This conversation was initiated by a chorus of disapproval from several PhD students with regard to the milestone process that had been established in their faculty. As such, introduction of the specific students is problematic in that such a contentious issue reminds every research student of their precarious standing should they try to ‘rock the boat’. It would seem at the outset that this issue may be site specific, but listening to the comments from these students I have concluded that they address a broader set of issues that apply to any faculty implementing a Project Management approach to managing PhD student’s research.
There was a time, which many have only heard about in the literature related to the early years of higher degree research in Australia and around the world, when the undertaking of a research degree was a time consuming and almost life absorbing matter. Such was the lack of deadlines that many students were ‘doing a PhD’ but fewer were ‘completing a PhD’. In Australia, and elsewhere around the world, these halcyon days ended with the introduction of a range of completion encouraging initiatives to ensure that research students finished what they had embarked upon. Soon after these research culture changing events a new form of research advising/supervising entered the repertoires of practice of many research managers, in that they began to identify key milestones in the journey and process of undertaking a research degree and used these milestones as evidence towards completion of the undertaken task – the research and the dissertation. The approach drew a real analogy between undertaking a research project and undertaking any work based project, and infused into the best practice formulae for research project management the benefits of project management. Such was the embracing of this approach to research supervision that it formed its own discourse, and in this blog has warranted it’s own set of discussions (See in the right hand menu ‘research supervision as management’). As with any aspect of a multi-faceted repertoire of practice, indulgence in one aspect with ignorance of the other aspects can lead to unfortunate results.
The idea underpinning project management is that a project is scoped and estimated completion times calculated along with significant milestones that help to ensure that the project will be completed on time and on budget. When well scoped, these milestones assist in the same way as more physical milestones help with any journey, they measure your progress and arrival at the desired destination.
For those who have driven from location A to location B (particularly if you seek the assistance of google maps and directions) it will become evident that there are often a variety of pathways that will lead to the same destination. At the outset of a journey you are sometimes fortunate to have a multi route sign post that advises the different mileage/kilometreage to the nominated destination.
In a well scoped project it is possible to just monitor the milestones and this provides sufficient confidence that the project will be completed. There is also a risk of losing track of the overall destination to pay too much attention to the milestones, such that the milestone becomes the new destination. The latter is the case with this set of conversations in which students raise several problems with their faculty implemented milestone process- problems that have bearing on any faculty following a similar approach.
One problem which students identified was the lack of explicitness both within the faculty and between the faculty and the wider university about the nature of the specified milestones. In particular, one milestone commonly used for research process, the research proposal or confirmation document was defined in ways to make its quality performance criteria at odds with the general consensus for a research degree candidature of 3 ½ years. The general expectation that a research proposal is an argument which proposes how a topic can be understood and how it can be investigated ( https://supervisorsfriend.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/helping-the-research-student-to-write-a-research-proposal/ ) had been blown out with the addition of such performance indicators that the research proposal be suitable for publication in an A level journal. Other expectations of the research proposal included completion of an empirical study or separate publication a journal article. Each milestone in itself presents a worthy marker of progress towards the destination of a completed dissertation, but when amalgamated into one large milestone, turned it into an often unachievable milestone requiring so much energy that it detracted from the more important journey of completing the dissertation.
A second problem looked more to the timing of the milestones such that they allowed a research student to benefit from the feedback. The feedback becomes the important outcome of completing the milestone as it represents the first taste of double-blind peer review. When feedback on close-to-completion milestones was suggesting major shifts in the direction of the research, and shifts that had not been identified in earlier milestones, then it turned into a case of the milestone directing the research rather than the other way around. Some of this could be attributed to misguided understanding of the peer review process and application of review to various chapters of a dissertation that would have otherwise been reserved for journal articles submitted for publication.
Thirdly the different stakeholders involved in the milestone process are often engaged in political one-up-manship to demonstrate their own knowledge and prowess rather than focussing the milestone process on helping the student to produce more acceptable research. As a result, students comments on receiving contradictory information about milestone requirements from the different stakeholders. Each stakeholder seemed to be vying for the most control of what counted as suitable PhD research.
The fourth problem compared the milestone process as one strategy to achieve completion with a comparative strategy of offering seminars and coursework. It was expected that these different strategies would complement each other and that success in coursework would reflect success in the milestone process, such as having an acceptable research proposal (confirmation document). Sadly this was not always the case and the two seemed sometimes at odds with each other.
These problems may sound familiar to some supervisors/advisors and may also reflect the impact of faculty devised processes that fail to take into account the very stakeholders for whom the strategies are devised, the research students. As is too often the case, research students fail to have a voice in determining some of the administrative procedures that govern their activities.