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How to write good 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.

The content of a good 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:

Sections from The Research Student's Guide to Success in the chapter on progress reports for research

The importance of reports during the research programme

Developing the content of a report

Structuring the report

Finding out where your time goes

Using basic word processing features to aid structuring

Using basic word processing features to aid structuring

Constructing the introductory paragraph as an orientation to the report

Constructing the final paragraph for effective closure of the report

Citing literature

Adding figures and tables

Adding appendices

Developing an academic writing style

Making the writing process more effective and efficient

Making the writing process more effective and efficient

Capitalizing on all the features of word processing software

Using reports to get feedback and advice

Towards writing the thesis

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.

The format of a progress report

With a report for an external body such as a funding agency or for an MPhil/PhD transfer, 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.

How to make good use of word processing features

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. An important 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.

© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.