these materials (this may involve letters or reconnaissance trips to relevant archives in advance);

Try to cover as many of these areas as possible in your proposal. You may find it useful to use these bold topics as section headings in your writing. When your supervisor has read through the Research Proposal, you should go through it together.

What is the purpose of the upgrade interview?

The upgrade interview serves five main purposes:

  • it gives you the opportunity, at an early stage of your research, to present your proposal for your PhD to independent academics
  • it provides you with formative feedback alerting you to your strengths and areas for developments in your research
  • it introduces your research to other members of academic staff who may be able to provide help and support as your project progresses
  • it gives you experience of the viva style of examination
  • it provides summative feedback on your progress i.e. an examination of your ability to produce work that merits transfer from MPhil to doctorate level

When should I present my upgrade?

If you are a full-time student you should present your upgrade paper in the summer term of your first year. For part-time students the upgrade should take place during the first term of the second year of study. At this point in your research you will have settled on your research questions; undertaken a preliminary literature review; decided your methodology and approach; and considered the primary sources to be used. But it will probably be before you have undertaken much primary research and analysis. The purpose of the upgrade interview is to enable you to get feedback on your research plans before you become too committed, and to give yourself time to use the feedback to change track or modify your plans if necessary.

Who makes up the panel?

The panel is made up of two members from the academic staff from the Department of History or in certain cases from outside the Department. Your supervisor will also attend the interview and therefore will be able to de-brief you about the upgrade. Your supervisor has no formal role in the upgrade and will not ask questions or help you with replies! During the upgrade interview you will be interviewed without your supervisor being present. This gives you a chance to talk in confidence with the panel about your supervision and the help and support you are receiving. Your supervisor will also speak to the panel without you being present on his/her view of your progress. The panel members may not be experts in your field but will be able to give you advice from the point of view of an 'interested outsider'. They will approach the upgrade interview in a friendly, supportive fashion but be prepared for a serious exploration of your work: this is a formal examination.

What will the panel ask me?

This will depend of course on your topic area and the approach you have taken but these are questions that are often asked in upgrade interviews:

  • What exactly is your research question?
  • What is your theoretical approach?
  • How will your work challenge or support the existing scholarly literature?
  • Why have you decided on this particular chronology or case study?
  • Which sources are you using for your research and what challenges do they present?
  • Which skills (language, palaeography, computer etc) do you need for your research and are you confident you have (or can acquire) these?
  • How are you defining your terms or research areas and why?
  • Do you think your research is too narrow? Or too broad?
  • How will you achieve your objectives in the timescale allowed?
  • Is your timetable too challenging?
  • Will you be able to provide the in-depth analysis required in the word length allowed?
  • What are the ethical issues in your research?

Are there frequently recurring difficulties with upgrade papers?

Each upgrade presents unique strengths and weakness but occasionally there are some difficulties:

  • Unclear or too wide a set of research questions

To address this make sure you can provide a succinct statement of your research question and make sure it is tightly focused and manageable. History PhDs are often very narrowly focused but you must ensure that you are addressing the bigger picture as well.

  • Formulaic presentation of the literature review

You should demonstrate how your project will engage with the current scholary literature on your subject and give an analysis of the relevant historiography. You should avoid simply presenting a list of who said what and when.

  • Vague understanding of sources

You will not be expected to provide a full analysis of the sources you will be using for your research - you will probably be only in the preliminary stages of gathering material. However, you should have a clear idea of the type and scope of sources you will be using, where these are located, and any challenges or problems you forsee. In addition you may be asked why you are selecting certain sources and not using others so be sure that you have a clear idea of why you have chosen your source material.

  • Unclear research methodology

Make sure you are clear about your approach to your research and have addressed any methodological issues.

  • Unrealistic scope or timetable

Are you sure that the outline you have presented is attainable? How might you scale down your project if it became necessary? Have you left sufficient time for writing up your research - this often takes longer than expected!

What happens at the upgrade?

The panel members will have read your upgrade materials and have some questions to ask you. These may take anything from half an hour to an hour, sometimes longer and will cover areas such as the structure and content of your research, your timetable and chapter outlines. The panel will then interview you and your supervisor separately. At the close of the interview you will be asked to wait outside for a few minutes while the panel discuss their agreed response. The panel will always provide formative feedback on the strengths and areas to develop in your research. Discuss this feedback with your supervisor. The panel will also agree a summative judgement based on four options:

  • To agree an upgrade from ‘working towards an MPhil’ to ‘working towards a PhD’
  • To ask for a resubmission of the paper so that the upgrading can be re-considered
  • To consider the project as working towards an MPhil
  • To advise that the planned project will not lead to a research degree

If you are asked to resubmit your upgrade, this may be with or without a further interview. This outcome may feel disappointing at the time in view of the hard work you have put in but try to treat this outcome positively. You are being given an opportunity to address key issues before you have become committed to a course of research which was very unlikely to lead to a doctorate. The points to address will be clearly set out and it will in most cases be a manageable task to address them in consultation with your supervisor.


Have you?

  • Prepared your upgrade materials
  • Discussed your papers with your supervisor
  • Discussed possible panel members with your supervisor
  • Proof read the final papers
  • Completed the Research Ethics form


Copies of all forms for your upgrade can be found at