Transfer and confirmation of status

Overview

Transfer of Status is designed to “ensure that you have a convincing research proposal, that you are making satisfactory progress in its development, and to satisfy the assessors that the work is potentially of DPhil quality”. Confirmation of status is intended to “confirm that you are continuing to work at the appropriate doctoral level and to provide assurance that if the work on the thesis continues to develop satisfactorily, then consideration of submission within the course of three further terms would appear to be reasonable”. See Key milestones for DPhil students.

The rules and requirements for transfer to doctoral status (within four terms) and for subsequent confirmation of status are outlined within the Examination Decrees and in faculty or departmental literature. All new postgraduate research students receive a welcome letter which sets out the timeline for Transfer, Confirmation and Submission.

Procedures for transfer and confirmation of status can vary from subject to subject. However, in the first instance the best person for supervisors to contact for advice would be the relevant Graduate Studies Assistant or the Graduate Administrator in your department/ faculty or divisional office. They should be able to clarify the:

  • materials required for the transfer/confirmation application;
  • required timetable which should normally be followed;
  • criteria for assessing applications;
  • instructions to assessors on the assessment process and report; and
  • procedures for student complaints and appeals.

Further information and guidance for students is available at the Graduate student gateway.

Transfer of status

At Oxford, most DPhil students initially hold Probationer Research Student (PRS) status. Others are registered on a preliminary Masters course and some can be admitted directly to DPhil status having completed the preliminary Masters. 

It is important that assessment of transfer applications is largely independent of the student's supervisor. Although arrangements for assessing applications vary from subject to subject, they should normally involve two assessors other than the supervisor. For students who are non-native speakers of English, the assessors should also indicate whether they think the student is capable of presenting and defending the work in English.

The assessment process for transfer of status must always include an interview with the candidate with appropriate feedback on the application. Feedback is especially important when the application has been unsuccessful. The University's regulations give all candidates a second attempt at transfer if they are not recommended for doctoral status the first time round. Assessors may recommend transfer to doctoral status, transfer to a lower degree, or, after a second application, transfer to neither status. See Section 7 of the Policy on Research Degrees: Examination, especially paragraph 7.1.5 for the policy on transfer interviews.

Transfer can seem daunting to students especially given the timelines expected.

We have to pass the transfer exam to be able to progress to the second tier. It’s fairly crucial, because if I don’t pass it, my next two years that I think I’ve got planned are not going to happen. So I do need to plan and I want to feel as if the transfer paper will help me going forward. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

One thing that would have helped me to get the transfer sorted out in a less sort of chaotic way would have been if the course throughout the year had been more directed towards things that you could have directly used for your transfer paper. So the weight of – you know, the numbers of hours we’ve had to do on other things this year just sort of sets a strange balance about trying to also get the transfer done for when it needs to be done. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

Students are required to Transfer Status within four terms; it is possible to apply through the relevant Divisional Board to defer the Transfer by one or two terms using the GSO.2b form available from the University's Graduate Progression Forms page. Beyond this, deferral is only with Education Committee approval.

Confirmation of status

All doctoral students should be aiming to apply for Confirmation of Status in their sixth or seventh term and to submit within nine terms of their admission as a postgraduate student. Confirmation implies that the work has progressed to the point where it is reasonable to expect submission of the thesis within about two or three further terms of work. The Education Committee policy states (see Section 7.2.2) that the gap between confirmation and submission should not normally be less than three months. 

From the above it can be seen that there are two normal timelines for progression, as shown below.

Review the transfer and confirmation requirements and processes sooner rather than later, perhaps beginning with arrival. Consider ways in which transfer and confirmation can be integrated into other aspects of doctoral work rather than approaching these two milestones as isolated, stand-alone processes.

Ensure students know what to expect, consider how to use the opportunity to demonstrate the standard of their work, as well as the range of possible outcomes and their options in the case of an unsuccessful application.

Students might wish to review Trafford and Leshem's (2002) list of Twelve predictable questions commonly asked at the viva, to prepare for the kinds of questions which are also likely to be asked in the Transfer or Confirmation of Status interview.

Consider the choice of assessors carefully. The Policy on Research Degrees makes clear the expectation that assessors should normally be academic staff working at the University. External assessors should only be used in small specialist areas where sufficient expertise cannot be found within the University. The cost of using external assessors would always be borne by the student’s department.

The assessment process can be a nerve-wracking time for many students. Aside from fellow students, sources of emotional support include the College Advisor and the Student Counselling Service.

Transfer and confirmation of status are important to both student and supervisor alike, as this Oxford supervisor muses.

It's not clear what the guidelines are you're following, the pathway you should be following; so those moments like transfer and confirmation [...] where you can see that your colleagues are saying, "Yes, this is right," are moments where you can be sure that what you're doing is right. In a way, they're as important to you, as a supervisor, to know that you're giving the advice you should be giving, as they are to the student, who is relying upon you, ultimately, to give that advice. I like confirmation or transfer of status interviews because I think it's at those moments that more than one person is ultimately helping and providing a kind of check that these people aren't lost, if that makes sense… (New supervisor, Humanities)

The little research that has been done on doctoral examination relates mostly to the viva. However, this literature provides some useful insights. For instance, the transfer and confirmation exams can be viewed as opportunities for practising the oral defence of one’s ideas at the viva. Further, studies have highlighted the generic kinds of questions that are asked in the viva that can be used in preparing for other kinds of oral presentations.

As for choosing the examiner, supervisors selecting examiners for the dissertation defence have noted a number of important criteria of which these seem particularly pertinent in transfer and examination:

  • Topic and methodological fit (if possible)
  • High standards but fair
  • Intellectual curiosity and generosity
  • Reliability

The above text was based on:

Barnacle, R., & Mewburn, I. (2010). Learning networks and the journey of 'becoming doctor'. Studies in Higher Education, 35(4): 433-444.

Kiley, M. (2009). "You don't want a smart Alec": Selecting examiners to assess doctoral examinations. Studies in Higher Education, 34(8): 889-903

Trafford, V., & Leshem, S. (2002) Starting at the end to undertake doctoral research: predictable questions as stepping stones. Higher Education Review, 35(1), 31-49.

Trigwell, K. & Dunbar-Goddet, H. (2005) The Research Experience of Postgraduate Research Students at the University of Oxford . Oxford: Institute for the Advancement of University Learning, University of Oxford.