How to fix slow progress

Your progress might feel slow, but that might just be the normal speed of trying to learn new things, or experimenting (and often failing) to find new knowledge. It may also be the normal speed for doing difficult work (like writing new dense words). There is a reason a PhD takes so long, that’s just how long it takes most people!

However, sometimes it’s clear that actually your progress isn’t going well. Your committee agrees that you are behind on your deadlines, and even with a normal extension or a bit of extra support, you still won’t meet milestones, or you will run out of scholarship, or your visa will expire. When you are in those situations, there are three vectors on which you can work to improve your speed. 

The three vectors to improve progress are:

  1. Self-efficacy
  2. Institutional support
  3. Project management

Self-efficacy means improving your own personal efficiency. Institutional support means improving the circumstances in which you are working. And project management is about bringing those two things together.

You need to consider all three vectors before you can sensibly calculate the ‘appropriate’ speed and direction, and therefore work out how much progress you could be making, and measuring whether you are meeting those targets. 


1.  Self-efficacy

Many self-help guides focus on the individual student and what they can do to improve their own situation. As research degrees often have a lot of independence and flexibility built into them, improving your personal situation yourself may be useful, and it is a process over which you have a lot of control! 

Typical self-efficacy techniques include:


2. Institutional support 

However, no PhD student is able to complete a research project without the sustained and consistent support of their institution. 

Institutions are expected to offer suitable guidance and expertise: from supervisors, lab technicians, administrators, librarians, for example.
Institutions are also expected to provide suitable and safe working spaces, access to equipment and technology.
Universities offer financial support: through scholarships, grants, opportunities to work, or discounted/free resources.
Institutions are also expected to offer support for social, mental and physical wellbeing: including sports centres, complying with OH&S regulations, outlawing harassment and bullying, social and cultural events, cafes and restaurants, and adjustments for inclusion (including extensions, sick leave, disability access, non-discriminatory access policies etc) 

Institutions do not always automatically provide these supports and you may need to request or apply for them. For example, students who require support or adjustments for a disability may be required to register with Equity and Diversity or provide medical certificates for extended leave.

Similarly, because institutions vary in what is offered and how it is accessed, you may not know that something is automatically available to you. 

What supports do you need? Do you know how to access them? Who could you ask to find out more? 

  • Your supervisor,
  • chair of your candidature committee,
  • central or faculty graduate researcher training,
  • experienced other students,
  • Student Well-being (including counselling, medical centre, sports centre etc)
  • your Student Union
  • The university website is usually useful, if you can find the information. Look for access to services, and information on policies.


3. Project management

The most complicated vector is where responsibilities are shared across the project—it’s not all your job, and not all someone else’s! 

In these situations all parties will need project management skills, including:

Because these are not just about you, you might not be able to fix these issues on your own. These can be challenging for a candidate to negotiate as there is often a power and experience imbalance between supervisor and student. You may find an academic mentor or academic skills advisor useful in helping to facilitate complex negotiations, or to get help if the relationship is coming under strain. 

In situations where negotiation or conciliation is not likely to be effective or appropriate, there are also usually policies and procedures to enable you to make formal complaints or change supervisors. Find out about them and consider using them!   



So if you are going ‘slow’, think about why that might be, and whether you can do everything, something, or not very much at all to change it. 

And sometimes, you are going slow for other reasons. If you are studying part time, or balancing your study with other things that matter to you (like caring responsibilities, a job, your health, travel or anything else!), you may also chose to go slow. You might chose to go slow because you believe that ‘slow’ research is ethical, or meaningful, research.You should take your time and take time out when that works for your research.

This post isn’t suggesting that you must go fast, or that faster is better. It’s helping you pick apart the vectors that impact your speed, work out which are supporting you to go at the right speed for you and your research, and some ways to change things if they aren’t! 

Go on, make progress! 



Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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