Differentiation is seen as one of the major milestones of undertaking a PhD, it is the point when it is decided if you will continue with your project as planned or if revisions need to be undertaken on the scope of the project or potentially whether or not you’ll continue on a PhD program of study. Differentiation (as it is known at Queen’s, I believe the University of Aberdeen calls it a nine-month review) takes place generally during the nine-month period of your first year. In Queen’s, you are assigned a panel for differentiation and your annual progress reviews, this consists of an assessor and a chair. Your supervisor is present during these reviews as well.

When my supervisor mentioned beginning to work towards differentiation I was required to put together a differentiation report which detailed information on my project’s aims and objectives, the progress I had made since my three-month initial review, the proposed course of investigation over the remaining project lifecycle, difficulties that I had encountered, information on any equipment or facilities I need, a record of my additional training undertaken and information on any financial expenditure so far. As part of the Queen’s process, I was also required to submit a draft chapter. I chose to submit a methodology chapter as I had mostly been focussed on fieldwork before COVID-19 overhauled my project focus. You did have the option to submit other chapters such as a literature review, but having the flexibility to choose your submission chapter flowed better into my differentiation presentation.

Queen’s requires a 10-minute differentiation presentation as part of the formal process. I chose to focus my presentation on my primary fieldwork conducted during January and the results from the analysis of this fieldwork. I began with a general overview of the context behind my research and why it is being conducted along with some general background information on my study area of the Blackwater Catchment. I then explained my fieldwork results from January which consisted of gridded soil sampling to investigate the spatial variability of nutrient hotspots of Phosphorus across my four field sites. I presented my ArcGIS interpolation maps showing Phosphorus Nutrient Index Results. I then explained the potential management strategies which could be installed at each of these field sites to reduce the potential incidence of sediment and nutrient runoff into the waterways at these sites. I also gave information detailing the proposed next stage of my research which is getting back out into the field to begin installing these management techniques.

The next stage of the differentiation process then involved being questioned on my methodology chapter and receiving feedback on it. It was really useful to hear a different perspective on my research from my panel’s assessor and chair. I gained a really good insight into potential new pathways my research could undertake and new ways I could explore and analyse my existing data. Obviously, with the current working from home environment, the differentiation meeting was different from one in person. However, using Microsoft’s Teams screen-share function, presenting was very easy and it was really useful to be able to see my methodology chapter from my assessor on his screen-share as we ran through the feedback on it. For anyone worrying about internet connectivity, if they are choosing to present over a platform like Teams, I would recommend you get everyone involved in the meeting to turn off cameras whilst presenting or screen-sharing as my one concern during differentiation was the possibility of my internet choosing to drop out!

One thing I want to stress to everyone is that you shouldn’t be stressing about your differentiation! You have been doing your research for nine months now and you know your project really well and the work that has been done so far and what’s coming up next. Everyone may choose to present a different aspect of their research depending on what stage their project is at and I am not sure if Aberdeen requires a similar process to QUB, but for any of my fellow cohort or future students worrying about differentiation, my inbox is always open for any questions!

P.S. One last tip for anyone doing differentiation is don’t do what I did and land yourself in A&E the morning you are meant to be presenting! Having to reschedule my differentiation to over a week later after I had prepared myself for speaking on that day really knocked my working routine!