What’s the Deal with the Provisional Year Review?

Editor’s note: this article, published in 2017, makes reference to a previous edition of the AUT Postgraduate Handbook that is now out of date. The most recent edition can be downloaded here (student login required).

PhD students the world over face it. It has different names in different institutions, but the basic premise is the same: roughly one year into your PhD, your candidacy is reviewed. You have to fill in a bunch of forms, perhaps submit a chunk of writing, maybe give a presentation. You have to prove that you are capable of progressing with the PhD.

It’s a nerve-wracking process to go through, and it can seem like a lot of work. Plus, there is always the looming threat of ‘failing the test,’ and facing unknown consequences. So I think it’s time for a little demystifying. I decided to ask: what’s the deal with the provisional year review?

Yes, that was unintentionally Seinfeldesque. No regrets.

Here at AUT, the provisional year review is colloquially called the ‘PGR9’, after the form you have to fill in (available for download here). You are required to write a ‘substantive’ research proposal (up to 10,000 words), including research questions, a literature review, the rationale for your research, your study design, and much more. You need to have decided on the practical elements of your research – which pathway will you use to present your thesis, whether you will need ethics approval, which language will you submit in, etc. You also need to give a presentation to your faculty, school or institute. All of these requirements must be met before you can achieve ‘confirmation of candidature’; in other words, before your admission to the PhD programme is confirmed.

The provisional year review is a standardised process, enshrined in the Postgraduate Handbook. Because of this, some view it as a bureaucratic requirement; I’ve heard the phrase ‘box-ticking’ bandied about. But the review has a purpose, and if you use it to your advantage, it can serve you well.

First of all: don’t fear the PGR9. It goes well for the vast, vast majority of PhD candidates. In fact, I spoke with the Manager of the Graduate Research School, and he could recall only a couple of cases in which anyone ever failed their PGR9 at AUT. What usually happens is either a) your candidature is confirmed; or b) some issue/s are identified, you work with your supervisors, the faculty, school, and/or GRS to resolve them, and then your candidature is confirmed. So really, it’s not so much a test as an opportunity to plan and solve problems at an early stage.

One of the underlying purposes of the provisional year review is to force you to map out your whole research project. Maybe you are the type of person who does this anyway. But if you’re not a planner, it can be helpful to be forced to leave the nitty-gritty aside and look at the whole project. What is the significance of your research? Which questions are you trying to answer? Big picture: why are you doing this, and how will you do it? It’s absolutely crucial to think deeply about these questions, and it’s much better to do that in the first year than in the fourth.

It’s also useful to have this plan reviewed, which is essentially what the PGR9 is all about. You’ll get several pairs of expert eyes on your plans, and you’ll have the opportunity to talk in detail with your supervisors about what you aim to achieve, and how your research will proceed.

Important point: you are not held to every detail that you write in your PGR9! A PhD is a 3+ year research project. What good would it be if the university expected you to know your exact topic, indicative results, and likely conclusions after one year? That would defeat the purpose of research. So: if your data takes you down a different track, or you find a new angle, you can depart from what you wrote about in your PGR9. (Some big changes – for example to your supervisors, expected completion date, major topic changes, etc – take a little paperwork, but they are doable.) In other words: there is room to move after the PGR9!

Take me for example. I recently pulled out the research proposal I’d written for my provisional year review, and here’s a partial list of what ended up changing between the proposal and submission:

  • my thesis title
  • my topic (slightly)
  • my research questions
  • my methodology (a lot)
  • my chapter outline
  • my artefacts for analysis
  • my timeline
  • my bibliography (a lot)

In fact, I barely recognise anything in my research proposal now. The basic subject and mode of enquiry remained the same, but pretty much every detail changed as I responded to what my data revealed, and adjusted for some technical difficulties with my planned methodology.

Because in reality: research doesn’t always progress according to plan, and that’s OK. So while the PGR9 sets out your plan, we all recognise that it’s just a blueprint, and you might depart from the plan in places.

So to return to Seinfelding for a moment – what is the deal with the provisional year review? It’s much like airplane food. It might frustrate you, scare you, or even appear unpleasantly sticky; but it will nourish you on your journey.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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