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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How to Make Working from Home Work for You

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Although you may have preferred to work from home even prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, there is something about being mandated to work from home that can make it feel quite challenging. So if you find yourself struggling to progress with your research at the moment, it’s perfectly understandable.

After giving a lot of thought to this topic, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to pay attention to at least three components in order to make working from home work for us. The first is our Space – organising our physical environment. The second is our Time – structuring our day in a way that suits us. The third and final component is our Self – adopting the right mindset. All three components are mutually reinforcing and therefore equally essential.

In this post I will provide a few tips relating to these three areas in the hopes that they will help your experience of working from home work better for you.

SPACE: ORGANISING YOUR PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT

Working from home effectively requires a designated space in your home that is solely for the purposes of work. The space should be clean and organised, and to the extent that it is possible, separate for where you spend your leisure time.

  • Begin by taking stock of your home and how you feel in the space
  • In what ways might you be able to repurpose, organise, or clear the space? Are there things that need to be moved or removed, thrown out, or donated? Are there any areas that would benefit from some decluttering? Could any furniture be rearranged to make better use of your space. Recent research has demonstrated that clutter has a negative impact on our mental wellbeing
  • Undertake a thorough spring clean of your space and set aside one day a week for upkeep
  • The spring clean could also extend to files on your computer, your email inbox and any other area that feels cluttered or disorganised
  • Select a designated space in your home for working during the lockdown that is separate to where you spend your leisure time
  • Try and make your working environment feel more inviting – use colour, pictures, decorations, lights or plants to shift the energy of your working space and to inspire you
  • Create an atmosphere in your working space with a background noise app or a webcam.[1]

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TIME: STRUCTURING YOUR DAY

Your capacity to work from home will be aided by maintaining some regularity throughout your day. This will involve developing and observing a working routine, while also building in time to take breaks and relax.

  • Maintain a routine each day (including the same wake up time and bedtime)
  • Get showered and dressed each day, even if you don’t have plans to see anyone
  • Take a morning walk around your neighbourhood before you begin working – pretend you are walking to your office
  • Commit to an end point for your working day before you begin
  • Play background music as you work
  • Take frequent breaks
  • Get fresh air and lots of movement
  • Set out your goals with an accountability partner and check in with them either once a day or once a week
  • Share your working plans and goals for the day with those in your house, and communicate your needs. Negotiate your availability and ground rules for the benefit of everyone in the house. Be open to reconsidering your plans if things aren’t working
  • Make a list of possible leisure activities, including things you have always wanted to try but may not have had the time
  • Schedule time to connect with family and friends on a regular basis

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SELF: YOUR MINDSET THROUGHOUT EACH DAY

More important than anything is the mindset that you adopt throughout this period. While it is easy to slip into feelings of fear and negativity about the current situation, it is also possible to shift your perspective on what is happening.

  • Limit your intake of the news. While it is important to keep up-to-date on what is happening, the news is predominantly fear-based and therefore, being strict about how much fear you expose yourself to on a daily basis will do wonders for your mindset
  • Start a daily gratitude practice. This will help to offset the scarcity mindset, which we are currently being bombarded with.
  • Try your best to take things one day at a time. Remember that we can only live one day at a time anyways. If that feels too challenging, take things one week at a time at most
  • In order to start shifting your perspective of the current situation, spend some time reflecting on what this experience may be offering you. In what ways has this time actually served you? Is there anything it has taught you about yourself? How has it made you think differently about the world?
  • Can you see any potential positives that might emerge as a consequence of this situation?
  • When you are feeling down, acknowledge it, take a break and connect with someone you feel safe sharing with. Although you cannot change what is happening, talking about how you are feeling may help to lighten the heaviness surrounding it
  • Give back by helping someone else. No matter how badly we might be feeling about the ongoing situation and how it is impacting us, there are a lot of people who are much worse off. Ask yourself how you might be able to give (whether it’s your time, compassion, or financial support) and continue to do so every day until the crisis passes. Observe how your mindset shifts as you reach out to others

[1]For instance: ‘How to see the world without leaving your home’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-52096529

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