Keeping the Research on Track and Monitoring Progress

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.

Supporting Material

Literature and Evidence

Supervisors will normally have some pastoral engagement with candidates over the course of their doctoral studies as events in their private lives impinge upon their professional ones (Hopgood et al 2011, McAlpine et al 2012, McAlpine 2013). Minimally, supervisors need to be alert to the prospect of candidates experiencing personal issues and problems, for example by regularly checking with them. When such issues, including those relating to well-being and mental health, are identified, supervisors need be sympathetic, conscious of the limits of direct involvement, and aware of the professional services to whom candidates can be referred for further support.

Evidence here, for example, could consist of a case study of how you have supported a candidate at a time of personal crisis.

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, but you may provide evidence that you encourage your candidates to take advantage of the opportunities.

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. You could evidence this by, for example, regularly reviewing the candidate’s achievements against their research plan in supervisions.

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 the loss of confidence and/or boredom. Examples of how you go about doing this might include praising them, helping them to map out stepping stones to completion, re-focusing the research, or as a last resort perhaps advising 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 and evidence might then include the use of learning agreements for this purpose.

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. This may be recorded in records of such meetings, which you could provide as evidence of this activity. 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.

Evidence here might include a case study of you go about preparing candidates for such events and/or writing reports.

Supervisors need to be good role models for candidates is in terms of achieving an appropriate work-life balance. The latter can be an issue for candidates and there is some evidence that it is a factor in poor mental health ((see Cohen 2011, Margrove et al 2014, Levecque et al 2017), non- or delayed completion (see Barry et al 2018), and in putting candidates off an academic career (McAlpine 2017).

You may be able to evidence this by describing how you have acted as a role model, e.g. by demonstrating your own effective work-life balance to candidates.

As Walker et al (2008) have put the matter, supervisors are ‘stewards of the discipline’ and responsible for inducting candidates into the disciplinary community. This may include encouraging them in joining appropriate networks (see Thein and Beach 2010), attending conferences, giving presentations, and possibly in publishing their work during candidacy (see S 9).

Evidence again might consist of a case study of how you have inducted a candidate or candidates into the community.

Many candidates will engage in teaching during their studies, often on modules led by their supervisors. In such cases, as Muzaka (2009) and Jepsen et al (2012) have pointed out, supervisors have a responsibility to ensure that teaching assistants are adequately prepared and supported to undertake teaching duties and that they are fully informed about assessment methods, topics, and criteria.

Again, you might provide a brief case study of how you have supported a doctoral candidate in their teaching.

Often, candidates embark upon the doctorate in the expectation of an academic career, and one obvious source of information is their supervisor. However, studies (see Austin 2002, 2011, Campbell et al 2005, Austin and McDaniels 2006) have found that their supervisors tended to assume that doctoral candidates either arrived with an understanding of academic work or would acquire one by a process of osmosis during their studies. Good practice is then for supervisors to least be prepared to discuss what is involved in an academic career, including research, teaching and supporting learning, academic administration, public service, and entrepreneurial activity.

Following Pitt and Mewburn (2016), one way of evidencing this would be if you discuss with candidates the key selection criteria in advertisements for posts in your field.

But if many are called to academic posts, few are chosen, and most doctoral candidates will end up working in other occupations (see Hancock 2014, Hancock et al 2015, McAlpine and Emmioglu 2015, Kweik 2019). While, unless they have worked outside universities, supervisors may be unable to advise candidates seeking non-academic positions, they can support them to acquire the so-called generic or transferable skills deemed necessary to enable them to compete for non-academic careers.

You may evidence this through conducting training needs analyses, identifying gaps in skills, and taking advantage of opportunities to close them.


Expand the section below to view references the academic literature supporting this criterion:

6. Keeping the Research on Track and Monitoring Progress

Austin, A. (2002)

Preparing the Next Generation of Faculty: Graduate School as Socialisation to the Academic Career.

The Journal of Higher Education 73(1): 94-122.

Austin, A. and McDaniels, M. (2006)

Using Doctoral Education to Prepare Faculty to Work Within Boyer’s Four Domains of Scholarship.

New Directions in Institutional Research, 129: 51-65.

Austin, A. (2011)

Preparing Doctoral Students for Promising Careers in a Changing Context: Implications for Supervision, Institutional Planning, and Cross-Institutional Opportunities.

In .Kumar and A. Lee (eds.) Doctoral Education in International Context: Connecting Local, Regional and GlobalPerspectives. Malaysia, Universiti Putra Malaysia Press: 1-18.

Campbell, S.P., Fuller, A.K., Patrick, D.A.G. (2005)

Looking beyond research in doctoral education.

Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 3(3): 153-60.

Cohen, S.M. (2011)

Doctoral Persistence and Doctoral Program Completion Among Nurses.

Nursing Forum, 46(2): 64-70.

Cryer, P. (2006)

The Research Student’s Guide to Success. 2nd ed.

Buckingham: Open University Press.

Delamont, S., Atkinson, P., and Parry, O. (2004)

2nd ed. Supervising the PhD: A Guide to Success.

Buckingham, Open University Press and Society for Research into Higher Education.

Gaffney-Rhys, R. and Jones, J. (2010)

Issues surrounding the introduction of formal student contracts.

Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(6): 711-725.

Gilbar, O., Winstok, Z., Weinberg, M., and Bershtling, O. (2013)

Whose Doctorate Is It Anyway? Guidelines for an Agreement Between Adviser and Doctoral Student Regarding the Advisement Process and Intellectual Property Rights.

Journal of Academic Ethics, 11: 73-80.

Hancock, S. (2014)

Science in action: doctoral scientists and identity construction.

Paper presented to the Society for Research into Higher Education Annual Conference, 10th December. Celtic Manner, Newport.

Hancock, S., Hughes, G. and Walsh, E. (2015)

Purist or pragmatist? UK doctoral scientists’ moral positions on the knowledge economy.

Studies in Higher Education. DOI: 10.1080/03075079.1087994.

Hopwood, N., Alexander, P., Harris-Huemmert, S., McAlpine, L. and Wagstaff, S. (2011)

The Hidden Realities of Life as a Doctoral Student.

In V.Kumar and A. Lee (eds.) Doctoral Education in International Context: Connecting Local, Regional and Global Perspectives. Malaysia, Universiti Putra Malaysia Press.

Jepsen, D., Verhagyi, M. and Edwards, D. (2012)

Academics attitudes towards PhD students’ teaching: preparing research higher degree students for an academic career.

Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 34(6): 629-45.

Kiley, M. (2009)

Identifying threshold concepts and proposing strategies to support doctoral candidates.

Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 46(3): 293-304.

Kiley, M. (2009)

‘You don’t want a smart Alec’: selecting examiners to assess doctoral dissertations.

Studies in Higher Education, 34(8): 889-903.

Kweik, M. (2019)

Changing European Academics.

London, Routledge and Society for Research into Higher Education.

Levecque, K., Anseel, F. De Beuckelear, A. Van der Hayden, J. and Gisle, L. (2017)

Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students.

Research Policy, 46: 868-879.

Margrove, K., Gustowska, M. And Grove, L. (2014)

Provision of support for psychological distress by university staff, and receptiveness to mental health training.

Journal of Further and Higher Education, 38(1): 90-106.

McAlpine, L. and Amudsen, C. (2012)

Challenging the taken-for-granted: how research analysis might inform pedagogical practices and institutional policies relating to doctoral education.

Studies in Higher Education, 37(6): 683-694.

McAlpine, L. (2013)

Doctoral supervision: Not an individual but a collective institutional responsibility.

Journal for the Study of Education and Development, 36(3): 259-80.

McAlpine, L. and Emmioglu, E. (2015)

Navigating careers: perceptions of sciences doctoral students, post-PhD researchers and pre-tenure academics.

Studies in Higher Education, 40(10): 1770-1785.

McAlpine, L. (2017)

Building on Success? Future challenges for doctoral education globally.

Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, 8(2): 66-77.

Mewburn, I., Tokareva, E. Cuthbert, D. Sinclair, J. And Barnacle, R. (2013)

‘These are issues that should not be raised in black and white’: the culture of progress reporting and the doctorate.

Higher Education Research and Development. DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2013.841649

Mewburn, I Cuthbert, D.,and Tokareva, E. (2014)

Experiencing the progress report: an analysis of gender and administration in doctoral candidature.

Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 36(2): 155-71.

Muzaka, V. (2009)

The niche of Graduate Teaching Assistants: perceptions and reflections.

Teaching in Higher Education, 14(1): 1-12.

Phillips, E. and Pugh, D. (2010)

How to Get a PhD. 5th edn.

Buckingham: Open University Press.

Pitt, R. and Mewburn, I. (2016)

Academic superheroes? A critical analysis of academic job descriptions.

Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 38(1): 88-101.

Taylor, S., Kiley M. and Humphrey, R. (2018)

A Handbook for Doctoral Supervisors. 2nd Ed.

London, Routledge.

Thein, A. and Beach, R. (2010)

Mentoring doctoral students towards publication within scholarly communities of practice.

In C. Aitchison, B. Kamler and A. Lee (eds.) Publishing Pedagogies for the Doctorate and Beyond. London, Routledge: 117-136.

Walker, G., Golde, C., Jones, L., Bueschel, A. and Hutchings, P. (2008)

The Formation of Scholars: Rethinking Doctoral Education for the Twenty-First Century.

San Francisco, Josey-Bass. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Download the Research Supervisors Bibliography PDF 1.15Mb

Example Application Content

Below is an example of how evidence could be provided for this criterion when applying to the Research Supervision Recognition Programme:

6. Keeping the Research on Track and Monitoring Progress

In my day as a doctoral student, research projects took as long as they took, i.e. there were few pressure to complete. Now, of course, candidates are under pressure from research sponsors and institutions (not to mention their bank managers) to complete within three or, at the most four, years.

To keep to schedule, they need a range of personal skills, including project-, time-. and self-management, and I strongly encourage candidates to take advantage of development opportunities in these fields. On occasion, I have intervened directly and shown candidates how to go about managing their time using their research diaries.

As well as supporting candidates’ progress, I also monitor it at supervisions by asking candidates to review their progress against previously set objectives and then to set new objectives for the next period. I use this evidence to inform my formal reports to departmental review panels which consider if and when candidates are allowed to continue with their studies . While of course I am not allowed to adjudicate on my own candidates, I do understand that it can be harrowing for them to appear before a panel to defend their work and try to prepare them in advance by listening to their presentations and questioning them on their submissions.