Have Your PhD Plans Changed?

The vast majority of students begin their PhDs with a very clear idea of what they want to do. In fact, most PhD programmes require applicants to submit a research proposal as part of their application and it is on this basis that a student is offered a place. 

Given the vital role of a research proposal in terms of gaining admission into a doctoral programme, it is understandable why students attach great importance to it. The proposal serves as both a road map for students and a guide for executing their research. In reality, however, most doctoral students do not stick to their research proposals. The end result of their PhD can often look quite different when contrasted to what was stated in their original plan. How do we account for the discrepancy between a student’s research proposal and their completed doctorate? 

The initial plan we come into a PhD programme with is often an idealized version of what we imagine our research journey to be before we have taken any steps on the path. As soon as we begin to get further into our research, not only do we get a sense of where the project needs to go, we also start to realize how much we don’t know about our topics. Gaps in our initial proposal become evident, new questions emerge, and different avenues of inquiry start to open up. None of these things would have been apparent before starting the PhD and it is really only by getting further into your topic that such things come into view. 

In this sense, any departure from your original proposal is a natural part of pursuing a PhD. You may decide of your own accord that your proposal was overly ambitious and requires paring down; that there is a substantial piece missing in your research design; or that an emerging trend needs to be incorporated into your project. 

While changing the direction of your PhD project may be your decision, it is still bound to feel a little uncomfortable. This is particularly the case if changing direction will involve discarding any material you have already produced, as it so often does. It can be extremely frustrating to dispense with material that may admittedly no longer fit, but which you nonetheless spent a considerable amount of time on. Unfortunately, no one warns you prior to starting a PhD just how much material you won’t end up using in the final version. It can easily feel as though you’ve wasted your time and created more work for yourself, but it’s important to continue to focus on the bigger picture.  

Even with the frustration of discarding material, any changes to the initial idea for your research should still be viewed in a generally positive light. Aside from being a natural part of the PhD journey, changing direction is actually a sign of progress. When you get to the point of determining the most appropriate direction for your research – and are confident enough to change the project accordingly – what it really means is that your expertise and knowledge base are developing.

Try not to despair if you’ve had to significantly alter your project. You are much closer to the finish line than you might think.  


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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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