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I am not sure if this concept sounds familiar to you but in Sweden PhD students are expected to have a study plan, which is revised every year, in connection with a meeting between the student, the primary and secondary supervisor(s). It's the closest thing I have to a contract actually.

Theoretically the concept is great, there's a formal demand to plan and revise the projects, so that things don't get out of hand. The study plan typically defines:

  • the nature and title of graduate studies
  • an expected time of dissertation
  • the responsibilities the student has towards the department (teaching, lab/IT responsibilities etc)
  • the extent of research/course ratio per semester
  • courses taken/planned
  • the project that planned to/will be a part of the thesis

Then comes a series of so-called "lärandemål" which I could possibly translate as "learning goals" mandated/advised by the board of higher education services (Högskoleverket) and what is planned/completed to achieve these goals. This piece constitutes a majority of the study plan essentially.

So far so good... I think conceptually it's a great idea. In practice, the part regarding learning goals becomes a whole bunch of formal gibberish that does not reflect reality but looks fancy on paper. My supervisor does not really care much about the plan, at least not in the format it's forced on both of us. I am not sure if this is the impostor syndrome speaking, but I feel like it's essentially an annoying piece of paperwork, on which I am forced to write what I am doing/have done in rather exaggerated fluffy words. I have also considered the possibility that I perceive it thus because even though I am very fluent, Swedish is not my first language. I could not say for sure...

I am trying to force myself to see the benefit in having and updating such a study plan. I could just do the minimal amount of work and get it over with, but seeing that this is actually my chance and legal right to influence the development of my graduate studies, I feel it'd be a waste of opportunity if I did not take the chance to make the best out of it.

Any ideas as to how I can make better use of these study plans and study plan meetings that go along with it? Likewise any plans as to how I can avoid seeing it as an annoying piece of work that has to be done and have no practical meaning?

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I can sympathise with your sentiment about the study plan. The idea is generally good but it will only be as good as one makes it. In my department we started with study plans long before it became a mandatory requirement. The reason was mainly to establish a contract (although strictly speaking it has no legal meaning) where student and advisor agree to the terms of the work. We had instances where both students and advisers were not doing their part and lacking a paper trail made discussions difficult, usually both parties blaming each others for the catastrophe that emerged when it was too late.

So, I still look at the study plan as a tool when things go wrong, actually to identify when things start to diverge and nip it in the bud. There are students who do no appreciate the plan but as subject responsible (and in our case the discussion involves also me) I try to make it a good and reflective discussion. I do believe it is good to take the opportunity to reflect upon what has been done so far and try to lay out the plans for the next year because in a PhD project the nose is often close to the work and perspective may be difficult to get. Providing an opportunity to express the plans can therefore be enlightening for all parties.

I must, however, add that the bad cases which the study plan is supposed to reduce, still are very difficult and the study plan is not enough to resolve such cases. So my recommendation is to try to find a format for the discussions so that they become useful and positive for you. I would not expect everyone to experience these discussions the same way so in the worst case, try to make it as pleasant as possible.

EDIT in response to comment. As with most things that are forced into action from "above", the way to handle study plans and how to relate to them has become unclear. I can personally see that different departments view the document differently and although the Science faculty of my University has issued guidelines, my suspicion is that they have no clue what they are trying to say. So it is all confusing.

Now, recently I heard a lecture by Bob Harris at the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm which concerned the so-called Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs; another fancy term). You can listen to a talk similar to the one I attended on BrainShark, however, a warning is issued for the poor sound quality. The talk was for director's of graduate studies and the Faculty. The point made here is that we need to decide what it is that we do during a PhD and it is only then [my interpretation] that we can make use of the study plan to see if we meet the expectation from the side of the Higher Education Act as well as from our personal viewpoints. All of this becomes very involved and I am myself in the process of changing the way we look at the study plan to also include the goals of the research education as formulated in the Swedish Higher Education Act.

A problem with study plans as they stand now is that everyone must be involved in the process and as with everything else, they are not necessarily so and opinions will vary. Some will find it very useful and some will not. If a study plan is merely a meeting where one says 'done that; will do this' then its use is very limited. At best it is a time to actually reflect upon the progress or lack thereof. In the end, I think we have all lost track of the purpose of a PhD, we do not see the forest for all the trees. Publish has become the (only?) goal but all the other skills are not highlighted well or even considered. Integrating the wider goals with the study plan to record and view progress, could in my opinion be a useful tool but it requires more or less reorganisation and additional adaptation by many.

  • As I was re-reading this answer I came to notice why I didn't tick it in the first place; could you elaborate abit about the 3rd and the 4th paragraph (on learning goals and big fancy words that don't always reflect the reality of the situation) – posdef May 19 '14 at 12:37
  • I am not sure I have succeeded in making things more clear but I have given it a go. – Peter Jansson May 19 '14 at 13:52
  • thanks! I guess the bottomline is "the idea was good but didn't quite pan out as we had hoped"? – posdef May 19 '14 at 14:01
  • Kort sagt: Yes. – Peter Jansson May 19 '14 at 14:02

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