6. Keeping the research on track and monitoring progress

  • Full: Required
  • Associate: Not required

The days when, because they involved the creation of new knowledge, doctoral degrees took as long as they took are long gone. Globally, research sponsors have put policies in place designed to ensure that candidates to complete their degrees in three or four years of full-time study (or pro-rata for part-time).

Such policies have usually entailed financial penalties for departments and/​or institutions that have failed to hit targets for completion rates and/​or times. In consequence, over the past three decades or so, one of, if not the key roles for supervisors has become ensuring as far as possible that candidates complete on time.

Supervisors also have a responsibility to support the professional development of doctoral candidates in terms of socialization within their disciplinary community and, where appropriate, in undertaking teaching duties in the subject.

Typical Examples 

  • Supporting and motivating candidates to progress in their studies.
  • Using supervisions to monitor progress.
  • Participating in formal progression events.

As Taylor et al (2018) have suggested, candidates need to have or acquire the skills of project management, time management, and self-management if they are to stand a chance of completing within three or four years. In many cases, institutions now provide training programmes covering these skills.

However, even if they do, this is not a guarantee of success, and supervisors need to be aware of slippages and ready to correct them, e.g. through progress reviews in supervisions. Supervisors are therefore fundamental to keeping the progress on track.

Additionally, as a number of studies (see Delamont et al 2004, Cryer 2006, Kiley 2009, Phillips and Pugh 2010) have suggested, supervisors may need to motivate candidates in the middle stages of their studies who are suffering from loss of confidence and/​or boredom. Motivation can take the form of praise, helping them to create stepping-stones’ to completion, refocusing the research or — as a last resort — encouraging them to take a break.

Another strategy for supporting progression can be the use of learning agreements with candidates. Such agreements are usually concluded at the start of the candidature and specify, among other things, the various milestones to final completion (see for example Gaffney-Rhys and Jones, 2010, Gilbar et al 2013). These are intended to be live’ documents which afford a basis for the ongoing discussion of progress throughout the candidacy.

Additionally, supervisors will usually monitor progress through checking at supervisory meetings whether targets have been achieved and, if not, by providing advice and support to enable candidates to get back on track.

Supervisors will also be involved in formal progression events. Usually, candidates are initially registered for a lower degree or their doctoral candidature is subject to confirmation, and there is a formal review at between 9 and 15 months to determine whether they should be allowed to proceed to the doctorate/​full candidature. Additionally, there will be further reviews of progress at regular intervals in future years of study. Supervisors may have roles in supporting candidates for progression events, writing reports for progression panels (see Mewburn et al 2013, 2014), and in some institutions sitting as members of such panels.

  • Have you encouraged your candidates to undertake structured training in project management? Was that helpful?
  • How regularly do you review a candidate’s achievements against their research plan?
  • What is your approach to praising your doctoral candidate’s achievements?
  • Do you help to map out stepping-stones to completion?
  • Have you had to re-focus the research of a candidate whose progress was slipping? How did you manage that?
  • Have you ever advised a candidate to take a break from their studies? What led you to this and did it work?
  • Have you used learning agreements with doctoral candidates? Does this help to keep the research on track?
  • Do you set targets? If so, how are these recorded and how successful has this been for keeping the research on track?
  • What is your approach to preparing candidates for progression reviews or writing progress reports? What has worked?

Example Application Content


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