A striking difference between being a student following courses and a PhD student doing research is the independence and lack of rigid structures such as homework and exams. I started a PhD in biophysics in the Netherlands a bit over a year ago and so far it has been a good experience. However, I found it hard to gauge how well I am doing and whether worries about my progress are justified.

My supervisor is supportive and provides frequent feedback. Despite the clear benefit of getting feedback in person over getting it through a graded exam, personal discussions can have a subjective feel to it, which makes it less clear cut than getting a mark. As students we were used to getting seemingly objective, quantifiable measures of our progress. The academic equivalent would be papers, but my supervisor has stated clearly that he goes for quality above quantity and as a result there will likely few if any papers until perhaps the final year of my PhD (also because we are a very new group). I also support his vision of not focusing on churning out papers but on doing good quality research.

How do PhD students and young researchers know how well on track they are? Let's say that the objective is to finish the PhD on time and continue doing research (in either academia or industry, not necessarily on a faculty position).

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    Of course, all those "clear" grades/marks all along were convenient fantasies/fictions. Didn't at all reliably indicate "progress", but only tried to approximate it in a way that could deliver a single number... which somehow is the only acceptable measure for many things. Silly... Mar 7, 2017 at 23:29
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    Is your supervisor pleased with your progress? At least in my area, a pleased supervisor is typically all one needs to complete a PhD - people with lesser expectations aren't the ones that ended up professors. It might be more difficult to trust the measure from a young professor who hasn't supervised many students, but if nothing else your advisor has been a student before, and apparently a successful one at that.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 8, 2017 at 0:10
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    if your advisor and your thesis committee are fully informed about your work and saying you're OK then you're OK.
    – abcd
    Mar 8, 2017 at 2:32
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    It will be easier to do the formal writing if you get in the habit of writing up, approximately once a month, what you've been working on. After a year, you can reread these write-ups and you will hopefully see progress on several levels. It can be helpful to send these regular reports to the advisor. Also, you can spend at least 5% of your time reading papers and jotting down notes about your reading. Over time, you will improve in your understanding of the papers and in the note taking. It is sometimes helpful to form a journal club with some fellow students. Mar 8, 2017 at 3:46
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    In research, quality and progress is subjective. We have a few objective quantitative metrics (i.e. publication counts/levels, citation indexes, etc) but they are understood to be very poor tools to be used only when you absolutely need to have a simple and comparable metric, but in general the results and impact can only be evaluated subjectively and this is how this will be done in e.g. evaluating applications for positions or grants, tenure, etc. Get used to the subjective evaluation and figure out how to do that well!
    – Peteris
    Mar 9, 2017 at 11:07

6 Answers 6


In my observation over some decades (in mathematics), I think it is nearly impossible for a PhD student to gauge their own progress. Sure, it is possible to know whether one feels discouraged or encouraged, etc., but these are mostly artifacts of one's own temperament and of the general environment, not indicators of one's progress.

If you have an engaged, perceptive, competent advisor, they will by-far be the best judge of whether you're on-track or off.

Even then, the real goal is not to measure up to some scalar-valued "good/bad", but to _become_what_you_can_.

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    It's not impossible at all. In many ways, being able to objectively evaluate your own work is essential to success in academia. It is a critical skill that professional academics need to develop - the sooner, the better.
    – J...
    Mar 8, 2017 at 12:11
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    @J... - I think what Paul is saying is that you should use the resources available to you to gauge were you are. In this instance the best resource is your adviser. Mar 8, 2017 at 14:58

I can tell you how I measured my progress in an area (Theoretical CS) where the few papers arrive on the final year of the PhD. The first year of my PhD I studied a lot. I mean a lot.

And I realized I was making progress when I could follow arguments and expositions that were too alien for me in the beginning. When I was reading a description of a theorem (not the proof) or an algorithm and thinking "Ah, this is not surprising because of such-and-such reason". When initially heavy subjects became part of my everyday routine.

When I arrived to that point, I was confident I was on the right track even without any publication.

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    +1. I'm only in my second year of my combined Masters/Ph.D., and I've started noticing that things that were overwhelming a year ago are a heckuva lot simpler now. It kinda starts to sneak up on you (of course, the more I learn the more I realize just how little I know).
    – tonysdg
    Mar 8, 2017 at 16:30
  • This is the best answer and it applies to everyone if generalized. I was an experimentalist and progressed steadily in ability: starting with tagging along with the other students in the group on their experiments, then designing, building, and repairing research apparatus, then reproducing experiments and extending them. So whatever you do in your field, you should see your powers grow!
    – Pete
    Mar 9, 2017 at 15:05

Ask your advisor.

I mean, you can even forward the question to him in an e-mail... That's what advisors are for. Ask him if is there anything else you could be doing, what can you do to improve your performance. Literally nobody else would be as informed as him at this point.


Something that was missing in previous answers is the opportunity to apply for a PHD Symposium. You can basically do that at any stage of your PhD. There will usually be a three people panel, evaluating both your presentation and your presented research.

If you find one that is associated with a relevant conference, the panel will be from your field of expertiece. In early stages of a PhD, they will give you advice on possible research directions, in later stages they will tell you what research they see is still missing, in order for you to graduate.

In such a setting you can also directly ask for feedback about "being on track".

One more remark:

I also support his vision of not focusing on churning out papers but on doing good quality research.

Just keep in mind, that every paper you publish includes 1) meeting relevant people at the conference, 2) getting feedback (both by the reviewers and the audience), 3) getting training in holding presentations, and 4) a trip to a usually nice location ;)

So yes, good quality IS very important. But that does not mean, that you can't publish some workshop papers, or B conference papers, with preliminary results. That will only improve the quality of your main papers.

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    A paper doesn't always include a conference appearance or presentation. To say that "every paper you publish includes" simply isn't true.
    – Weckar E.
    Mar 9, 2017 at 11:46

I think the most straightforward metric is how many chapters for your thesis you have, excluding the Introduction, Background (if you will have one) and Conclusions. You are not writing papers, but I assume you are writing. Each piece of writing be it a paper or not should be either a chapter or contribute to a chapter significantly, purely to make writing the thesis easier but also aiding you in measuring your progress. You should find out how many core chapters you need in your final thesis, what is the norm in your area/group? (my guess is four) Now, taking into account your comments, it may be that you're not writing much yet, but you can perhaps try to think of how many chapters you will get from the results you've gained experimental or otherwise (e.g., you have tested X related hypotheses and so that's one chapter).

On the softer side, getting a PhD is also about becoming an independent researcher. From what I have seen, those that continue as researchers during their PhD develop from being dependent on their supervisory team, where they tell you what to do, to be independent such that they tell their supervisors what to do. The ultimate goal, is to actual become interdependent with co-authors, so that you need each other equally. You can assess this by seeing how much of the work is your own idea, I expect during your final two years most of it will be, and how often it is you demanding your supervisors to read/comment over them telling you to do X, Y or Z.

I base these two above metrics based on courses I have taken, and my own experience doing a PhD and observing other successful (or not) PhDs.

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    I think this answer is very discipline-specific - in some areas, one may not do any formal writing toward their thesis until the very end. That doesn't mean that there shouldn't be some progress toward research goals that will eventually be incorporated in the thesis, of course. Unfortunately for the OP I think that progress is nearly impossible to measure for someone who hasn't completed the process yet.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 7, 2017 at 22:55

It also depends on the PhD program you are in. Who is deciding when and if you get your PhD, and what are the requirements? Is it just your supervisor who decides? In my case the supervising team had nothing to do with the evaluation of the thesis and the defence. So get to know the official and unofficial requirements and then measure your progress accordingly. I think its very important to always keep that in mind, and focus on finishing. Its easy to get distracted by side-projects and learning new tools.

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    "It is easy to get distracted by side-projects and learning new tools". These may be some of the most valuable things done during the course of the PhD. Particularly given OP's goal to continue doing research after they finish. Mar 8, 2017 at 8:57
  • Yes side projects and learning new tools can be valuable, but there needs to be a balance and the focus should be on finishing. Its also important to learn to say no.
    – gogoolplex
    Mar 8, 2017 at 9:10

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