By guest blogger Carlos A. Valencia-Hernández (@cavalenc). A 3rd year PhD student in epidemiology of ageing and cardiovascular disease (Whitehall II study, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health). He is an advocate for urban cycling and a music lover wandering around London looking for vinyl records.
So here you are. Trying to pass the upgrade from MPhil to PhD. But first of all, what is it? According to UCL guidelines, the upgrade is the process through which “the student’s progress and ability to complete their PhD” are assessed. It includes giving a presentation, having a viva, and submitting a written report. This blog entry will only focus on the upgrade report.
In this report, you must write about all your work and plans for your PhD thus far. In other words, this is the first organised writing experience of your PhD. You started your journey some months ago. It is time to show everyone your amazing review, future plans, and perhaps some statistical analysis results. You are proud of your accomplishments and want to share them with everyone! But there are some barriers in the way and overcoming these can be frustrating. There is no magical formula and, whilst there are outliers for whom the process flows naturally, for others it can take more time. Do not compare yourself to others, or you will despair. Here are a few do’s and don’ts.
You cannot be 100% productive 100% of the time. Find your golden hour!
This applies not only to the upgrade report, but to the whole thesis and other processes. Each person has their own times when they are most productive. There are early risers and night owls. Or perhaps just specific times when you are least likely to be disturbed. Identify the best hours for you and make the most of them.
Set a realistic time scale
You are a responsible, committed, and detail-oriented person, as well as a keen researcher. We all know it and it explains why you were admitted to a PhD. Despite this, meeting your writing deadlines can be challenging. Try to break the upgrade report into specific parts and calculate how much time you need to complete them. Include additional time for unexpected events.
Fast but not furious
All (or most) of the knowledge is already in your mind. You have done the review and run the statistical models, so if you just write non-stop, what could go wrong?
Well, many things. Quantity does not always equal quality. Conveying a scientific message is challenging. You have been familiarising yourself with the topic of your PhD and the jargon related to it for months. This might not be the case for everyone who reads your upgrade report, including your supervisors, proofreaders and examiners. Take one idea at a time and develop it.
From failure to failure without losing enthusiasm
Writing the upgrade report is a lengthy process with no immediate positive feedback. You can be so excited about all your ideas in the draft report sent to your supervisor(s) for comments. Then, after some hours or days, your supervisor(s) returns a sea of text highlighted with radioactive yellow or glowing cyan track-changes. All the negative thoughts about your writing skills and other abilities sweep into your brain. Keep calm. Even the best scientific writers need to be critiqued. Your supervisor(s) are helping you to make the upgrade report clearer and more understandable. They have been doing this process for quite a while. Trust them!
Keep the momentum: find a writing partner or look for writing retreats
Your surroundings affect what you do and how you do it. Finding a writing partner who encourages you to keep writing is a good idea. Also, departments across UCL regularly organise writing retreats that you can attend. Peer pressure can be useful sometimes, as can the availability of a quiet environment where you can focus on quality writing.
Check the consistency of your document
Upgrade reports are written over the course of weeks and months. In an ideal situation, the report would be written from the introduction to the conclusion in a logical and sequential way. Real life can vary though. After finishing the first draft, you may find a newly published piece of evidence to include in the discussion, or run additional statistical tests for your results. This could mean you have other sections or sentences that are no longer relevant. Keep an eye out for this.
More isn’t always better
You have worked hard on the upgrade report and may think that adding extra figures and tables would demonstrate all your time and effort. Not necessarily. Redundant tables or unclear figures could mislead the readers and suggest poor knowledge of your topic. Plus you are wasting precious space.
There is an overwhelming quantity of resources out there. You could start with UCL student psychological services, who have tips on how to get writing done.