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First Year

Timetable for First Year

Sept Start
Month 1
Discuss career aspirations and training needs

Another topic for early discussion is the student's background and what additional background will be required to address likely research topics. This discussion may lead to the identification of MSc courses taught in Informatics, and/or courses in other Schools and/or transferrable skills courses that the student should attend during the first year.

The Institute for Academic Development "Managing Your PhD" course should be attended by all first-year students. 

An early topic for discussion between student and principal supervisor should be the student's career aspirations. There are many career paths that begin with a PhD and the style and content of the PhD may be influenced by the student's plans for life after PhD study. For instance, a student planning an academic career would be more likely to want to focus on publications than a student who plans to start a company.

Month 4
Agree research area

Here, "research area" means something rather more specific than (say) Neuroinformatics, Natural Language Processing, Automated Reasoning, Compiler Optimisation, Computer Vision or Computer Security. If there is a conference with a title such as "Symposium on X" then X is not specific enough to be a research area in the sense referred to here.

By the end of Month 4 at the latest, student and supervisors should have converged on a research area on which to focus in the search for a thesis topic. Some students will already have made this decision before arrival and all that is necessary at this point is to confirm the decision.

Month 6
Submit literature review

By the end of Month 6, the student should submit a literature review of the agreed research area to the principal supervisor, who will provide feedback.

The course notes for the MSc "Informatics Research Review" course has some notes on the form and content of a literature review and how to go about tracking down relevant publications.

However note that the literature review referred to in the IRR notes is in preparation for an MSc project. Consequently, the suggestion there that reading 3-4 papers in depth will suffice and that the review will be about 3000 words long are both almost certainly underestimates as preparation for PhD-level research.

Month 9
Submit thesis proposal to supervisor

The thesis proposal is a very important reference point for both the student and supervisory team. Once the thesis proposal has been reviewed and agreed, research should focus on the identified topic according to the plan. Future progress reviews will make reference to the plan, making explicit adjustments as required by circumstances.

The thesis proposal should define a research topic, indicate progress achieved to date, and give a plausible research plan which includes sub-goals, a schedule for attacking them, and contingency plans:

  • Research Topic: What is the problem? Why is it interesting? What has already been done by other people to address it? Why are these existing approaches / solutions inadequate?  
  • Your Approach: What new approach / angle / idea are you proposing to pursue? Why does it seem promising? What have you achieved so far?
  • Your Plan: What are the sub-goals that need to be achieved? What is your planned order of attack, and how long do you expect each task to take (schedule)? What are the risks in this plan and how will you address them (contingency plans)?

The form of a thesis proposal is much less important than its content, provided the above questions are clearly answered in some way (but note that a simple question-and-answer format is not appropriate). The literature review produced earlier in the year could be included as a section or as an appendix as part of the answer to the "What has already been done by other people?" question.  A thesis proposal will typically be around 15-25 pages long.

The first year of research will often involve completion of a mini research project. For example: production and study of a substantial example; design, running and analysis of a preliminary experiment; design and perhaps partial implementation of a system; main definitions of a theory completed with some of their properties established. The thesis proposal could consist of a report on this work that is suitable for workshop or conference submission, together with a separate document containing an explanation of the relationship between the report and the thesis topic, the research plan, and any other missing content.

The plan should be for completion at the end of year 3, including write-up, regardless of the period of funding, under the assumption that no serious obstacles arise. If it is not feasible to complete the research within this time period then the topic is too ambitious.

Preparing for 1st Year Review

When you have a thesis proposal that has been accepted by your review committee, submit it as follows. If your proposal is in the file MYPROPOSAL.pdf, then:

  cp sMATRIC.pdf /afs/

where MATRIC is your student number. You cannot overwrite the file, but you should be able to see that the file is there by:

   acroread /afs/

If you want more technical information, see:

Examples of previous thesis proposal submissions include:
Michael Chan  (CISA, 2008)
Julian Gutierrez (LFCS, 2008)

Month 10
Presentation to panel and feedback - 1st Year Review

The principal supervisor will convene a review panel of at least 3 members, including the supervisory team and at least one independent member of staff who has not been involved in the supervision of the student involved.  The review should take place in month 10 whether the student has submitted a thesis proposal on time or not, as inability to produce a thesis proposal is itself a sign that progress needs to be reviewed.

There is some variation in the details of arrangements for reviews across Informatics, but in general the review will begin with an oral presentation by the student, briefly outlining what is in the thesis proposal, which the reviewers are expected to have read beforehand. This will be followed by questions and discussion. The review concludes with a private discussion among the panel members. The panel will then provide written feedback to the student, with a copy to the Graduate School office. This is typically drafted by the principal supervisor and agreed, perhaps after amendment, by the other reviewers. It should be completed within one week of the panel meeting.

The main objective of the review is to check that the student has a clearly defined and appropriate research topic together with an appropriate research plan. The feedback must clearly indicate the extent to which this milestone has been achieved. The discussion and feedback may additionally explore other topics including proposing alternative approaches and pointing to related work.

Here are some points that the reviewers should consider:

  • Research Topic and Approach: Is the topic well-defined and focussed? Is it interesting and timely? Does it suit the student's abilities / background / inclinations? Is it likely to lead to an acceptable PhD thesis (making an original contribution to knowledge etc.)? Does the student have a good grasp of the topic area? Is the proposed approach to the topic appropriate and promising?
  •  Plan and Resources: Is there an explicit plan, at an appropriate level of detail? Is the plan appropriate, realistic, and achievable? Are risks identified and do contingency plans seem appropriate? Are the resources required to carry out the plan available? If some required resources are not currently available, are they guaranteed to be available in time? Is any further training required?
  • Progress and Related Work/Approaches: Is the quality and quantity of progress so far adequate? Do results so far look encouraging? Is there relevant work and/or alternative approaches that the student should consider?

Where a serious problem is identified in the thesis proposal review, the panel may recommend a further review on the basis of a revised thesis proposal or a specified piece of work after an appropriate additional period, typically 3 months. Confirmation of candidacy for a PhD would be delayed until after this additional probationary period, provided that this is the outcome of the additional review. Alternatives are re-registration for a MPhil (normally following review of a revised proposal containing a plan for completion at the end of year 2) or discontinuation.

Extension of the probationary period should be seen as a last resort, not as a routine way of providing time for remedial action.  Only in truly exceptional circumstances should a further extension be contemplated.

Preparing for 1st Year Review

Month 12
Supervisor completes formal first year report: the possible outcomes

Formal annual reports are the University's main official record of the progress of a PhD student. They are completed online by the principal supervisor, after consultation with the other supervisors and also with the panel that formally reviewed the student's PhD proposal. The report is then signed off and acted on by the Director of Graduate School. The first year report is particularly important since it forms the basis for the decision on confirmation of degree registration.

The first year report is a record of achievement to date as well as providing an opportunity to confirm that the original conditions of registration (if any) have been met, and to make a recommendation concerning degree registration. The topic of study, as described in the thesis proposal, should be indicated on the form.

The supervisors must make a recommendation to the Head of Graduate School on the course that registration should take, in the light of the student's abilities and aspirations and based on the outcome of the first year review. The student has no formal right to be involved in this decision, although it should come as no surprise since the review panel that examined the student's thesis proposal will have provided written feedback following the first year review and the report should be consistent with that feedback.


A variety of recommendations are open to the supervisors:

1. Confirmation of registration for PhD;

If the supervisor has recommended this action, then the student must deposit their PhD proposal into the online repository, as <a href="">instructed here</a>.

2. Registration for a lower degree (MPhil);

3. Extension of the probationary period. (Save for part-time students, such extension is considered to be exceptional and in no circumstances should the probationary period last for more than 18 months from date of first registration);

Should the supervisor choose this course of action, then the annual report must include the written details of what the student must achieve so as to pass the extended probationary period. The student will have to submit a revised thesis proposal, which must be formally reviewed by the review panel again (the proposed date for this formal review must be included in the annual report form that recommends extended probation). A new first year annual report will  need to be completed at the end of the probationary period, detailing the outcome of extended probation and what the next stage should be (which can be any of the options 1, 2, 4 or 5).

4. Registration for a postgraduate taught degree (MSc) or diploma can be contemplated if the student has been undertaking the coursework for that qualification in the first year of study; 

5. Discontinuation of registration at the end of the first year.

Assuming that progress is satisfactory, the student's degree registration should be confirmed (option 1). If there are doubts about a candidate's ability to complete a PhD successfully then options (2) or (3) should be considered. If there are serious doubts as to the candidate's research capability, then options (4) or (5) should be considered.

Although these may be painful decisions to take, it is not in anyone's interest to allow a student to continue on a course of study that is unlikely to lead to a successful conclusion. If the recommendation differs from the outcome of the first year review then the student should be given, in writing, an explanation of the reasons for the recommendation.

Months stated in the column 'Sept Start' are indicative for full-time students who commence study in September. Students with other start dates should adjust these accordingly.

Each PhD student is on probation during their first year, and progressing to full PhD status depends on the supervisor's evaluation in the first annual report; this report takes into account the panel's evaluation of the student's thesis proposal; there is a section in that report for providing a written record of the feedback the panel gave to the student.  The research institute, and in particular the student's supervisor, is responsible for ensuring that the student submits the thesis proposal and that it is presented and reviewed by the panel within this time frame.  

Note for part-time research students

For part-time students, milestones in first year and subsequently should are delayed according to the extent of part-time studies. For instance, for a student with prescribed period of 60 months rather than the usual full-time prescribed period of 36 months, the thesis proposal is due in month 9*60/36 = 15. An exception is that formal reports from the supervisor are due at 12-month intervals for part-time students, just as for full-time students.

Note for DTC and CDT students

The Graduate School milestones programme is intended for all PGR students, including those registered with the DTC and CDTs. After completion of the MSc by Research, DTC and CDT students are fully admitted to the PhD programme, subject to a successful PhD proposal.  Upon acceptance onto the PhD programme, DTC and CDT students are expected to follow the standard milestones process, supported by local research institutes. All information held on this and other milestones pages is therefore relevant to DTC and CDT students. Please also note that the first year Thesis Proposal is not the same as the post-MScR PhD Proposal.