PhD project: the interim assessment

The viva is widely recognised as the final stage in a doctoral study where candidates are required to defend their research. But doctoral students are assessed much earlier in a similar fashion through the interim assessment.

In some cases students who apply to do a PhD may be asked to register on a master’s research programme such as an MRes or an MPhil. In such instances candidates have to pass an interim assessment before being admitted onto a doctoral degree.

At the same time, direct PhD students also have to undergo the interim assessment as a way of assessing their progress and ensuring that the work they have done to date is of the required standard in order for them to continue.

So what does it involve? For most higher education institutions in the UK the interim assessment takes place between 12 and 15 months after the initial registration, so is usually carried out at the beginning of the second year of doctoral study.

It is often seen as a hurdle to pass by the doctoral student and in some cases may be regarded as a few more boxes to tick by university administrators – but both views miss the benefits to students and universities that the interim assessment offers.

For most doctoral degrees in the UK the interim assessment involves PhD students preparing a 4,000 word report to be read by two examiners appointed from within the university. At the assessment the student may be required to do a short presentation, which is followed by an oral examination.

The internal examiners must then make a decision as to whether the candidate has made sufficient progress to continue with their doctoral degree, which is written up in a report. This can be a nerve-racking process for the PhD student – I should know as I had my interim assessment last week – but there are some benefits to this process.

Whilst academic supervisors provide guidance and feedback on your PhD thesis, the interim assessment offers the opportunity for broader feedback from experienced academics that are unfamiliar with your research project – and helpful assessors will offer constructive feedback.

It is like a mini-viva and a test run for the real thing and allows doctoral students to get a taste of what is to come. It is also a great confidence booster – once I had learned that I passed my interim assessment I really felt that my first year was a success and that I had done what was required of me.

It should also be noted that interim assessments are very important for research departments to maintain academic standards within their universities and a way of gauging the likely success of doctoral students. After all, a great proportion of the revenue of higher education institutions is derived from its research activities and most doctoral students receive bursaries, so their continued financial support has to be justified.

If you are considering a doctoral degree or have already embarked on a PhD research project but not yet had your interim assessment, you may be wondering how to prepare for it and whether I have any advice or tips to share?

Based on my recent experience I would say that you need to be crystal clear about the objectives of your research project and spell this out in your report and in your presentation. Beyond that, I would say that your trump card is your genuine passion for your research project and a thorough understanding of existing literature and what gaps you will be filling in the current scholarship of the subject matter.

By the end of the first year of a doctoral degree you would normally be expected to have completed a literature review and to have mapped out the research tools you will be using as well as your methodology. If you are clear on all those points then you should have no problems with your interim assessment.

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