How to assess progress

Particularly when you are self-monitoring your hours spent working. Which is really the PhD in the nutshell.

You work from home (or the office). You see your supervisor maybe once a month (or less). You don’t really talk to the other PhD students in your department, for whatever reason. You have months at a time working on a single issue: researching a new topic, writing a paper, doing your fieldwork, etc.

So how do you assess your progress?

It’s not easy. You don’t need to worry that it’s not. The PhD is an independent research project. If you’re doing the sciences, you may be lucky enough to have a project that is mainly lab based. You have a series of experiments to run. You know what those need to be; you know you need to get them done in order to move on. You know roughly how long each one will take. You know how many times you need to do them. You can make yourself a general schedule and know that if you are not sticking to it, you are falling behind.

But if you’re in the humanities, you are more likely than not to be left alone for several years at a time, with only brief moments of accountability to others (like your supervisor) and a lot of time to manage yourself.

Setting a schedule year-on-year and then breaking that down into month-by-month is the first step. But within that you are going to have projects and activities that could take weeks and you need to be able to monitor your progress. There’s no point getting to the end of your scheduled three months for researching ‘this particular topic’ and discovering that you really don’t know anything about it, haven’t read the most important book on the topic, and can’t actually define the terms the subject uses.

Trust me, been there, done that.

Let’s break this down into separate issues.

  1. How do you monitor progress when writing?

This is actually the easy one. If you have to write an article for publication, you have an idea of the length it needs to be and a deadline when you need to get it done. Those should be your two main monitoring flags. If you have a paper due to your supervisor, you have a deadline, and if you’re smart, you’ve gotten a word count/page count to write to as well. If you haven’t, ask for one. If your supervisor says ‘however many words you need’ well, set yourself a word count. If you have a month to write it, you probably don’t want that word count to be 10000, so be realistic. That’s longer than most thesis chapters (but it IS doable, if that’s your word count).

First, start with your deadline. If you have several steps to do before writing (research, etc.) then put those into your writing plan. Create a calendar with important milestones, and when you need to achieve each one to move onto the next step. And keep that deadline in mind at all times.

Then, every few days, particularly if your work isn’t going well, look at that calendar again. Do you have time to reach your next milestone at your current rate of progress? What happens if you don’t? Can your other milestones be bumped back? If not, then you need to work on your current milestone. You need to sort out what isn’t working and why. Are you confused? Are you procrastinating? Are you worried about something? If you can find the root cause, you can work to overcome it and get yourself back on track.

  1. How to monitor when researching?

Okay, the hard one. You have a new field of study, or a theory, or a subject you have to learn about as part of your PhD. You cannot leave this until the end. You need to have it researched prior to writing-up. There’s a deadline. If you think the topic will have an impact on your fieldwork, then you have another deadline. Write those into your overall PhD schedule.

It will always take longer to research than you think. You will always get distracted. Keep that in mind. Start researching. Every week or so, come up for air and look at your schedule. Look at how many books/articles/journals you’ve read. Do you feel you’re making progress? Do you have any idea how much more reading you have to do?

Start keeping notes. New terms and definitions, key theories, key authors, key works, etc. Start to form in your head an understanding of the new topic and what you conceive it to be. Don’t understand? Keep reading.

Sometimes, the best way to conceptualise something new is to try to write about it. Even if you don’t need to write a paper or article, try anyways. If you can’t write about the topic, you need to keep reading.

But don’t lose track of your schedule. Focus on the main authors in the area, and read the main articles, and if you find yourself reading an article that has only a very small amount to do with the topic, but it aside and try something else. Don’t let yourself go down those research black holes.

If you know you are going to have to read a lot of articles, don’t let yourself spend three weeks wasting time and then realise you have a week to get through everything. Be smart about it and you won’t have to worry about your progress, because you won’t easily get off track.

  1. How to monitor progress during fieldwork?

This is nearly as easy as writing, and much easier than researching. You have to plan your fieldwork out in advance. You need to know where you are going, who you are going to speak with, how many places you need for case studies. The worst thing is to wake up four months into your fieldwork and realise you are so far behind you are never going to catch up. Plan this stage of your PhD out in advance and you won’t have to worry too much about monitoring progress.

But you can get so into fieldwork that you kind of forget you have to do something after it’s all over with. If you are mainly interviewing, keep an interview schedule and don’t forget to look ahead to see how many people you have left. If you are doing other sorts of qualitative research, try to keep to your schedule as much as possible, but don’t forget to take a deep breath every few weeks and seriously critique where you are and where you need to be. How much more data do you need to collect and how much time do you have left? If you find your progress seriously impeded, you may have to reconsider the types of data collection you are doing.

If you are doing quantitative data, then this might be even harder. There’s the sense in quantitative data research that more is better, and sometimes that leads to an endless amount of collection. Remember, you have to analyse this at some point and the more you collect, the more you need to analyse. It’s useful to start off your fieldwork acknowledging how much data you usefully need to collect for your study, and try not to get too focused on ‘as much as possible’, but rather ‘this is what I need’. In your first days doing it, think about how much data you are getting, and then work this out over the long term. If you can collect this much in one day, and you have thirty days of data collection, is that enough data for your project? If not, you have probably overestimated the amount of data you need and should reassess.

A lot of monitoring progress is looking forwards and backwards and not just focusing on the now. How much have you done? How much do you (realistically) still need to do? How much can you do today? How much did you do yesterday?

Critique yourself. Be willing to admit to yourself when you are not handling things. When you are behind. And be willing to do something about it to catch up. But the key is to not get too far behind in the first place. Keep your head above water, regularly look at your schedule (have a schedule), and don’t get too bogged down in the day to day.

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