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Four Things to Know Before Your Probationary Review | Hayley McIlwraith

The probationary review, also called the upgrade, can be a nerve-wracking and stressful time. If you have yet to go through it, it can feel like a big deal – it’s the first exam of the PhD. There can be a million questions and worries going through your brain. Things like:  

‘What if I don’t pass?’  

‘What if I’m not prepared enough and they ask really tough questions?’  

‘Am I good enough for a PhD?’ 


We’re here to tell you that it’s okay to be worried but it doesn’t have to be so stressful. As students who have done it, passed, and moved onto new worries, we’d like to share a few tips we wish we knew before our probationary review meetings.  


1. Check your university requirements. 

Every university has different requirements and guidelines for postgraduate students. Make sure you know what you need to do (e.g., do you need a presentation? How long? Do you have an online questionnaire to fill out ahead of time?) 



If it’s hard to find the right information, reach out to your department head of postgraduate studies or postgraduate student support office. They can often point you in the right direction. Alternatively, ask upper year students! Don’t always expect your supervisors to know every requirement. Guidelines change from time to time and if you are based at a research institute, they might have students from a range of universities. You are in charge of finding out all your PhD requirements, but there are lots of people and resources to help you. 


2. Read through your report before your meeting. 

Writing and preparing your report will cover most of the preparation you’ll need. Remember, you know your topic the best because you’ve done the most reading on it. Any questions you get will come from that report. You don’t need to memorize it, but having a read through beforehand will help refresh your mind on what’s known in the literature, what your project is, and why you chose it. As you go through, try and think of what questions might be asked. Bonus tip: look up your internal assessor ahead of time to see their research background. This could help you understand what aspects of your project they might be more interested in.     


3. It’s okay to not know everything.  

On that note, it’s okay if you get a question and you don’t know the answer. You are doing a PhD to learn and train – there would be no point to do a PhD if you were already an expert! The point of the probationary review is to see if you’ve thought about your project, if you know what you’re doing next, and to point out if there’s something you’ve left out that might make your project stronger. The questions are meant to help make sure your project is as strong as possible and ensure success. 


4. Everyone wants you to do well.  

Preparing for this review process can sometimes feel like you’re preparing to defend yourself and that your examiner will be trying to catch you out (maybe as an imposter?). But your supervisors and even the examiner want the best for you. To put it bluntly, it looks bad on your supervisor and school if you fail. So, they are not trying to trick you or point out all your flaws. They just want to see that you’re dedicated, passionate, and have been working towards your PhD.  




Lastly, the fact that you are worried about this review probably means you are going to do well. Because it means you care about your PhD! And if you care, you’ll put in effort and ensure success.  


We hope this advice helps you prepare a little better for what is to come. That said, we can only speak from our own experiences, and this advice might not apply to everyone. Always check in with your supervisory team and university regarding expectations and requirements prior to your probationary review (see tip #1). 


Now, get back to writing and good luck! 


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