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Research student progression and assessment

Ongoing assessment process for students

This page gives you an overview of how your progress as a doctoral student will be monitored and assessed during your studies, and about the process of upgrading from MPhil to PhD status.

Information about your eventual research degree examination once you are ready to submit your thesis is provided in a separate section below.

Annual progression monitoring

  • Your progress as a doctoral researcher will be monitored by your supervisory team, your PhD programme and your school.
  • At the beginning of your doctoral studies you will be provided with information about how your academic progress will be assessed over the course of your programme.
  • Your MPhil/PhD programme may have particular procedures and assessment requirements, so you should always check what is required of you with your principal supervisor, or the MPhil/PhD Programme Director or Administrator.
  • Your school will carry out an annual progress review for all their research students in order to consider progression to the following academic year. Re-enrolment each year is only possible if you demonstrate satisfactory academic progress.
  • Full-time PhD students are required to submit their thesis within a maximum of four years of registration.
  • Part-time PhD students are required to submit their thesis within a maximum of seven years of enrolment.

Upgrading from MPhil to PhD status 

  • All Birkbeck doctoral research students are initially registered for an MPhil degree. 
  • To upgrade from MPhil to PhD you must demonstrate that you have reached the required level of progress and achievement for the PhD degree. 
  • Upgrading usually takes place during the second year for full-time MPhil/PhD researchers or during the third or fourth year for part-time MPhil/PhD researchers. 
  • Details of requirements for consideration of MPhil/PhD upgrades will be provided by your faculty or school. 
  • You will usually be required to submit written work and may be required to take part in an upgrade viva, during which you will present and discuss your work with a panel of academic staff. 
  • A decision will then be made about whether you should be transferred to the PhD degree programme. You may have a maximum of two attempts to upgrade from MPhil to PhD. 

Writing-up stage and fees

  • You can apply for reduced 'writing-up mode' fees if you have completed all research/data collection and analysis needed for your thesis, as well as a full draft of your thesis. This means that, in principle, you no longer require full supervision, as the active research phase of your studies is complete. 
  • Entitlement to the reduced writing-up mode fee is not automatic, Firstly, your supervisor and PhD Programme Director will need to agree and then you should contact your school administrator for further information about the process. 
  • Full-time students can be in the writing-up mode for not more than one year and part-time students for not more than two years. 

Research degree examination

Guidance about the research degree examination process for current students is available on the BGRS SharePoint site. The following information highlights some of the key features of the research degree examination process for prospective students.

The viva voce oral examination

  • Your academic progress as a doctoral student will culminate in your research degree examination which requires you to submit your thesis and then take part in an oral 'viva voce' examination.
  • Many schools offer a mock viva, often with your second supervisor, to give you a sense of the process and an opportunity to practise and receive constructive feedback on your performance. This can be a useful and reassuring part of your preparation.
  • The viva takes the form of a meeting between you and your two examiners. On average they last about two hours, but can take much longer. 
  • The viva may take place in person or through use of video conferencing. A viva that takes place with any member participating remotely must be arranged in accordance with guidelines for online research degree vivas.
  • Your principal supervisor may attend if you wish, but they do not partake in the examination.
  • The purpose of the viva is to: 
    • establish if your thesis is sufficient to meet the requirements for a PhD degree 
    • demonstrate that your thesis is all your own work and that you understand what you have written and argued  
    • allow you to verbally defend your work under academic scrutiny 
    • corroborate that you understand where your work sits in relation to similar research and the wider academic field 
    • respond to the examiners' questions, clarify your arguments and expand on your ideas and findings. 
  • It is wise to treat your viva professionally, like a job interview: arrive promptly, dress smartly and take pens and paper. You should bring a copy of your thesis for reference. 
  • Viva tips: 
    • Try to remain calm. 
    • Take your time answering the questions. 
    • Ask for clarification if you don't understand anything. 
    • Admit if you don't know the answer to a question. 
    • Be willing to expand on your arguments and defend particular lines of enquiry or interpretations. 
  • A viva can be a rigorous, thought-provoking and challenging experience - with any examination you must be prepared to demonstrate your knowledge and comprehension of the field. There are few formal rules governing how a viva works, so it can feel unpredictable, and your examiners will expect you to 'think on your feet'. 
  • Some examiners will be reassuring and interrogative, while others may be more confrontational. 
  • It is wise to prepare carefully beforehand and think about your findings and arguments, the sources or data you have used, the structure of your thesis, and your research methodologies. It is useful to practice answering questions, from the generic to the specific. 
  • Your principal supervisor can advise you on how to fully prepare. 
  • Some generic questions might include: 
    • Explain your thesis in one sentence
    • Summarise your key findings
    • What have you done to merit a PhD? 
    • What is original about your research? 
    • How does your thesis contribute to knowledge? 
    • What are the strongest/weakest parts of your thesis? 
    • What might you have done differently? 
    • What were your research methodologies? 
    • What aspect of your thesis are you most proud of?

The examination and awarding process for all MPhil/PhD researchers is overseen by the Birkbeck Graduate Research School (BGRS). The following section gives you an overview of the research degree examination process once you are ready to submit your thesis prior to your viva voce oral examination. If you have any questions concerning thesis submission, please .

Criteria for the award of an MPhil/PhD degree

Selecting PhD examiners

  • Your supervisor will approach possible examiners, but the final decision should be made through discussion between you and your supervisor. 
  • These examiners will then be nominated and reviewed by a College panel, the Research Students Sub Committee (RSSC). They may question the nominations, and in some cases may ask for different examiners to be approached.
  • In some circumstances (e.g. inexperienced examiners, remote examination using a video call), it may be appropriate for the viva to be chaired by an independent member of academic staff. The role of an Independent Chair is to attend the oral examination and ensure that it is conducted fairly and in accordance with the University Regulations. View the procedure and guidance for independent chairs.

Length of a thesis (MPhil and PhD)

  • The maximum word length for an MPhil thesis is 60,000 words; this includes title pages, contents and footnotes but excludes your bibliography and appendices. 
  • The maximum word length for a PhD thesis is 100,000 words; this includes title pages, contents and footnotes but excludes your bibliography and appendices. 
  • The maximum word count is not an objective, and depending on your subject area, a substantially lower word count may be appropriate. Your supervisors are the best source of advice on this.

Viva voce results

  • Possible outcomes to the viva are governed by the relevant regulations for your research degree. The main outcomes are:
    • pass without amendments 
    • pass subject to minor amendments (this is the most frequent outcome)
    • offer to resubmit with major corrections, due within 18 months
    • PhD level not achieved, but student qualifies for an MPhil (can be subject to minor amendments)
    • fail.
  • If minor amendments are required, the examiners will set a deadline for you to complete these (maximum length subject to the relevant regulations), after which they or your supervisor will review your amended thesis.
  • If major corrections are required, the examiners have the option of conducting a second viva upon resubmission. 
  • Once any required amendments have been approved, you will be asked to submit two final copies of your thesis, including any corrections specified by your examiner.