At my university in the UK, candidates doing a full time PhD (3 years) have to submit a 1st year report which includes literature review, the "gaps" that will be tackled by the doctoral work, expected outcomes, research methodology, Gantt diagram of the future work, the completed training plan, and some preliminary experiments (if any).

The supervisor makes a report about the performance of the candidate (training, attendance to meetings, etc.).

A committee of faculty members (excluding the supervisor) reads the candidate report and the supervisor report, and examines the student on the content of the report and challenges the topic, etc. It's like a mini-viva. The committee is called to make a decision if the candidate is able to complete the PhD in the next 2 years or not. If the answer is not, then the candidate gets another chance in 2 months and if they fail again, need to leave the program.

My question: How can one make a decision about the ability of a candidate to complete a PhD from their performance in the first year? I have seen people struggle in the first year and then do amazing work and vice-versa. Questions like "the ability of the candidate to perform novel work" cannot be answered after the first year.

I am early-career faculty.

  • 3
    How frequent is a "fail" decision made? How often is a "pass" decision made and the candidate isn't actually finished on time? I would expect and hope that the answer to the first is "seldom" and would also expect that the answer to the second is "(pretty) often".
    – Buffy
    Jun 22, 2020 at 18:45
  • Also, are you a student in such a situation, or faculty needing to make such a judgement?
    – Buffy
    Jun 22, 2020 at 18:47
  • Part of the ability to do novel work is to identify novel work to be done. At this point, all it seems like they’re asking is for a research proposal. If the research proposal is required in the first year, and in that proposal they ask you to identify a novel idea, then based on the programs requirements that is the bench mark they use to determine if the student can complete novel work. What’s not important is the truth claim of true ability, but the truth claim of true ability under the constraints imposed by the institution. Jun 22, 2020 at 18:49
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    @Buffy The failure rate in my department is 20% at the first year exam. I don't have the statistics about the second question though. Some students get medical extensions, or have a final viva deferred, etc. I am young faculty.
    – electrique
    Jun 22, 2020 at 18:50
  • 3
    So should no review of progress be made?
    – Jon Custer
    Jun 22, 2020 at 18:57

2 Answers 2


When a candidate enters a program, the admissions materials are intended to help a committee and/or an advisor make a prediction about successful completion. If they are sufficiently conservative, then the predictions, when positive, are fairly, but not absolutely, reliable.

This interim analysis has the same purpose. We, the faculty, need to make a prediction of success. The sorts of things asked for in your description seem fairly well focused on that. The real question, is, "is this a serious student" who is currently "doing the right things" that will lead to success - probably.

But, if the student is really doing research, then, just as you suggest in your addendum, it is impossible to predict with perfect accuracy. True research can't be scheduled and the more you learn, the more questions should arise.

So, while the pre-admission judgement should be conservative, I think an interim judgement needs to be more "liberal". That is, the benefit of the doubt should be given to most candidates if they are actually working. But the combination of the student's answers and the advisor's judgement should be able to find situation in which a student really isn't serious and is just wasting their time. I would think that 20% in this category is too high, however, and might indicate a failure of the system as a whole or the admissions process. Perhaps after the two month review it turns out a bit less.

But getting advice about life choices after a year of study seems like a good thing, as long as the student has a chance to explain what might be the reasons for an apparent lack of progress. And getting faculty advice about getting back on track, is also probably a good thing for those few having problems.

As I noted in the comment, I would also expect that a fair number of students for whom success was predicted don't, in fact, complete on time, due to a variety of factors, some personal, but many also related to the uncertain nature of research itself.

After all: “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” ~~Albert Einstein


As suggested by @Buffy, at least in the departments I've been a member of, it is unusual for a student to fail their first year viva at the re-submission stage (although more common for the first submission to fail). The first year transfer fills a number of purposes:

  1. Guide the clearly unsuitable to alternative life directions. I work in a molecular biology department, and we once had a student who didn't understand that DNA makes RNA makes protein.
  2. Make sure the student has a project to call their own. This is often a good time to identify students who are just working on whatever their supervisor feels like that day as a technician and not working towards their own project. I once knew a student how had co-authored a Nature paper (among others) fail their first year review because they were just filling in holes in their supervisors work-force and didn't have their own project. Another warning sign is that the student can't explain their project - suggesting the project isn't really theirs and its more the supervisor's project.
  3. Its a good time to identify problems in the student/supervisor relationship. Is the student being properly supervised? Are their signs they are neglected, over-controlled, bullied or led astray? If gives them an invited opportunity to make the committee aware of problems they have with their supervisor. Conversely, a supervisor can confidentially tell the committee of worries they have about the student, which can allow the committee to bring something up without damage to the student/supervisor relationship. I remember once a student was late to their viva because they were scared their supervisor would be angry about them being absent from the lab. Big. Red. Flashing. Warning. Sign. right there.
  4. Give the students something concrete and consequential to work-towards in what could otherwise be a very unstructured time (and possibly the first unstructured time the student has experienced). It forces them to read the literature and think about what they want to do. In this way the first year viva serves the same pedagogical purpose as many assessments - it focuses the student on what is required of them and motivates them to work hard on those things.

The UK isn't the US, and students don't have 6 years to spend time finding their niche. As you pointed out, students have 3 years to complete their degree. If you have no plan for what you want to do after 1 year, you are going to find it hard to come up with enough research to fill 250 pages and publish manuscripts before you run out of time.

There is another point to consider. UK departments are judged on their in-time completion rate. That is, the fraction of students that succesfully submit their thesis within either the funded period, or 4 years, whichever is shorter. Departments where this number drops below 75% are prevented from applying for PhD studentship funding from the government research councils that fund the vast majority of PhDs in the country. However, if a student leaves within the first year, then they are not counted against this number. Generally once a student has passed this point, a department will do everything in its power to ensure that a student completes within 3/3.5/4 years, including somethings they shouldn't (too much help writing the thesis, appointing "sympathetic" examiners etc). It is therefore very much in the interest of departments to ask students to leave before the cut-off if they don't believe they will complete. Indeed, in many places I've worked, it has been mooted that we are too lenient on students at this point, passing students who go on to struggle, when it was clear at the 1st year viva stage that they were going to struggle and it would have been in everyone's interests if they had left with an MRes at that point.

  • Actually, US students don't "potter about" and the statement is a bit insulting. The educational systems are just different. I suspect if I said that UK students don't "bother" to get a broad understanding of their field, it would be equally insulting (and invalid).
    – Buffy
    Jun 23, 2020 at 11:08
  • Sorry, that was not a good way of putting it. It was meant to be insulting - I actaully think the US system is probably better in the long run. But it was my experience when I worked in the states that US PhD students spent some time working on a range of small projects after they've chosen a supervisor, before settling on what their thesis topic would be. Jun 23, 2020 at 11:53
  • That may be a local issue in some places. It might actually be advantageous. If your first research project is for your dissertation, you can stumble a bit getting going. I think UIUC starts CS students out fairly early on research, though on smaller projects. It may not matter much in math, but it might in something like CS.
    – Buffy
    Jun 23, 2020 at 12:00
  • I think it is advantagous. In the medical school where I postdoc'd, students would spend time helping others with there projects, and undertaking small pieces of research. It gave them time to get to know the specific subfield and its techniques well and come up with a good project. But in the UK this just isn't possible with the 3/4 year time limit. By the time you are in a position to come up with a well informed, feasible, project, its generally too late. Hence most projects are created, or at least very heavily influenced by the supervisor. Jun 23, 2020 at 12:14
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    Hmmm. I'm retired, so my whole existence is pottering.
    – Buffy
    Jun 23, 2020 at 12:18

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