Hi everyone, Hannah here – and in my last blog I summarised my top 10 tips for the first year of your PhD. There, I touched briefly on the confirmation review… but what is that? Sounds a little scary… right? Well don’t fret – I’m now going to give you a complete confirmation review lowdown, I’m going to explain what exactly a confirmation review is, how to prepare for it and what to expect on the day.
Confirmation review… progression review… continuation review… first year viva… the terms are used interchangeably at different institutions, but the overarching principle is the same. What this milestone signifies is the examination step that enables the end of the first year of your PhD. The first year of your PhD course is considered “probationary” (I know… harsh right?) – pending successful completion of the confirmation review. For people on a full-time course – this will likely be within 12 months of starting, for those part time this date will likely be later. The process itself may vary from university to university, I am going to write about my own experience at the University of Sheffield.
The purpose of the confirmation review is to confirm whether the student and the research project have the potential for successful completion at doctoral level within the time frame for the degree, and whether there is a clear plan in place to achieve this. Essentially, they want to know that you are on track and capable. You will typically be examined by minimum 2 other researchers from your department, you will decide on who your examiners will be with your supervisors. They have to be people that have no prior knowledge of your research project, and you haven’t already worked with.
In preparation for your confirmation review you will need to prepare your confirmation review report. The requirements for the written submission will vary from department to department, so be sure to check your specific student handbook. For me, this was a 20,000-word document containing the detailed research question, the literature reviews I had conducted, my data analysis plan and methodologies and projected future work plans including Gantt charts for timescales. I was also required to submit a data management plan with information related to things like storing and handling the data, and a doctoral development plan for Year two – enlisting training needs I had identified over the first year and any courses or learning exercises I would complete in the second year to bridge those knowledge gaps. If you write this document well, and really think about the necessary and fundamental content, you should be able to carry a lot of this forward to chapters in your thesis.
The key thing is to plan a lot and discuss along the way with your supervisors.
You will need to submit your confirmation review report about a month before your oral examination to give your examiners time to read your work. I also emailed my examiners beforehand asking if they would like to be provide a presentation, I would highly recommend doing this as it not only enables you to reflect on your work while preparing the presentation, but also eases you in on the day too. You can decide whether or not you want your supervisors to be present for the exam. Although it may feel daunting having more people present, having your supervisors with you is super helpful as they can make notes during the exam, and they may notice things the examiners say that you may miss.
Your confirmation review is NOT a defence. At this stage, your research is very much a work in progress – in fact your examiners are there to yes, assess your capability, but also potentially give you advice and provide insights you and your supervisors may not already be aware of. They will ask you challenging questions – but it is YOUR work, you are the expert! They are not there to catch you out, and if you don’t know the answer – it is way better to say that… you are not expected to know everything at this stage. But also remember, no research is without its limitations. Acknowledging these is not weakness, but rather a strength and a sign of a good researcher – especially if you can demonstrate that you are trying to find solutions or minimise these limitations.
Your examiners are coming at your project with a totally fresh pair eyes, something you and your supervisors can’t do because you are so truly invested in the work. They will likely provide insights you hadn’t thought about or ideas you may have missed. Take this opportunity to enjoy discussing your research with other researchers!
The exam will typically last 1.5-2 hours long, and you should find out on the day what the outcome is.
My confirmation review was virtual (oh COVID!), and my examiners asked me to leave the “room” and re-join after they had had around 15 minutes of discussion. The outcome can vary… the result should hopefully be a pass – which is confirmation of your doctoral status! If you fail to pass you confirmation review it can be on the basis of the written work alone – in which case, you will need to submit amendments and it may be that you do not need to conduct another oral exam. However, if your examiners deem it necessary you may need a complete second attempt… and that’s okay! You will be given loads of guidance and support.
All-in-all this step is essentially to check in on your progress, your ability as a researcher and that you are making realistic future workplans. If you are organised, planning and communicating well with your supervisors you have absolutely nothing to worry about! In fact, try to enjoy it and use it as an opportunity to discuss your research with new people, and get some ideas and opinions on your work from people that aren’t vested in it like you are.
Thanks for tuning in, Hannah.
Hannah Hussain is a PhD Student in Health Economics at The University of Sheffield. As a proud third generation migrant and British-Asian, her career path has been linear and ever evolving, originally qualifying as a Pharmacist in Nottingham, then Health Economics in Birmingham. Her studies have opened a world into Psychology, Mental Health and other areas of health, and with that and personal influences she found her passion for dementia.