Day 56: Measuring Progress


Getting to write this post took longer than expected. I kept trying to wait to post about advances towards my dissertation proposal. Unfortunately, I thought that I had nothing to report. However, I have recently realized that I have been measuring (and thinking about) my progress all wrong.

Measuring Brute Force Efforts

When I began the 100 Day Challenge, my goal was to measure my daily progress. This coincided with #AcWriMo and my need to complete a literature review. Naturally, my progress was measured in words written and papers read each day. I had perfect measurement-goal fit. To complete a lit review, you need to read ALL THE THINGS and then WRITE about them.

Once the lit review was complete, however, the goals changed. My measurements did not.

Well after my lit review was complete, I continued to measure the words that I had written on a daily basis. The problem was that my goals at that point had shifted. I needed to find a worthy research question in order to develop into a proposal.This process entails writing and reading. But a lot of it also requires thinking and talking.

The poor measurement-goal fit let me to feel terrible about my dissertation. I was not meeting my word quotas. I thought that I was being a slacker, and that I would never finish. At my lowest point, I also imagined I would be kicked out for the lack of progress.

Measuring Different Time frames

Right about the time I had stopped updating this blog (because I thought I was a failure) I decided instead to change how I measured things. Instead of measuring DAILY progress, I would measure WEEKLY progress. My flawed logic suggested that this would give me the flexibility to think and talk with people some days, and write in others.

My measures, however, remained pretty much the same – even if the time frame had changed. I would still look at how much I read and wrote.

Spoiler alert: this change did not work. I did not update this blog ONCE since I changed the measurement time frame.

I have been feeling quite discouraged. In this profession (after you get a tenure-track job, that is), no one comes and tells you “good job” while your work is in progress. There is also little to no accountability. You either get everything ready to publish or you don’t. You do not have a boss that keeps tabs on you and reminds you to work on things.

It is similar for me. My chair does not check-in on me. Neither does any other faculty member. It is up to ME to give me deadlines and measure my own progress. And I was failing – by my own standards.

I was shocked and devastated at the same time.

In hindsight, this is not surprising. It turns out that I have been measuring the wrong things all along.


Measuring Meetings & Edits

It is finally (!) clear to me that my lack of progress stemmed from a measuring error and not the lack of observations.

Finding a research question is not a matter of just reading and writing. It requires understanding, conversing, listening, refining, reading, writing, presenting and repeating all or some of these steps in no particular order.

As a PhD student, finding my research question is also a matter of getting approval from my dissertation chair. In order to accomplish that, I can’t just put words on paper. Yet, that is mostly how I was basing my progress (and, unfortunately, my self-worth).

Having had several meetings with my chair, I have made progress towards finding my dissertation question. I have also realized that the best way I can measure my progress RIGHT NOW is by measuring the outcomes of my meetings and conversations with my chair.


It is simple. Prior to meeting with my chair, I should have:

  • Read the papers he suggested and any others I find on the topics that were relevant during our previous call.
  • Edited my dissertation document addressing the gaps we discussed.
  • Added new paragraphs/sections to my dissertation based on how the theoretical arguments changed.
  • Considered all the points brought up during our discussion.
    • Either by thinking and being ready to discuss why a particular point was not relevant.
    • Or by being able to explain how a particular point was addressed in the writing.

Gone are the word counts and quotas. They do not adequately capture whether I actually wrote meaningful things.

Gone is the number of papers read. It does not capture my understanding of the paper. It also does not capture reading the same paper as many times as it takes.

In their place I have a more holistic approach. I am now measuring “Did I do what I said I would do?” by looking at edits and cites needed to address the issues raised during meetings.

My new time frame is the time between meetings. It can vary based on the feedback I received. My new measures are the edits to the paper, the use of citations, and meeting preparation. Generally, I want to make sure that every point raised in the previous conversation are addressed: in my writing as evidenced by the edits and cites, and in my thinking as evidenced by being able to discuss my ideas in a call.

Interestingly, the visible outcomes are still reading and writing. And it could be tempting to turn on the PhDometer again and see how many words are typed. But that way lies a path of disappointment. After all, faculty do not let you pass dissertation proposals based on how long your paper is. They let you pass because of the strength of your ideas and your ability to defend them. 

From now on, updates to the 100 Day Challenge will be the results of my meetings. I believe that the path towards a dissertation proposal is achieved one meeting at a time, with a lot of complex and difficult-to-measure work in between.


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