Most universities have an annual progress report that the supervisor is required to fill in, often in association with their research student, to indicate that the student is progressing at a satisfactory pace. Many supervisors criticise this requirement as just another of the paperwork hurdles in the process of candidature. Another way of viewing the annual progress report is to see it as a project management tool and an opportunity to review the progress of the project.
When a research student commences their candidature, and often in the context of a research proposal, they are often required to submit a project plan. Part of this plan may take into account risk management of the project. The essential risk in research degree completion is failure to complete. At one time, the incidence of this event was so prolific that it spurned the acronym – ABD – all but the dissertation.
The risk assessment for a project is not a one of requirement. Risk assessment needs to be undertaken throughout a project, particularly assessing the risk of non-completion. The risk can be reduced by reviewing the risk on a regular basis. Such action generates two key questions:
- How do I know that this student is likely to complete?
- How do I know that this student is unlikely to complete?
Both questions give rise to a search for evidence and both can be used in the context of completing an annual progress review.
There are several types of evidence that contribute to a belief that a research student is likely to complete their research project and therefore their dissertation.
- The student has met the acknowledged milestones within the designated time frame.
- The student has met the milestones that they identified in their initial research proposal project plan.
- ‘chapters’ are emerging in their writing that shows the skeleton of a dissertation.
- Data for the investigation has been collected and is being analysed.
There are several types of evidence that contribute to a belief that a research student is at risk of not completing their research project. This evidence is more a set of warning signs rather than a prediction, like the warning signs that appear on certain roads warning of impending risk for the driver and prompting them to change their driving behaviour in order to accommodate these risks. In the same way, warning signs of ‘at risk of not completing’ might be useful for the research supervisor to have them reconsider the nature of their own practice and how it may be contributing to the risk of non completion.
- The student is regularly giving excuses for not turning up to scheduled meetings. Sometimes this excuse is that they have not written anything, but not having written anything could be a good reason for meeting as it may suggest that there are other problems.
- Projects other than the research project are distracting the student from addressing their research project. A good example is the opportunity to deliver tutorials which can also be a financial advantage for a research student, but the time taken to prepare tutorials is cutting into time otherwise spent on progressing the research. Some faculties, in a well intentioned way, invite research students to teach in the faculty so that they are provided with some additional income to supplement their scholarship, but this can detract from the actual completion of the primary focus of the research.
- Students talk about what they intend to do but this does not convert into actual evidence of progress. This is generally called Procrastination and is so prolific that it has spurned a specific research group web site to better understand the phenomena http://http-server.carleton.ca/~tpychyl/ .
The formality of completing an annual progress report provides the opportunity to review these sorts of factors and ascertain the risk level of a research student not completing.
These sort of milestone forms become important when a situation does arise and a research student is under scrutiny. It is often asked, whether early warning signs were noted in the annual progress reports. Early warning signs are much easier to deal with than a full blown emergency!