How to write progress reports for research projects
Progress reports are a requirement for all students on research programmes, but how best to construct and use them is often misunderstood. This page offers suggestions, advice, tips and general help, in particular on developing the content of a progress report, writing it and the use of literature.
Developing the content of a progress report
The content of a report must depend on its purpose. For most fields of study, the content of early reports probably ought to be such as to review progress to date and identify a plan of action for the next phase of the work.
Reviewing progress is not merely a matter of cataloguing what tasks one has done, although this will come into it. Rather, it should make a case that what one has done has been thoughtful, directed and competent. At all stages of the report-writing, students should be in the barrister role.
Students should normally include something of the following in their reports although the emphasis will change as the research develops. The following are listed in the present tense, although, depending on the stage of the research, some aspects will need to be written as future intentions and others as statements of achievement. The report should be presented largely as a substantiated argument rather than as a straight description:
- How the research question(s), problems(s), etc with which the research is concerned, have been developed or refined (or are in the process of so being). This should probably be with reference to the original research proposal or a previous report.
- How the research methodology is being developed and why it is appropriate.
- How appropriate data is being collected which is convincing for its purpose.
- How the literature is being used.
- How any constraints are being handled.
- How subjectivity, where relevant, is being handled.
- Progress to date.
- Problems or potential problems to be flagged up.
- General reflections. These should be relevant, not just padding, and the nature of what is required is likely to vary considerably from one discipline to another.
- A plan for the next phase of the work.
Interim reports should build on previous ones and, where appropriate, refer to them, possibly copied into an Appendix. Thus there should be no need for repetition of previously reported material that remains unchanged. Progress reports suitably edited can form a basis for the thesis/dissertation.
With a report for an external body such as a funding agency or for an MPhil/PhD upgrade, certain headings or sections may be obligatory. However, once the report has been developed along the above lines, editing it for particular headings should be straightforward.
If you are expected to develop your own headings, it is a good idea to use the 'styles' facility of your word processing system. (Microsoft Word and Open Office have them.) Use styles for the title, main headings and sub-headings, then the software can produce a contents list for you. It is outside the scope of this website to explain how, but, if 'styles' are something that you don't normally bother with or don't understand, you are very strongly urged to find someone to explain them to you. All progress reports will benefit, as will the thesis/dissertation. A main reason is that an up-to-date contents list reflects the 'shape' of what you are writing and can alert you immediately to gaps, obscurities and errors, etc, so saving hours of writing that later has to be discarded.