Measuring Progress Toward Degree Completion: It's in Your Hands

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If you're new to graduate studies you may not be familiar with its language—those terms used to describe the processes and procedures unique to graduate education. For example, “satisfactory” student progress refers to a student’s ability to demonstrate good academic standing and overall performance in program requirements, within an approved graduate program time frame.

The criteria for determining academic progress vary among departments and/or programs, but generally you are expected to make sufficient progress in the areas of established program milestones—those measurable and observable stages or events in your graduate program that serve as markers of performance. Graduate program milestones in a Ph.D. program include selecting a supervisory committee, completing coursework, passing qualifying exams and defending your dissertation.

Insufficient progress toward program milestones may result in an excessively long graduate career, causing you considerable frustration and possibly leading you to withdrawfrom your program. So it’s important that you understand the milestones specific to your graduate program and develop a system to monitor your progress.

One strategy for staying on track—and ensuring sufficient progress toward your degree goal—is to work closely with your adviser to develop a progress plan. Here’s how:

1) Identify the milestones specific to your graduate program and to UNL Graduate Studies’ policies. For example, how soon are you expected to establish a supervisory committee and file a program of study (or memorandum of courses, if you’re a master’s student)? At UNL, doctoral students are required to establish a supervisory committee before they’ve accumulated 45 credit hours (for Graduate Studies policies and procedures, be sure to refer to the Graduate Bulletin).

2) Once you identify program milestones, determine, with your adviser, the measures of progress. For example, what is meant by sufficient or good progress? What is acceptable progress? It might be useful to think in terms of semesters.

3) Next, set a target date for meeting each goal. Try to be as specific as possible. For example, instead of declaring a broad date like “2010” for submitting your program of study, make it “September 20, 2010.”

4) Prepare a short written report on the progress you’ve made and include future plans/goals. Be sure to record your accomplishments along the way. If you’ve presented a conference paper, submitted a manuscript for publication or obtained an extramural grant, make note of these activities. This record will come in handy as you prepare for a job search or apply for a graduate award, and your adviser will find it helpful as a means to further measure your progress as a future professional. Provide a copy to your adviser and schedule a meeting to discuss your progress.

5) Finally, record the date you achieved each milestone, then celebrate. Have a hot fudge sundae, go to the park with your family, or just take a breather!

A Sample Graduate Student Progress Plan for the Ph.D.

The milestones and timeframes listed here are examples only; meet with your faculty adviser to establish a timeline
that is appropriate for you and your program.

Milestone Good Progress Acceptable Progress Target Date Completed
Choose a research advisor 2 semesters 3 semesters
Form a supervisory committee 3 semesters 4 semesters
Construct a program of study 3 semesters 4 semesters
Pass qualifying exam (if required) 5 semesters 6 semesters
Complete required coursework 6 semesters 8 semesters
Complete written comprehensive exam 7 semesters 9 semesters
Achieve admission to candidacy 7 semesters 9 semesters
Submit and defend dissertation proposal 8 semesters 10 semesters
Complete final oral exam (disseration defense) 9 semesters 12 semesters


A Sample Graduate Student Progress Plan for the Master’s Degree

The milestones and timeframes listed here are examples only; meet with your faculty adviser to establish a timeline 
that is appropriate for you and your program.

Milestone Good Progress Acceptable Progress Target Date Completed
Select advisor 1 semester 2 semesters
Submit Memorandum of Courses 1 semester 2 semesters
Complete required coursework 3 semesters 4 semesters
Complete comprehensive exam (thesis defense) 4 semesters 5 semesters

*These schedules are adapted from a form originally devised by the University of Utah