The Graduate School

First Review (Differentiation)

First Annual Progress Review: Differentiation

The First Annual Progress Review or differentiation is the most significant milestone in the first year of a PhD.  This review typically takes place between nine and twelve months after registration on the research programme.


What is Differentiation?

Differentiation is a process which aims to establish that students have made sufficient progress with their thesis to warrant formal admission to candidacy for the PhD. It is a two-step procedure. The first step consists of the submission of written material to a panel of reviewers who are specialists in your area; this material typically consists of a sample of work, a research plan and a record of training undertaken by the student. This is followed some days later by an interview in which the panel discusses the written material with the student, providing recommendations and critical feedback. The format and requirements for differentiation vary slightly across Schools; it is therefore essential to obtain updated information and guidance from your supervisory team well in advance. Students who successfully pass differentiation are then registered as PhD candidates.

At differentiation, the student will be assessed on whether they have:

  • Made adequate progress to date;
  • Developed a clearly defined, coherent and feasible research project that can be completed using the available resources;
  • Demonstrated the capacity to undertake and complete the research within the required time frame;
  • Demonstrated written and oral presentation skills appropriate to study at PhD level.

Preparing for Differentiation

Begin by acquiring answers from your supervisory team/School to the following questions:

  • How is differentiation organised in this School?
  • What should my written report consist of, how long should it be and how should it be structured/formatted?
  • Am I required to give an oral presentation and what should it consist of?
  • What am I likely to be asked during the interview?
  • Who is likely to be on my differentiation panel?
  • Does the department have any additional requirements for differentiation?

Handling the Interview

Preparing for the differentiation interview is as important as preparing the written material for submission, as the interview provides an opportunity to assess a candidate's abilities and depth of knowledge. In advance, you may like to learn a bit about the reviewing panel, and perhaps have a practice interview with fellow students who can question you about the details of your project. It is essential to get used to talking about your research at the earliest opportunity. The interview questions themselves can take a number of forms:

  • Some questions may indicate a gap or point of confusion in your talk. For example, “what is the relationship between X and Y.....?”
  • Others may be more open, asking you to expand on a particular point or explain something in more detail (open questions). For example, “could you say more about ...?”
  • Some questions are asked because the listener missed a point or wants to check his/her understanding. For example, “what technique did you propose to use for ...?”

During the interview, it's worth keeping the following in mind:

  • Listen attentively; paraphrase the question or ask for it to be repeated if necessary;
  • Decide whether you are being asked an open question - which gives you the opportunity to expand and elaborate - or a closed one - which requires only restatement or clarification;
  • Answer honestly and stay within the limits of your knowledge - your audience will know immediately and not be sympathetic if you try to bluff;
  • Maintain control - if necessary by reminding your audience that the project is still in development. For example: “I can't answer that question at this point in the research. I'd hope to have an answer in 6 months’ time...
  • Be honest in your answers;
  • Overall, use the differentiation process as a way of getting support and advice to help you throughout the remainder of your studies.

Potential Outcomes of Differentiation

  • The possible outcomes of the process of differentiation are available to view by consulting Study Regulations for Research Degree Programmes.

Further Information

  • Your supervisory team is the first port of call for all advice on preparation for differentiation.
  • Queen’s PRDP provides a number of tailored resources to help you prepare for differentiation, including Preparing for Differentiation. You should also consult The Good Presentation Video online PRDP resource.

Your School may also offer specific training courses/resources tailored to its requirements for successful differentiation.