Measuring Progress as a PhD Student – Tracking and Tools

Here are some tips that I have found useful in the past to keep momentum going and measure progress:

Small Assignments

Think in terms of small daily and weekly assignments and reward yourself when you accomplish a task or a milestone (interim longer term goals) even if it is just putting a big tick or gold star sticker in your diary. Acknowledge and celebrate small wins.

Cultivate the emotion of excitement by reading a page from a scholar you really admire or thinking about those past Eureka moments you have had in your research that you are proud of before you start your writing period or whenever you feel a bit stuck and overwhelmed.

Take a few moments before you start your writing session to visualize the end goal and what you are working towards. Start with and always come back to Why.

Monitor your progress and have regular updates with your supervisor where you can discuss your progress and any difficulties you are having. Ideally at least once a month.

Start an Agraphia Group

It is also a good idea to form a writing group with a small group of other PhD students in your department (2-5 students) who you feel comfortable with sharing your writing goals.

Paul Silvia in his book How to Write A Lot recommends forming what he calls an Agraphia Group – a writers accountability and support group in essence. I suggested this to some colleagues in my department who were struggling with getting momentum with their writing and with motivation and I now regularly meet with one colleague every Monday for half an hour or so over tea to discuss our writing goals for the week and how we got on last week. I like to keep it short and we record one or two writing goals in a journal which we can review and tick off as we go along.

Some goals might be: finish paper for X conference, complete notes for article for X journal, write section 1.3 of book etc. We’ve found these meeting mutually beneficial and as writing is a solitary activity it’s also nice to be able to discuss our work in progress. This can be an informal meeting once a week for half an hour or so over tea or lunch. Mondays work well.

The purpose of such a group is to clarify your writing goals for that week and to record it some way. Each person commits to what is a manageable writing goal for that week and you review your progress the following Monday and review any challenges you faced in meeting that goal.

You can also choose to share your drafts with members of the group although that is not absolutely necessary – although having other readers is always helpful – but to set clear writing goals and to monitor each others progress. Use something to track your weekly progress – whether it is an Excel sheet where you enter the number of words you wrote for that day or a project management software like Smartsheet.

Many writers also recommend keeping a small notebook – this is a simple and effective tool for keeping track of ideas. Do write down ideas as they occur to you in a notebook or in your phone – anywhere where you can capture it quickly.

You’ll often find that the best ideas will come when you are walking or at a conference, sitting in a café or doing something non-work related. It’s a good idea to have a notebook to hand to jot down these thoughts when they occur. Some scholars even keep notebooks beside their bed in case they come up with a brainwave during sleep. 

Do a little bit each day and you will build momentum. 2 to 3 hours of writing is enough for each day and set yourself specific daily goals like write at least 250 words, chase up references in the library, rewrite section 1.2 or whatever – but it has to be specific and actionable.

A good tip I like is at the end of your writing period to stop writing mid-sentence (a tactic used by Ernest Hemingway) and when you are writing well – this will make it easier for you to start again the next day and to get back in flow. Both authors Graham Greene and Hemingway had daily targets of writing 500 words. 

Research Management Software

You can also use research software such as Mendeley, Zotero, and EndNote to keep track of your notes, bibliography, and research literature. I have tried to use EndNote in the past but did not find it that helpful, but you could try Mendeley or Zotero and see if that works for you. If you find a software that can autogenerate your bibliography that will save a lot of time down the line, but make sure it works well!

Also, you might experiment with different word processing software like Pages on Mac or Scrivener which helps you to write in chunks and which many professional authors and academics are now using. Scrivener converts to Microsoft Word beautifully.

I also recommend using a whiteboard. You’ll look like a genius for a start! I love whiteboards because it encourages free thinking and brainstorming. You can use cluster diagrams to find relations between ideas, to structure your writing, or just to jot down your writing or research goals for the day. Draw a smiley face or cross out a task when you complete it. You can also take a photo with your mobile phone or camera and store it in Evernote for future reference before you wipe it away.

Also try mind-mapping software like Scapple developed by the same people who created Scrivener.

Have a Wind-Down Ritual

Having a schedule also helps you to switch off. You should not be thinking about your PhD all the time. You need to switch off. Build wind-down rituals that trigger you to disconnect from your work. For example, I like to walk home from the office after a day’s work, go for a run, or go to the gym. This helps me to switch off. You might go read a newspaper in a café after work – anything that triggers you to switch off and that you can build into a ritual.

Whatever you do find ways to unwind, switch off, and relax each day. Part of successfully completing the PhD is just stubborn staying power and using your time and energy effectively over a sustained period.