How to survive the ‘daunting’ PhD reviews

I’ve recently passed (or should I say battled my way through) my first annual PhD review. Has it really been a year since I started?? How time flies. This was by far the most daunting aspect of my PhD to date.

Throughout your journey towards (hopefully!) gaining your PhD, it is common (in the British system anyway) to pass a series of reviews. The review panel or committee usually consists of a chairman, subject advisor and your PhD supervisor(s). My supervisors first brought these reviews to my attention very early on in the PhD process. I was quite daunted by the prospect of having to present what I had been doing as part of my PhD. What if it was a load of rubbish? What if it did not make any sense? This blog post will give you a flavour of what you might expect at reviews such as this and gives my own personal recommendations and experiences.

From the outset, it is your [the student] responsibility to get your committee together and to make sure you have the adequate facilities for your reviews. Institutions may ask you to present a written report and/or a presentation – check with your own institution for their criteria. Speaking from past experience and from chatting to fellow students, it can be a real hassle to get your committee all together, in one location, at any one time. It can end up something like this:

comic pic

My advice is to prepare in plenty of time so that you don’t leave yourself in a mad rush right up to the last minute.  Usually, you will get an email from the academic administration team at your University to begin with, but then after that, I suggest getting onto your panel ASAP to get something arranged. Why not use a Doodle Poll? Work it around you.

Personally, I’m not the strongest in terms of time management and planning so I would recommend (and I learnt this after discussions with fellow PhD students and my supervisors) creating a Gantt chart to plan future tasks adding and ticking tasks off as you do them. The time frames are flexible throughout the PhD and you will no doubt encounter many changes, so it’s not the holy grail but it gives you a projected timeline, and is often required by your review committee.


Before the review, ideally, you should:

  • Produce a report and pass it around to your thesis committee in advance of the meeting so it can be assessed to provide appropriate feedback. Within this report, it is common to write an executive summary or short abstract for your committee chair. Your chairman is someone who is independent of the rest of the committee and is usually someone who does not know a lot about your project but has a strong experience of the PhD process. In your report, ideally you need to address the background of your project, your updated research objectives (aims, hypotheses etc.), a methodology, what results you have obtained so far and early conclusions.
  • produce an update to your Gantt chart [or create one if its your first review] from the initial review showcasing what you plan to do after the review (ideally for the next year). Furthermore, candidates are asked to present for a strict 15 to 20 minutes and answer questions on your work and plans.

At the reviews, you should also present to your committee:

  • Outline required resources and potential hazards.
  • a training assessment chart – this should include what courses you have taken both at your University or further afield.
  • a short 5-10 minute presentation on your work. This enables you to gain vital experience in conducting talks in front of an audience. This is something that I am reasonably strong at doing  but on the flip side, some people hate doing presentations. If there is any advice I can give its the 6Ps:

‘Prior Preparation prevents piss-poor performance’

I’ve remembered that from my years as an Undergraduate student and never a truer word has been said.

I can provide a few tips to people who are nervous about this:

  • make sure you start work well in advance. Plan, Plan, Plan.
  • Send draft versions to your supervisors and PhD students as early as possible to gain adequate feedback and to see if you are on the right lines. I was indebted to feedback I received from my Dirt Docs colleague and good friend Oliver Pritchard ( @olly_prichard) who gave me some good advice.
  • Speak with fellow PhD students who have been through the process. Not all experiences will be similar (or good!) but its good to hear what mistakes or things they did well to make you aware of what you need to do (or not) when it comes to your review.
  • Make sure you have answers to questions in your own mind at the ready. This is something that I make sure I have on me before a review. I’ve started doing this as when I was an Undergraduate a lecturer asked me a really tough and highly contentious question on land use change and I was defenceless to his question. I vowed never to leave myself vulnerable or in that situation again. It was not a pleasant experience.
  • Keep a strong focus on your project; this is a common failing of mine and most PhD students. We think we can do everything in our project but unfortunately, if you do not develop and go to conferences, workshops, present your work, you miss out on some of the other experiences PhDs are all about. Also, your PhD can become very general and can grow unnecessary arms and legs! Keep it simple and manageable. It’s not easy!
  • Practice your presentation and do not overrun. Ask fellow PhD students or your supervisors/friendly staff members to come and hear a practice presentation. Ask them to give you feedback. Who knows? They might be even more critical then your panel!! They might see things in your presentation appearance that need sharpening up (e.g. font size, structure, diagrams etc.)

I hope my advice has been useful. Each experience will be different so remember try to relax, enjoy it and utilise people. They will be happy to help. If anyone wants my advice on the review process, give me a shout!


Author: Grant Campbell (@Stato_Grant )