School of Computer Science

Progress Reports

A Guide to Preparing Progress Reports for your Thesis Group

What should you report on?

Progress reports should report progress. Some research students feel that they should report results, which is usually very different from progress.

This will become clearer if we compare a thesis group report with a conference paper. A conference paper usually requires the author to have achieved something worth reporting: in the more practical parts of computing, this means reporting on the results achieved from building and analysing the performance of some software; on the theory side of computing, it means being able to prove something or to report well-crafted results. Conference papers are written and submitted when the author has got to a necessary level of achievement. Thesis group reports are very different indeed. They are written at certain, predefined times during a student's period of study. Thus, they don't have to present a result (like a conference paper); instead they present a "snap-shot" of the student's progress.

When a programme committee review a conference paper, they look for results (or whatever criteria they have specified). When a thesis group looks at a report, they are looking for the kind of progress typical of a student working in that kind of area at that stage in their research. It follows that you should report on your progress and not worry excessively about whether you have results to present.

Different kinds of reports

It is clear that the contents of reports will change as the student progresses through their study. Actually, there are four main kinds of reports:

  • Initial report: This is your RSMG1 form. It proposes a thesis group, gives a working title and a brief summary of the proposed work. Download the RSMG1 form here: pdf | doc

  • General reports: Thereafter, most reports are fairly short. The specific issues that should be addressed are listed below. One report, the third and usually called the thesis proposal, stands out from the general reports as having special status and so is described separately.

  • Thesis proposal: This is the one substantial report which is prepared after 11 months of study. It essentially states what the student is going to work on for the following two years, why it is significant, and how its contribution should be assessed.

  • Writing up reports: These are very brief, unless the Thesis Group have concerns and need more information.

Each of these types of report is described in more detail below and this is followed by some more general comments on the form of reports.

The general reports

The matters to be covered in the subsequent reports are described below and this should be used each time to give a structure to your report. There are some extra points that are worth making:

Length

There is a recommended length for each report. Do not exceed this without good reason. There are several reasons why this limit should be adhered to:

  • your thesis group members will probably be reading several reports at the same time and won't have much spare time to read excessively long reports (and so you won't get the feedback you want);
  • writing a longer report takes more of your time unnecessarily;
  • other things that you write (eg conference papers) will be restricted in length and you should practice as soon as possible the discipline of saying a lot in a little space.

Summary

It is useful to begin each report with a brief summary of your topic to remind the selected members of your thesis group of what you are doing.

Timetable

Most timetables are far too vague. It is certainly true that you cannot state precisely and in detail what you intend to be doing twenty-four months later. However, it is reasonable to be able to give detail as to what you plan to do over the next three to six months and a less detailed plan of your subsequent work. Remember also to plan for the unexpected. If all your research is predictable, then it's not true research. Consider your fallback strategies for if your hoped-for results turn out differently, or take longer than expected.

Skills development

In general, the spring reports (4 and 6) should include skills development plans, while the autumn reports (3, 5, 7) should include reviews of your activities.

The thesis proposal

A thesis proposal (TP) is exactly what it says: a proposal of the topic of your thesis. It marks the point at which the School assesses whether a student has made sufficient progress to have a reasonable chance of completing a satisfactory research thesis, usually a PhD thesis.

The typical TP includes several parts:

Introduction

The introduction should start by stating what it is that you hope to achieve in your work for the thesis: "The work by X, Y and Z on the topic of ABC has left unsolved the problem of how to PQR. This thesis will attempt to solve the problem by ..."

A TP is not a detective novel. In a detective novel, you are told the most important thing last; in a TP, you should tell the reader what you think or intend to do near the beginning. So, your first page should make the reader so interested in what you are going to achieve that they want to read on and find out why the problem is important and previous work is inadequate, how you are going to remedy the situation, etc. It is a very common mistake to ramble on and on at length about the topic area and other work, and then only near the end of the report explain what your objectives are and how you intend to achieve them.

If you make your objectives clear at the beginning then the reader will be motivated and can assess the relevance and adequacy of the following discussion in the light of your goals. Otherwise the reader has no idea what you are leading up to.

The introduction is not the place for a tutorial on the topic: this can come in the next section, if necessary.

Analytical survey of previous work

You will want to review the previous work that is relevant to your topic. The most common mistake is to make this review a list of previous papers in-filled with a small amount of text to link the components. Another mistake is to believe that every piece of previous work has to be mentioned.

A good literature review is analytical. It presents the author's interpretation of the previous work as it affects the proposed topic. Analytical skills have to be practised. Your supervisor should discuss the writing of the survey with you and you should look for good examples when you are reading. One brief example might illustrate the analytical approach. Suppose you have found descriptions of fifty systems or approaches that are relevant to your work. A description of fifty would be very long. Also it is unlikely that there are fifty distinct methods: more likely there are a few "families" of methods. The trick of a good survey is to pick one, two or three representatives from each "family" and write a survey around these, introducing references to the other when there is some significant point to be made. This survey should always be written with your work in mind: so if you are interested in theme A, then it is pointless to spend a lot of time describing how previous work deals with theme Z. In other words, your analytical survey must be focused.

Statement of work to be done

Working from your analysis of previous work, you should be able to identify a problem area that you want to work on, why it is interesting and which of the known unsolved problems you are most likely to investigate.

At this point, TPs become very individual. It is generally easier for students working on a topic with a strong software engineering component to specify their objectives and shorter-term goals to be achieved than for students working in a theoretical domain, since often the latter spend a lot of time exploring the domain before finding the particular unsolved problem they want to work on. If you are a theorist and don't yet have a clear problem, you should at least be able to make statements about the problem area you are working on, why it is interesting, and which of the known unsolved problems you are most likely to investigate. If in doubt about how best to describe your objectives talk to your supervisor.

You should also remember that your thesis proposal will be discussed and evaluated by your thesis group in the first and main instance. If you work in an AI domain, then you would expect the group to understand what is expected of that domain; if you are a theoretical computer scientist, you should expect your thesis group to evaluate your work against what is to be expected of comparable students working in theoretical computer science. If you are unsure of what is expected of you, you should seek advice.

Evaluation of the work

It is extremely important in the making of a successful researcher that they develop critical abilities. The TP must include a discussion of how your work should be evaluated. This is probably the most difficult part of the TP: most research students struggle to develop their critical skills. Moreover, many academics also find this very difficult as you will see when you read the literature of your topic. However difficult critical analysis may be, you should always strive to practise this skill.

Some students misunderstand the idea of evaluation. They give long descriptions of how their program will be tested. This is an important skill but is not the same as the critical evaluation that is required in the TP. Here evaluation means a section on how they themselves will evaluate the worth or value of their work.

In brief, this section should state by what criteria you expect your examiners (one internal and one external) and perhaps other people to decide whether the thesis is good enough for a PhD. In other words, you should say why your work is significant.

One way of evaluating your work is to look at the research objectives which you have set, but you also need to evaluate the reasonableness of those objectives. If you don't know what the criteria are likely to be, it is urgent that you discuss this with your supervisor.

There is another level of evaluation: whether the thesis makes a contribution to knowledge. This point worries many students - usually because they do not have a good idea of what constitutes a contribution to knowledge.

There are different types of contribution to knowledge, eg:

  • a new synthesis of previous work
  • analysis of a previously unnoticed problem or class of problems
  • development and analysis of a new software or hardware architecture
  • extension of a class of algorithms
  • development of a new language which overcomes faults or limitations in previous languages
  • clarification of set of previously confused concepts
  • a new conceptual framework for an area of computer science or AI
  • a new way of analysing requirements for designing languages, compilers, interfaces etc.
  • a new set of requirements against which designs can be evaluated
  • a proof of an important conjecture
  • a new proof of an old theorem
  • a new analysis of the complexity of a class of tasks etc.
  • etc.

By the time you write your TP, you should have a something of an idea about what your contribution or contributions will be. One thing is certain: merely producing some useful and original software is not enough. It may make you rich, and it may make lots of people happy, but a PhD requires something more: some contribution to knowledge or understanding. If you produce a piece of software, it needs to be accompanied by an analysis of the problem and the solution. That could include an analysis of why previous designs failed to solve a problem, a description of the new idea which enabled your design to solve it, and a commentary on your design's remaining weaknesses. (All good research leads to new problems.) Or it could include an indication of why the mathematical proof you have found was important in its implications and why it was difficult to achieve.

Plan of future work and timetable

If you can produce a proposal of what you are going to attempt, then you should be able to describe how what you will do to achieve these objectives. This means that you should be able to provide your thesis group with a plan of what you are going to do and how it fits your objectives. There is a tension here: if you know exactly how everything will be done, then the work is probably not true research; if it is true research, then the results will be unpredictable and so you will have to change your plans. This is not an excuse to ignore planning. Effective research relies on planning and intelligently revising plans when new circumstances arise. You must also provide a timetable showing how much time you estimate the work will take. Again setting times against activities is difficult, but a necessary skill in managing time to get your work done effectively. It is a skill that improves with a lot of practice.

The format of the thesis proposal

There is no strict requirement for the format of the TP, but it should include a title page similar to that used on the final thesis and an abstract. You should also include a bibliography in which the entries conform to a standard pattern.

The thesis proposal meeting and the following years

Your report must be finished in time for your group to read your report and think about it: this time is needed for you to get the best possible feedback on your work. Your TP will be evaluated by people who have experience in research and, particularly, in supervising research students. They will be looking for indications that you are making the kind of progress normal of a research student at this stage, that you are developing the necessary critical skills, have a topic that is reasonably well-formed and understand how your work should be evaluated.

For the lucky research student, their work will follow the path given in their TP. For most research students, they will find that things occur which will force them to change their plans, usually not too seriously. This is not failure but the normal course of research. You should report these changed circumstances to your thesis group in subsequent reports so they can discuss your revised plans and you can receive their advice to help you forward.

A common error is to think of the TP as a first draft of the final thesis, even to the point of having to have exactly the same title and number of chapters. The TP is not a draft of the thesis: it is essentially two things - the point at which you report on your progress and a place where you practice skills of analysis and writing necessary for your thesis.

Some advice about expectations

Don't be daunted by all this advice about writing TPs. A PhD thesis does not need to be worthy of a Nobel prize. The important thing is that you show that you can do research by showing that:

  • you know how to find, summarise, analyse and criticise relevant previous work;
  • you can do a small piece of good work yourself, advancing knowledge in a small way;
  • you can analyse, criticise, and communicate the results of your research;
  • you can identify problems left unsolved by your work and suitable approaches to solving them.

Getting the Nobel prize can wait till after you've got your PhD.

When you are writing up

When you are writing up, Thesis Group meetings are not usually necessary unless there is some concern over whether you can submit a satisfactory thesis on time, and then the meeting can discuss what to do about it.

When the progress report is due, first submit a brief report saying -

  • your submission deadline and planned submission date,
  • which thesis chapters you have already written,
  • which one you still have to write, and
  • your planned timetable for doing so.

If your Thesis Group think it looks satisfactory, then they may agree not to hold a meeting. Otherwise, submit a more detailed report as described below for Report 8.

Some general comments about presentation

All your reports should be appropriately presented. You should write in such a way as to make the work intelligible to most members of an average computer science department. At the very least, you should be able to explain the significance of your work in an accessible way, even if the detail requires a much deeper knowledge of your topic.

You should not assume that the reader has read everything you have read. If you use esoteric notation, explain what it means. If you use very specialised concepts, explain them. Don't use abbreviations without explaining them and add a glossary if necessary. These points are specially important for cross-disciplinary work which brings in concepts and techniques from another discipline, eg. biology, psychology, logic, mathematics.

In summary, use report writing as practice for your scholarly writing, be it conference and journal papers or your final thesis.

The schedule of Thesis Group reports

Research progress report 1

Date: Within 4 weeks of registration
Length: Not more than one page
Format: Name of student
Name of supervisor
Date of report
Proposed working title of thesis
Abstract of proposed research. A short bibliography is optional.
Include: Skills development form (DNA)
Purpose: To help select members of the Thesis Group for the student, and to record discussions of training opportunities.
Submitted to: the supervisor.
Supervisor's action: To propose Thesis Group membership to the RSMG, after consulting with and obtaining agreement of the individuals. The list of names of the Thesis Group will be forwarded along with the title and abstract to the Research Students Tutor, for consideration by the RSMG.

Research progress report 2

Date: End of first week of May, year 1
Topic: Report on progress and draft timetable
Length: 3000 to 5000 words
Format: Name of student
Name of supervisor, and other members of Thesis Group
Date of report
Working title of thesis
Brief summary of work done so far, including literature reviewed, any coursework taken, programming languages learnt, talks given, etc.
Timetable for production of Thesis Proposal (report 3)
Any problems, comments, etc.

Comments required from supervisor, and members of Thesis Group, in time for RSMG meeting:

  • Is the topic acceptable for a research degree?
  • Is the student working well, highly motivated, capable of doing research?
  • Is any remedial training necessary?
  • Is the student's English up to the required standard?
  • Is the literature review making satisfactory progress?
  • Is the student likely to submit a full thesis proposal on time?
  • Is the student likely to be able to complete a research thesis within the required time?
  • Any other comments, on student or supervisor?

These comments will normally be shown to the student and discussed with the student by the supervisor.

Research progress report 3

Date: End of August, year 1
Topic: Full thesis proposal
Length: 15000 to 20000 words
Format (subject to modification with approval of supervisor): Name of student
Name of supervisor, and other members of Thesis Group
Date of report
Working title of thesis
Abstract
Outline of problem to be solved
Explanation of why the problem is important, interesting, etc.
Review of relevant literature
Outline of inadequacies of previous work
Proposed work to be done by the student and how it will overcome the inadequacies
If a program is to be constructed, sketch of a scenario indicating what the program will do, and why
How is it expected that the work will be evaluated: i.e. what will count as success or failure?
Proposed timetable for remainder of the research
Bibliography
Any problems, comments, requirements, etc.

Reviewing this report is probably the most important task of the Thesis Group, who should meet with the student after reading the report, in time to report to RSMG meeting of the second week of September. If the research student's report is satisfactory it will added to the School's report series.

Comments required from supervisor, and members of Thesis Group, in time for RSMG meeting:

  • Is the topic acceptable for a research degree, and has it been adequately motivated?
  • Is the student working well, highly motivated, capable of doing research?
  • Is the literature review adequate? (Good, acceptable, bad) If bad explain why.
  • Is the student's English up to the required standard?
  • Does the student have the appropriate analytical skills, design skills, research skills, etc. to complete a research thesis?
  • Is the proposed strategy acceptable?
  • Is the timetable feasible?
  • Are there likely to be any resource implications in the school? E.g. will the student need additional equipment, programming help, special systems work, software to be purchased, travel funds, etc.?
  • Is the student likely to be able to complete a research thesis within the required time? If not, what action should be taken? In particular should the student be allowed to continue?
  • Should this student be registered for a PhD or MPhil degree?
  • Any other comments, on student or supervisor?

These comments will normally be shown to the student and discussed with the student by the supervisor.

Research progress report 4

Date: End of first week of May, year 2
Topic: Progress report
Length: 2000 to 4000 words
Format: Name of student
Name of supervisor, and other members of Thesis Group
Date of report
Working title of thesis
Summary of work done so far
Discussion of any new problems encountered
Report on any new results
Report on relevant new developments elsewhere
Outline of any changes to the plan of research
Proposed timetable for remainder of the research
Additions to the previous bibliography
Report on any seminars presented, School reports produced, papers published, etc.
Any problems, comments, requirements, etc.
Include: Skills development form (DNA)

Comments required from supervisor, and members of Thesis Group, in time for RSMG meeting:

  • Is the student making satisfactory progress?
  • Is the current plan feasible?
  • Are there any new developments that are cause for concern?
  • Is the student likely to be able to do a PhD/MPhil thesis within the required time? If not, what action should be taken? In particular should the student be allowed to continue?
  • Any other comments, on student or supervisor?

These comments will normally be shown to the student and discussed with the student by the supervisor.

Research progress report 5

Date: October, year 3
Topic: Progress report
Length: 2000 to 4000 words
Format: Name of student
Name of supervisor, and other members of Thesis Group
Date of report
Working title of thesis
Summary of work done so far
Discussion of any new problems encountered
Report on any new results
Report on relevant new developments elsewhere
Outline of any changes to the plan of research
Proposed timetable for remainder of the research
Additions to the previous bibliography
Report on any seminars presented, School reports produced, papers published, etc.
Any problems, comments, requirements, etc.

Comments required from supervisor, and members of Thesis Group, in time for RSMG meeting:

  • Is the student making satisfactory progress?
  • Is the current plan feasible?
  • Are there any new developments that are cause for concern?
  • Is the student likely to be able to do a PhD/MPhil thesis within the required time? If not, what action should be taken? In particular should the student be allowed to continue?
  • Any other comments, on student or supervisor?

These comments will normally be shown to the student and discussed with the student by the supervisor.

Research progress report 6

Date: May, year 3
Topic: Progress report
Length: 2000 to 4000 words
Format: Name of student
Name of supervisor, and other members of Thesis Group
Date of report
Working title of thesis
Summary of work done so far
Discussion of any new problems encountered
Report on any new results
Report on relevant new developments elsewhere
Outline of any changes to the plan of research
Proposed timetable for remainder of the research
Draft chapter by chapter summary of planned thesis
Statement: I have read and bookmarked the School's current documents giving advice on writing up, presenting and submitting theses, as well as the University's on submitting theses. (Signed ....)
Report on any seminars presented, School reports produced, papers published, etc.
Any problems, comments, requirements, etc.
Include: Skills development form (DNA)

Comments required from supervisor, and members of Thesis Group, in time for RSMG meeting:

  • Is the student making satisfactory progress?
  • Are the current plan and timetable for writing-up feasible?
  • How many chapters of the thesis have been written?
  • Are there any new developments that are cause for concern?
  • Is the student likely to be able to do a PhD/MPhil thesis within the required time? If not, what action should be taken? In particular should the student be allowed to continue?
  • Any other comments, on student or supervisor?

These comments will normally be shown to the student and discussed with the student by the supervisor.

Research progress report 7

Date: October, year 4
Topic: Progress report
Length: 2000 to 5000 words

Format:

  • Name of student, and current occupation, or source of funding
  • Name of supervisor, and other members of Thesis Group
  • Date of report
  • Working title of thesis
  • Summary of work done so far
  • Discussion of any new problems encountered
  • Report on any new results
  • Report on relevant new developments elsewhere
  • Outline of any changes to the plan of research
  • Proposed timetable for remainder of the research, including planned submission date
  • Draft chapter by chapter summary of planned thesis
  • Report on any seminars presented, School reports produced, papers published, etc.
  • Any problems, comments, requirements, etc.

Comments required from supervisor, and members of Thesis Group, in time for RSMG meeting:

  • Is the student making satisfactory progress?
  • Are the current plan and timetable for writing-up feasible?
  • How many chapters of the thesis have been written?
  • Are there any new developments that are cause for concern?
  • Is the student likely to be able to do a PhD/MPhil thesis within the required time? If not, what action should be taken? In particular should the student be allowed to continue?
  • Any other comments, on student or supervisor?

These comments will normally be shown to the student and discussed with the student by the supervisor.

Research progress report 8

Date: May, year 4
Topic: Progress report
Length: 2000 to 5000 words

Format:

  • Name of student, and current occupation, or source of funding
  • Name of supervisor, and other members of Thesis Group
  • Date of report
  • Working title of thesis
  • Summary of work done so far
  • Discussion of any new problems encountered
  • Report on any new results
  • Report on relevant new developments elsewhere
  • Outline of any changes to the plan of research
  • Proposed timetable for remainder of the research, including planned submission date
  • Draft chapter by chapter summary of planned thesis
  • Report on any seminars presented, School reports produced, papers published, etc.
  • Any problems, comments, requirements, etc.

Comments required from supervisor, and members of Thesis Group, in time for RSMG meeting:

  • Describe the current state of the writing-up.
  • How far is the student from completion?
  • Is the current plan/timetable feasible?
  • Are there any developments that are cause for concern?
  • Is any particular action needed to ensure a timely completion?
  • Any other comments, on student or supervisor?

These comments will normally be shown to the student and discussed with the student by the supervisor.