As a third year graduate student (theoretical physics) I need to find out methods to understand if I am doing well or not, am I making progress or not, am I putting in enough effort or not?

How do I judge/measure my performance?

Of course a primary skew in my situation is that I found an advisor only towards the end of my second year of PhD. (..before that I was working in other groups on topics which I didn't like at all..)

  • 10
    Is your advisor shouting at you? Dec 1, 2013 at 0:01
  • 1
    @FedericoPoloni Doesn't seem so! Our last meeting seemed fairly pleasant - we were basically throwing around various possible research ideas and seeing which ones can or cannot work. [..though I could be a terribly bad reader of human emotions/behaviour!...]
    – user6818
    Dec 1, 2013 at 0:07
  • You will need to compare your amount of work done and publication with other PhD in the same area and of the same year. Dec 1, 2013 at 5:45

2 Answers 2


It's a good question, and one that's rather difficult to answer. I'll say a few things though.

  • being able to judge your own level of progress and evaluate yourself honestly but fairly is a crucial part of your development. After all, you won't have an advisor for very long, but you'll be a researcher for a long time. So it's good that you're asking this question

  • Research has many phases, and to evaluate your progress it's important to recognize which phase you're in.

    • in an exploratory phase where you're looking at different topics to see what might be worth pursuing, you should be reading a lot. A plausible metric here could be whether you're reading something every day, and if you're getting a sense of familiarity with the literature (you know citations without having to look up the bibliography, you keep encountering papers you've read before, and so on)

    • when you are working on a particular problem, do you have an idea that you're trying ? If not, what are you doing to search for the next idea ? do you have concrete tests of whether the idea is going to fail or not ? If you're thinking concretely and constructively, then you'll automatically make progress (notice that I'm not talking about how long it takes, but rather whether you see paths to progress)

    • when you're writing up work, are you methodically identifying things that need to be edited/cleaned/removed, and are you spending enough time each day working on these. When there's a lot of grunt work to do, time spent is a good measure of productivity.

Conversely, students (and researchers!) often become unproductive when:

  • they don't know what to do next, and don't know to ask, or how to find something to do next
  • they have things to do next, but are overwhelmed/fearful, and avoid doing them, or fritter away time in busy work (getting the exact right font for the title, for example)

The trick is not to get caught up in doing things at a certain rate, or worry about the large-scale, but rather ensure that you always have something to do next. If you don't, that's when you go talk to your advisor.

  • Perfect answer :) Dec 1, 2013 at 11:43
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    Minor disagreement: The right time to go talk to your advisor is long before you run out of things to do next. Put another way: The right time to talk to your advisor is never more than a few days from now.
    – JeffE
    Dec 1, 2013 at 21:31
  • @Suresh Aren't you setting a very low bar when you put so much emphasis on knowing what to do next? Or I guess I am misunderstanding you! Because personally I ALWAYS see a long to-do list in front of me in terms of research questions and papers to red. BUT this is quite irrelevant because almost always I might be wasting time along directions which aren't going to help. I might just be "slacking off" reading papers which I find exciting but are actually probably useless for what my advisor has in his mind. Its very hard to judge what is "concrete" and "constructive" - to use your words.
    – user6818
    Dec 5, 2013 at 8:20
  • "I might just be 'slacking off' reading papers which I find exciting but are actually probably useless for what my advisor has in his mind". My view is that even your advisor has only a slightly better idea than you about what's useful and what's useless, and your job really is to train yourself to acquire that sensibility. Relying on your advisor is ok initially, but is something you have to do less and less.
    – Suresh
    Dec 5, 2013 at 17:43

I think that one factor should be "ask your advisor". Depending on the relationship that you have, they might be best placed to give you an honest opinion.

  • But like @Suresh has said, he/she won't have an advisor for a very long time. He/she will have to learn to self-evaluate. Indeed, now asking the advisor might help though :) Dec 1, 2013 at 11:44
  • 6
    Corollary: Never don't have an advisor.
    – JeffE
    Dec 1, 2013 at 21:32
  • 6
    Unwanted corollary: Never graduate.
    – Suresh
    Dec 2, 2013 at 1:56

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