Let’s be clear, this is an interactive post! The annual progress review (APR) is a shared and important part of any PGR’s year. It’s also a part many dread. We are going to try and demystify the APR, but the best way to do that is to tell us about your experiences: what do you like about it and where has it been unclear? So, please do share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter (@UofG_PGRblog). We would love to follow this up with a whole post dedicated to your thoughts and answering your questions! Let’s get the discussion rolling.
What is the annual progress review?
This is a chance to review your work from the previous year and come up with a plan for the next. It involves discussions with your supervisor(s) and collaborators, a written report, and a formal interview with two external researchers from your school/institute. This last one is important; it allows you to discuss any issues you may be having with your supervisory team and gives a fresh pair of eyes to look over your research aims and methods. They will assess your progress in relation to your year of study.
The APR is designed to accomplish several things. First of all, it is a chance for you to assess your skills development and needs. It is also a chance for you to assess your work and progress. While PhD studentships typically last 3–4 years, the long-term aims of your project will be broken down into shorter-term goals and objectives: are you meeting these? If not, why not? Do you require more support? Are your long-term goals realistic? It is also a good time to set short-term goals and objectives for the coming year.
While time consuming, this yearly check-in helps ensure that you are on track and getting the support you need. Don’t leave it till the last minute and don’t rush it—it is all for your benefit!
The MVLS Postgraduate Review Process webpages provide detailed information on what is required, providing links to necessary documents, resources and the online system where most of the APR is conducted. Here we are going to briefly outline the process; however different schools/institutes have slightly different approaches—make sure you check out any specifics that apply to you, and if you have any questions, ask your Postgraduate Convenor(s).
First year: Initial review
To accommodate the extra support you will need when starting, you will undertake an Initial Review within your first three months. This involves several steps:
- You need to complete a Training Needs Assessment form, a handy four-page document designed to make you think critically and honestly about your current skills levels. It is meant to help you think about your skills in terms of the Vitae Researcher Development framework, so you can develop a training plan with your supervisor(s). This should be reviewed throughout the year, and when you undertake any training make sure to keep track of it in your Researcher Development Log.
- You also need to conduct and write a literature review. As we said in our Getting started in MVLS – Research post: “This is a time for you to become a master of your area”. While you may receive a word or page limit for this, or be asked to write it in a specific style, in reality the format is very flexible. Write it in whatever way best helps you get to grips with and explain the literature in your field. While this may seem like a tedious exercise, properly reading the literature will really help you kick-start your project. You are trying to push forward the knowledge in your field through the research that you will be doing, so you need to explore the field first!
- Once complete, an assessor panel will read your literature review, Researcher Development Log and Training Needs Assessment form. You and your supervisor(s) will also complete a short online Progress Review.
No one is expecting too much to happen during your first three months. The Initial Review is there to ensure you get a good start and have everything organised. If any problems are highlighted, your Postgraduate Convenor(s) will step in to help you.
First years also have to complete an Annual Review. This will happen ~9 months after the Initial Review, and will be repeated every year.
The Annual Review: how it works
The Annual Review (AR) causes PGRs a lot of stress, but it is really not that complicated.
- Throughout the year you must discuss your Training Needs Assessment with your supervisor(s) and update your Researcher Development Log with details of any training you have undertaken. This should be done in relation to the training needs you identified during your Initial Review or previous year’s AR. (See our post on Researcher Development in MVLS.)
- By the end of the year you must also have presented your work, which can be in the form of a talk or poster session. This could take place anywhere, from a seminar/lab group meeting to a scientific conference, so long as your supervisor(s) and assessor attend it (though this last part is not really enforced, especially in regards to assessor attendance). There are guidelines for what is expected each year, but it is quite flexible: if you have presented your work this year, you have probably checked this box.
- The most time consuming element of the AR is the scientific report you must submit by June 30th. This should highlight the progress you have made over the previous year and outline your aims for the coming academic session. It is also a very good time to organise your research! MVLS guidelines say your report must be ‘6–10 pages maximum’, but this is sort of advisory. You may need more space to clearly detail your work and include explanatory figures; be concise, but take what space you need to explain your work clearly. For PGRs entering their final year this report should also include a thesis plan, comprising at least a rough timeline and chapter outline.
- The final stages are likely to occur in quick succession, and must be completed by August 31st.
- You will upload your documents to the online system and fill out a few short sections detailing your progress, training needs and any concerns you may have.
- Your supervisor(s) will then contribute a brief statement on your progress and work.
- This information will be provided to two assessors, who are not directly involved in your supervision, with whom you will have a Formal Assessment Interview. (They will probably appreciate it if you email them your report, as the online system can be temperamental.) This is an in-depth discussion, meant to both challenge you and develop ideas to advance your work—it’s often a friendly and rewarding experience. They’ll also check in with you regarding your future career plans and whether you are having any issues with your supervisors or research group.
- Following this, your interview panel will upload comments from your meeting, detailing any issues they see and stating if they think you should be allowed to proceed into the next academic year.
- Finally, your Postgraduate Convenor(s) will either authorise this, allowing you to register for the next academic year, or, in very rare cases where issues too serious to allow this have been raised, will get in touch with you in order to try and work them out.
Top tip from us? After you’ve finished the annual review, organise a social (like a night out) with all students from your year to reward yourselves. You’ve done a tremendous job in the past year, and deserve a celebration before diving into the next stage of your PhD!
Q&A: Do I need to complete the APR?
I am a full-time PGR: Of course!
I am a part-time PGR: Yes. However, it is recognised that you will progress at a different pace than full-time students.
I started later in the year than normal: Yes. However, you will be given different deadlines to accommodate this. Contact your Postgraduate Convenor(s) for details.
I am ‘Thesis Pending’ status: Sort of. Within a year of your thesis submission deadline you should be interviewed specifically on the progress of your thesis writing.
I am Furth of Glasgow (studying at another institution/in the field): Yes. Most of the process can be completed online and interviews conducted over Skype (or similar platforms). If you will not have Internet access during the allotted time, contact your Postgraduate Convenor(s) as soon as possible.
So, that is the basic APR today. We do recognise that it has changed a lot over the past three years, as MVLS has been trying to improve the process, but hopefully this overview will be useful to you to tackle this year’s APR. What have your experiences with it been like? Any concerns? Anything unclear? Let us know your thoughts and please do ask us questions! If you are thinking something, you can be sure others are too!