Higher Degree by Research (HDR) Project Management and Milestones
When you embark on your Higher Degree by Research (HDR) journey, you may have only a very sketchy idea of what awaits you over the next three years. That is quite normal, and you should feel assured that there are many checkpoints for you along the way that will help you understand how you are proceeding. The major milestone process helps you stay on track and offers opportunities to receive feedback on your progression outside of your research group and supervisory team.
How can you negotiate this journey? It helps to know about project management and time management. If you are a natural at this and have always found yourself to be well organised, on schedule and prepared, you will be able to sail through these requirements. If you are like most and like to procrastinate or rely on your sharp mind to do things at the last minute, it might be helpful to start learning the ins and outs of milestone processes and time management now. Remember that your HDR is almost like an apprenticeship – you will learn all sorts of skills that will be important to become a successful researcher. Project management is one of those skills (also see Skill Development and Career Planning).
Research is defined as the creation of new knowledge and/or the use of existing knowledge in a new and creative way so as to generate new concepts, methodologies, inventions and understandings. This could include synthesis and analysis of previous research to the extent that it is new and creative. (Australian Research Council)
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Project and Time Management
Regardless of which type of higher research degree you undertake (e.g. Masters of Research, Exegesis or PhD), you will need to be very organised and able to work towards deadlines. While three years (full-time equivalent) sounds like a long time at the start, you will soon notice that it can go very quickly, and you might at times find yourself having to work very hard to meet a particular deadline. Because of the intensity of the program, you may run into the danger of burnout if you are not planning appropriately. Ensure that you are very familiar with the milestones and general expectations for your degree. Remember that while these at times may feel cumbersome, the milestones are there to help you break your research journey down into digestible pieces. Each milestone builds on another, so if you plan smartly, you can use the documentation from each one to build onto the next milestone.
The milestone process for your HDR is designed to help you keep on track with your work. Each university can have slightly different names for the respective milestones, so make sure you are aware of what they are called in your institution and engage with information materials and workshops that may help you understand the processes in more detail.
Research Masters Degree Milestones
The milestone process for your HDR is designed to help you keep on track with your work. Each university has slightly different names for the respective milestones, so make sure you are aware of what they are called in your institution and engage with information materials and workshops that may help you understand.
Deadlines and Milestones – making calendars a habit
If time management and working towards deadlines has so far not been your strong suit, you might have to find some easy tools to help you. An overview calendar of the year might help you keep an overview of everything. from milestones to annual reports, to conferences. Print one out to have it handy, or even create one yourself so you can write your deadlines – this is a great way of helping you memorise some of those important dates.
Forming habits of regularly checking due dates is another important way to keep you on track. For example, every morning you could have a look at the week ahead, or the next two weeks.
Workload Planning and Task Management
Just being aware of deadlines will not make you meet them. You will have to learn how to plan your work in a way that gives you enough time to work thoroughly and diligently through your tasks. This can be very tricky as for many tasks it will be the first time you will do these, so you might not have a good idea of how much time you will need. Networking with other PhD students and working closely with your supervisory team can help you form a better understanding of the effort involved. As a rule of thumb, it is always good to plan for more time than you are told so you have some contingency if things go wrong. Have a look at the picture to see how you can plan the task of writing a manuscript for publication.
Contingency Planning and Dependencies
What if you have done all the right things and something goes wrong? As much as we would like to think that we have it all under control, nothing in your PhD journey is ever certain. If you work in a laboratory, have participant information to collect or must create some work of art – for all scenarios there are likely a myriad of reasons why things can go wrong. Hence, it makes sense to leave some extra time in all your planning. If you think a particular part of your work is going to take you 10 days, you might be better off giving it 14 days.
Keep your supervisor informed on your progress, and if you run into trouble. If something goes wrong in the lab or you are stricken with the flu or whatever the problem might be – be sure to inform your supervisor about this as soon as you can. Make sure you don’t make this your supervisor’s problem, though. Have a solution or some ideas in place on how to catch up so you can work this out together.
Your supervisor is there to help you, but it is also your esponsibility to work towards a solution. You own this project. More tips about working with your supervisor can be found here.
Costs and Budgets
Depending on how your project is set up, you may have a project account associated with your research work that allows you to spend money on consumables such as travel expenses. It is important to keep track of your expenditures in this account to ensure you always know how much money you have available to spend. For example, if you are planning on travelling internationally, you need to expect high costs for your journey. Often, universities support HDR travel, and you can apply for extra funding if you don’t have enough money in your account.
Your supervisor might also have access rights to your account, but it is your responsibility to manage your finances appropriately. Finance management is an important life skill, and your supervisor and the finance team can help you learn this skill if you are not sure how to best go about the management of your research finances.
Make sure you know whether you are required to use particular templates for documentation of your milestones so you can be efficient in putting all the materials together.
Extra milestones: Aside from the big milestones explained below, you will likely also have to submit annual progress reports to your university and/or your industry partner(s) (if you have any). Make sure you plan for these in your yearly workload. These reports can vary in the degree of information required, from short, bullet-point updates to more substantial information. Make sure you are aware of these expectations from the beginning.
Note: Milestones are not evenly distributed across the three years of your PhD. For a distribution by year, click on the cheat cheats to gain an overview.
Interact with the timelines below for you respective HDR degree to learn a bit more about the main milestones:
This stage of the HDR journey can be a little tricky and might require a bit of legwork to accomplish. It all depends on how much you already know about your research interest and whether you already have a supervisor. If you must start from scratch on both accounts, you had better get in touch with the postgraduate coordinator for your school to get some guidance on where and how to begin. If you still need to select a supervisor, read up in the supervision section about how to best go about this.
“When you are thinking about applying for a PhD it is really important that you choose a topic that you love and that you are passionate about and really engaged with. It’s a three-year-journey, it’s a long journey and you are going to encounter many challenges and triumphs. I wish someone gave me that advice when I started.” (PhD candidate)
In order to submit your application, you need to know the potential deadlines for applications, what information you need to provide and whether a template is available for this stage. Your supervisor or your postgraduate coordinator should be able to help you with this. From then on it will be reading, reading, reading and identifying what you are interested in so you can submit your application.
Pre-confirmation milestone (research proposal):
Pre-confirmation milestones are usually milestones, that require you to provide a document (often based on a template) that demonstrates your ability to outline your research project for the duration of your degree and addresses the following criteria:
- Overview of relevant literature in your area of research
- A clear statement of the gap in the literature that you are addressing
- A plan on how you are aiming to address this gap
Check with your supervisors and/or institution to ensure that you are addressing all necessary information as there might be differences between organisations.
Pre-confirmation documents are usually due for submission within your institution at about the 3 months mark from your commencement date (full-time equivalence).
Generally, your pre-confirmation or research proposal document will be reviewed by an experienced academic in your institution to ensure your project is feasible. Once you have progressed through this milestone, you will be able to apply for ethics and/or start on other activities related to your HDR program (e.g. systematic review; mandatory course work). Please note that you cannot start collecting data if you haven’t obtained ethics approval.
Your confirmation milestone is a substantial extension of your research proposal document. By the time this milestone comes around you will have been in your program for about 12 months (full-time equivalence). Confirmation is usually a two-step milestone in which you need to present to an audience and submit a document. You will need to address the following criteria:
- Expanded overview of the literature and gap in research that you are addressing
- Refined research plan
- Initial results and/or other work you have done since your research proposal milestone
The oral part of your confirmation tends to consist of:
- An oral presentation of 30 to 40 minutes
- Questions and answers for about 10 to 15 minutes
Please note that if you are doing your Masters or PhD by Exegesis that you will need to peruse the relevant information from your institution to understand what your deliverables are for this milestone, depending on the artwork or practice part of your degree.
Your audience tends to consist of interested parties from your institution or industry partner (if you have one), your family and friends and a panel. The panel consists of your supervisory team, a representative of your school or institution and an external panel member. Most supervisors discuss external panel members with the HDR candidate to identify an individual that is best suited to meaningfully and supportively contribute to your research project development. These could be industry partners or academics from other universities who have knowledge in your area of research and may provide important insights and feedback to further enhance your research.
Does this feel a bit daunting? That’s quite understandable, but it shouldn’t! The milestone is a way of supporting you and your research progress by providing insightful feedback on your proposal and ascertaining that you are progressing well with your work. This milestone also allows you to address any issues that may have arisen with your project and/or your supervisors in your first year.
Once you have successfully passed confirmation, you can apply for ethics (if you haven’t done so already) and/or progress your studies. The next milestone in your journey now is shortly before the finish line with the final milestone.
This is your “almost there” milestone, and most students are also ready to be done when they have reached the point. By this time, you are an expert in your field and may have exceeded your supervisory team in terms of expertise in your research niche. The final milestone allows you to demonstrate all the hard work you have put into your HDR journey. You will have to fulfill the following criteria:
- A draft of your research thesis containing all required elements of a monograph and/or thesis by publication. Please refer to your institutions guidelines of what you need to have covered in your thesis. Some institutions also require you to use prescribed templates for your thesis, so familiarise yourself with those requirements early on.
- An oral presentation with a brief introduction to your research field and the gap you have addressed, all your studies and results, and a discussion and conclusion clearly stating your contribution to the research area as well as limitations and future outlooks.
If you are doing your degree by Exegesis, please check with your faculty on what the requirements are for the artform or practice part of your degree.
After your final seminar you will likely still finish your thesis and/or make some amendments arising from the feedback you obtained during this milestone meeting. In some cases, the panel may recommend major revisions to your thesis. This is to help you get the thesis to the best possible level, and you will have more time to finish your thesis, too. Make sure you work closely with your supervisor(s) to ensure the best possible thesis before you submit it for external evaluation.
Research Masters Degree Milestones
Generally, Master’s by Research degrees are shorter than PhD degrees, and hence your milestone process is a bit more condensed in the later parts of your project. Overall, a Master’s by Research degree lasts for 18 to 24 months (full-time equivalent) and is smaller in scope than a PhD. However, in some instances, students can apply for articulation into a PhD if they and their supervisors think that the project fulfills PhD requirements. You will need to work closely with your supervisor if you are interested in articulating into a PhD to ensure your project meets the requirements.
Make sure you know whether you are required to use particular templates for documentation of your milestones so you can be efficient when putting all the materials together.
Extra milestones: Aside from the big milestones explained below, you will likely also have to submit annual progress reports to your university and/or your industry partner (if you have one). Make sure you plan for these in your yearly workload. These reports can vary in the degree of information required, from short, bullet-point updates to more substantial information. Make sure you are aware of these expectations from the beginning.
Please ensure that you are very clear about the expectations of the Master’s by Research degree you are undertaking as these may be different from organisation to organisation and faculty to faculty. Check out the information provided by your organisation and get in touch with your postgraduate degree coordinator if you are in doubt.
This stage of the HDR journey can be a little tricky and might require a bit of legwork to accomplish. It all depends on how much you already know about your research interest and whether you already have a supervisor. If you must start from scratch on both accounts, you had better get in touch with the postgraduate coordinator for your school to get some guidance on where and how to begin. If you still need to select a supervisor, refer to the supervision section for more information.
In order to submit your application, you need to know potential deadlines for applications, what information you need to provide and whether a template is available for this stage. Your supervisor or postgraduate coordinator should be able to help you with this. From then on it will be reading, reading, reading and identifying what you are interested in so you can submit your application
Pre-confirmation milestone (Research Proposal)
Research proposal milestones are usually milestones, that require you to provide a document (often based on a template) that demonstrates your ability to outline your research project for the duration of your degree and addresses the following criteria:
- Overview of relevant literature in your area of research
- A clear statement of the gap in the literature that you are addressing
- A plan on how you are aiming to address this gap
Check with your supervisors and/or institution to ensure that you are addressing all necessary information as there may be slight differences between organisations.
Research proposal documents are usually due for submission within your institution at about the 3 months mark from your commencement date (full-time equivalence).
Generally, your research proposal document will be reviewed by an experienced academic in your institution to ensure your project is feasible. Once you have progressed through this milestone, you will be able to apply for ethics and/or start on other activities related to your HDR program (e.g. systematic review; mandatory course work). Please note that you cannot start collecting data if you haven’t obtained ethics approval yet.
The research or final seminar requires you to present your work towards the end of your candidature. The presentation is in a public space, and may either be a singular event where only you present or – most commonly – you are part of a seminar during which a number of Master’s students will present. Different to a PhD final seminar, this is not a milestone during which you receive formal feedback from a panel, it is more comparable to presenting to an interested audience. If you are doing your degree by Exegesis, please check with your faculty on what the requirements are for the artform or practice part of your degree.
Browse our comprehensive list of cheat sheets
Moreton-Robinson, A. (2013). Towards an Australian Indigenous Women’s Standpoint Theory. A Methodological Tool Australian Feminist Studies, Volume 28(78), Pages 331-347.
Frequently Asked Questions
I am about to start my ethics application, but I am not quite sure how to get started. What would be a good way to organise my thoughts?
When you start your ethics application it is important that you know exactly what you are going to do – what your research questions are, how you are collecting data, from whom and what you are going to do with the data. So, the best way to start your ethics application is by going through your methods step by step ensuring that you know all bits and pieces that are important to your research so you can talk about them in detail and in layman’s terms for your ethics application.
Check out the Ethics and Research Process pages on this web site and the ethics sheet for more information.
I already have ethics approval, but I have realised that I need to change some things in my research approaches. What do I do?
Changes in research approaches are not uncommon. You will need to inform the ethics office at your institution about those changes, though. In most cases, it is sufficient to submit a so-called variation request in which you state the changes to your protocol, and also amend the previously submitted files where necessary. At many institutions this can be done via email, but it is recommended you check with your ethics advisors on how to best proceed as this may depend on the scope of changes.
I am really interested in research and would like to do a Higher Degree in Research. How can I get started?
This is a tricky question and there is not one answer that fits all as a start into a HDR journey depends on where you come from (e.g. industry or university), what you are interested in and if or if not you already know who you want to work with as your supervisory team. If you are from outside the university, but have an idea of what you want to research, it might be best to identify the faculty and school that suits your needs best and get in touch with the respective postgraduate coordinator to see how you can best identify people who can help you.
If you are from within the university, it might be easiest to speak to the lecturers and unit coordinators you have come across and see if they can help you along.
In addition to understanding who your supervisory team might be, it will also make sense to familiarise yourself with the requirements for the HDR journey you are interested in so you know what you will need to deliver.
Also engage with the information on choosing a supervisor and the milestone process.
I have been out of a university context for a while and am really struggling with the required reading and writing. What can I do?
Reading critically and writing academically are two very specialised skills that need ongoing training. Most institutions offer training courses for HDR students for both skill sets. It will be best to check with your library or institution for appropriate workshops.
Also engage with the information sheet on critical reading and academic writing from the web page.
In my studies at universities, I learned about qualitative research methods. Can I use those to apply to my research with Indigenous Communities?
No. While you are very likely going to use a qualitative data collection method when you are engaging in research with Indigenous Communities, it is not appropriate the use a Western model to engage in this kind of research. When researching with Indigenous Communities, you will need to find a methodology and method that are appropriate for the context that you working within.
Explore the pages on Indigenous Research Methodologies and Methods to learn more about appropriate ways in engaging with Indigenous communities.
I am thinking about applying for a Masters of Research but I am not sure if I want a career in academia yet. Are the skills you learn in such a degree focussed on academic careers?
No. The skills you learn during your HDR journey are very broad-set and are useful and applicable in a number of contexts. For example, public speaking and presenting are important in many industry contexts and so are project management skills. All of these and more are skill you will learn and develop during your HDR journey.
Engage with the section and skill development and career planning to learn more about the skills you will learn.
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