Tech-enabled PhD supervision for better doctoral student progress

Digital Tools plus a Project Management Approach (and some Common Sense)

Supervising a doctoral student is a complex task. Unfortunately, it’s made more complex, and often more frustrating, because communication is poor and there is no central record of student progress, accessible to supervisors and students. We’re starting to use cloud document sharing, but this is still rather ad hoc and uncoordinated, spread across multiple cloud services.

Supervision could be easier and students would progress better if the right technology were brought in and both supervisor and student had a common understanding of how the tools will be used.

It’s not hard; it just requires some commitment. Here I’ll try to provide some recommendations for what tools to use and how best to use them.

I want to start with a provocative claim: A PhD is a project and it should be thought of as co-managed by the student and the supervisor. As such, it needs to use modern digital tools for Project Management. Katie Shives made the same point in 2015 in an Inside Higher Ed post.

My recommendation is to pair document sharing (Google Docs, OneDrive, etc.) with Project Management tools. The unifying feature of Project Management tools is that the project is broken down into tasks (and subtasks) that can be arranged on a timeline and assigned to different users with due dates and reminders.

Email. Noooooo!

It’s important to start by acknolwedging email and then putting it in its rightful place. Faculty members are from the ‘email generation’, while grad students are now members of a post-email generation. Email is not going to go away; it’s useful for communication. But the challenge is for faculty members to accept that it should be used only for communication and not as a record-keeping system for graduate progress.

I’ll be blunt: searching your email for a student’s name and then finding relevant messages is a terribly inefficient and mistake-prone way to keep track of grad student progress. The problem is pretty clear: email is used in a ‘threaded’ way, but when people start new messages, the history is in an old message, and we often reply to a message with an old subject line and so there’s a mixing of threads.

Plus, using email attachements to share drafts of work for comment is also 20th century stuff: much clunkier and tougher for the student than having work reside in the cloud as a Google doc, Word document, or Dropbox file.

Recommendation: Email is for threads of communication, but all decisions and action items should be recorded in another system.

Recommendation: Do not email drafts for comment. Put them in a cloud drive with a clear directory structure suited to the program and discipline. Use track changes and comments and replies to comments.

Cloud services (Google, Microsoft OneDrive, iCloud, Dropbox, etc.) and how to use them

So we need the cloud for file sharing at least. The cloud, enabling us to work on files collaboratively, is a game-changer for doctoral supervision and student progress. But it’s massively underused. When the cloud is used, it’s often with too little structure and no common understanding of how it will be used; when this happens it’s little better than sending attachments.

Before looking at the different platforms, I’ll outline a generic structure that I would use with students.

Directory Structure. Each student should have a top-level directory called “Firstname Lastname PhD”. I’d suggest the following sub-directories:

  • Forms and Official Documents
  • Letter of Recommendation Materials
  • Dissertation
  • Annual Logs (if you aren’t using Prograds)

In the top level directory (above these sub-directories) you should have a document called “Firstname Lastname Master Plan”. The Master Plan will be a central place to see the student’s chronology and it should contain links to other documents, such as dissertation chapters or research materials, datasets, and so on. Both faculty and student can add to the document and use comments to ask questions and resolve them.

Recommendation: Settle on and stick to a directory structure. Ideally, all students would use the same structure, so faculty have an easier time finding things.

Which Platform?

I’m going to rule out Dropbox because it just doesn’t have the right commenting functionality.

The other three – Google Drive/Docs, Microsoft OneDrive, and iCloud – all provide file sharing. All three can house Word documents.

Google gives you the advantage of a built-in, searchable document application that includes commenting and resolving comments. If the drafting of the dissertation can be done in Google Docs, then this will work well. If faculty and students are using Gmail, then they will receive notifications about new comments. 

Microsoft OneDrive has the advantage of native sharing of Word files, versioning, tracking changes, and editing anywhere through a browser (like Google Docs). However this is probably only the best solution if the University has Microsoft Office 365 and both students and faculty have accounts.

But in fact the most important criterion is which platform can be agreed on by the department so each faculty member has all their students’ materials in one place. It’s a real problem if – as is the case now for many faculty – different students are sharing their materials on different platforms.

Ideally, each faculty member would have a master directory called “PhD” or “Graduate” under which each student has their own directory with a standard naming convention (e.g. Smith – Jane).

Recommendation: Soft-require all PhD students to use the same system. Either Google or Microsoft, as appropriate to the school’s IT context.


Students should have a forward-looking timeline clearly represented in the Master Plan document. The timeline will include goals and tasks that will be completed in a sequence according to department guidelines and what works best for the student.

Faculty should spend time reviewing the timeline with the student each month.

The timeline should use an outline format with each level representing year, term, month.

Ideally, the lowest level will consist of task or goals that can be completed. (Sub-tasks are possible too).

Recommendation: Supervisors can use the student’s timeline as a way to gently hold the student accountable for getting the work done in the right sequence and on time.


Most of us use some kind of task-management system, even if it’s just a daily notebook or planner.

For organizationally ambitious students, it may be valuable to use project management software. These tools allow tasks and subtasks to be organized in folders or sub-projects, given activity and due dates, put on a timeline (Gantt chart), and so on. Using one of these is probably a good idea for a project with a lot of operational or logistical complexity and a clear sequence that must be followed.

There are a number of good free options for projects like dissertations, with some possibilities for sharing particular tasks for comments from faculty. They can all integrate with Google Drive, MS OneDrive, and iCloud. Some integrate with Google Calendar and Outlook. It’s unlikely that faculty will develop familiarity and engagement with these systems, but if a student wants to use one, faculty should be receptive to click a link and add comments to a task.

All of these tools can be used as a personal to-do tool alongside the dissertation project.

Some options are:

Recommendation: Students with a lot of moving parts and fieldwork, experiments, or lab work should use a project management system. Faculty should get a tour of the system from the student.


Here’s a suggested schedule. The most important thing is that the student and supervisor agree and stick to a schedule.

One of the main benefits of all the stuff I’ve discussed so far is so meetings can be productive, with the student documenting their work and the supervisor having material to review before the meeting.

Weekly: Once through coursework and onto exams, prospectus, and dissertation, students should enter a summary of progress in that year’s Annual Work Log YEARxxxx – First Name Last Name. Each weekly entry should end with a “What’s Next” where the student indicates what will be done the following week. The current Annual Work Log can be placed in the top-level directory for ease of access.

Ensure that the weekly entries are directed to meeting monthly and higher-order goals.

Monthly: A scheduled one hour meeting with the supervisor where the Weekly log is reviewed and issues are discussed. The meeting should start with a view of the Master Plan and its Timeline.

Semi-annually: A meeting with the full committee to show the Plan and Timeline, review progress, and hear committee members’ views.


Recommendation: As soon as the student has a supervisor, a schedule should be agreed on and put in both student’s and the supervisor’s calendars. Meetings should not be skipped! They can be done remotely with screen sharing if necessary.

When you combine these practices with department-wide use of a tracking and communication tool like Prograds, you’ll almost certainly see better progress, fewer missed deadlines, less stress, and smoother administration of the program.

A (realistic) story about faculty keeping track of grad student progress

I'm a faculty member. I have a couple of Masters students and I'm involved in 6 or 7 PhD students' programs.

I've decided today's a good day to check to see if I can help some of them move along. I can look in my email for the last correspondence I had with each one. But what if I just got an update in the hallway after a department talk? Well, I don't usually rush back to my office to note that, so I guess I've got to work with what I've got.

So ok, who's the closest to finish: Ella Dubois, right. I'm her supervisor. So let's do an email search. Ah, ok, looks like we last arranged a meeting in June; oh, and it's here in my calendar we met on June 19. It's now August. Darn. Time flies. She was writing up that last chapter and wait, were we waiting for feedback from the guy in the Spanish department who's also on the committee? Let me look back a few emails to find out. Or, hold on, maybe he had to leave the committee because he will be on leave next year. I think so. Let me open up that folder in my computer that has documents for each of my students. Ok, Dubois, open, ok, so sort by date... Hmmm. I don't see a form for a change of committee member, but I'm sure that was happening. Let me go back to my email and search for his name... um... Ernesto, no, wait nothing, Eduardo, right. Oh crap, but Eduardo brings up mostly my collaboration with Eduaro Nunez. He was, um, Eduardo... Um... Gonzalez, no, let me go to the Spanish department website to get his name again. Oh, forget it, this is taking too long. I'll just email Ella and we can meet next week and she can update me. I'll ask her to update me in the email before, so I don't look like such an idiot.

I hear that some of my colleagues have a document or a notes thing for each student, just running chronologically. But those must be a pain to look through -- and who's going to do that regularly?

OK, this isn't great for Ella. I feel bad. Sure, she should have been in touch earlier, but grad students hesitate. It would have been nice to have programmed reminders of upcoming expectations and deadlines.

I really wish I could pull up all my students on a dashboard. One click and I'd know that Ella and I had met on June 12 and her latest "Working On" item would indicate that she was drafting that final chapter and would deliver it on July 20. Oh, and a next milestone display would tell me right away that it was promised for that date. It's August 10 for goodness' sake! I should have checked in last week. Maybe she finished it when I was on holiday and didn't want to bug me. Now hold on, let me check my email again because she said she wanted to go on the job market this fall. Was I supposed to be preparing a letter for September applications? I'll check my to do list. Oh yeah, there it is buried with no deadline.

OK, what I'd like is to see all my students, sorted by progress, with indicators about when our last meeting was (with notes). Milestones expected (ones from the department like exams, as well as ones we put in), requests for letters and such with deadlines and email reminders, who's on the committee and whether they've read a draft recently and responded, and students' funding. Then I could drill down into each one to get details on meeting and see draft chapters and such or link to the cloud versions.

Right, funding. Ella. Hmmm - does she need money? Has that RAship with my colleague run out? I guess I need to look back in my emails to see if I responded to our grad administrator about who I was going to be able to hire as an RA. Was Ella included? Oh, I guess I can pull up my financial dashboard system -- what a behemoth -- and see if my grant has her on the payroll and when that expires. No wait, it was on my colleague's grant, so I can't see it. Wow, this is a real mess.

Now I've got to piece this all together for the rest of my students. What a chore. Why don't we just have a system that shows where students are?!?!?

This story does not have a happy ending. Time wasted. Progress delayed. Anxiety.