How Can We Measure PhD Progress?

The difficulty with progress at the PhD level is that the assessment of whether or not we’ve made any is almost entirely a subjective one. Aside from those relatively infrequent assessments during the course of a PhD, including upgrade panels or transfer vivas, there is very little evaluation of our work. Even the interaction we have with our supervisors and their assessments of our work is limited and irregular at best. The majority of the time, we are left to our own devices, which means that it is up to us to assess our progress on a day-to-day basis.  

In the absence of any other obvious yardstick to assess progress, I’ve noticed that the default setting for PhD students is to rely on their overall word count as a supposedly objective measure. If the aim is to write a thesis of 100,000 words, surely the number of words we have produced by the end of the day can be a proxy for whether or not we are on track?  

Although your word count may seem like the most obvious and reliable way to measure your progress, there is so much more that goes into producing a thesis than simply writing a set number of words. There are days when you might not write very much, or anything at all, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t making progress. Consider skimming 10 articles and realising only two are relevant to your thesis. This could be a day where you feel like you haven’t progressed at all, but sorting through literature and deciding what will be included in your final bibliography is indeed forward momentum.

Even if we dispense with word count as an indicator of progress, we still need an alternative yardstick to determine that we are on track, or at the very least, a supplementary one. One option would be to utilise a PhD Process Journal in conjunction with, or instead of, relying on word count. The journal could, for instance, include all of the actions short of writing that still bring us closer to completing our thesis. Writing it out may help us to feel forward movement on tasks that may otherwise go unnoticed. It may also give a more realistic picture of our progress than one based on word count alone. The example of going to the library and determining sources to incorporate in our bibliography could be included as an entry.  

A further option for assessing progress could be entirely time-focused, as discussed in a previous post. For instance, you might wish to make a note of how many Pomodoro rounds you manage to complete on a given day. Since a Pomodoro round would count as uninterrupted time that you are putting into your thesis, it is a helpful way to keep track of your productivity. It also enables you to put much less emphasis on the task – which in the case of a thesis may seem never-ending – and focus more on the hours that are put into it. A variation of this could be something like the Forest App, which allows you to physically see the progress you are making on the basis of the time invested.

A final way to keep track of your progress without exclusively relying on your word count is to work with an accountability partner. By communicating on a regular basis, you and your accountability partner can mutually support each other in achieving your goals. The idea would be that you have a set meeting to determine your goals and a further check in to evaluate your progress. It might also be an opportunity to discuss any challenges that came up for you and to brainstorm possible solutions to those challenges. Depending on what your needs are, you can check in with your accountability partner daily, weekly or even monthly. 

As the above approaches highlight, even when you feel like you aren’t making progress on your PhD, chances are you probably are. While word count provides one possible yardstick for measuring progress, the alternative approaches explored here tend to provide a better reflection of PhD progress. What they allow for is a much more comprehensive account of the work that actually goes into producing a PhD. 


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