PhD milestone expectations

Here’s some information for PhD/MPhil students in the Sound, Music and Creative Computing lab for what is expected for degree milestones.

The ANU explains (briefly) what the research milestones are and when they are due on this page but there is little information about what to put in each one. The following information has been developed by looking at a variety of ANU documents and conversations with colleagues at the School of Computing and HDR students in the SMCClab.

The most recent local guidelines from our College are here and give more details about the typical requirements locally.

My experience has been that different groups have quite different expectations for these milestones and so I’m setting down the details of how we do things in the SMCClab.

Annual Plans and Reports

Your PhD will likely include four annual plans, three of which will also be an annual report. This is the official way to record your goals for the coming year and record your achievements from the previous year.

First Annual Plan

Your First Annual Plan will be due 3 months after you start your PhD. This means you have three months to:

  • sort out your supervision panel (must have three supervisors)
  • define a main research motivation and objective
  • find and review a reasonable amount of scholarly literature to support and motivate your research direction
  • create a plausible research plan for the next 9 months
  • start the process of applying for ANU Human Ethics approval if this will be needed in your work
  • start obtaining necessary IT or other research equipment for your work
  • gain access to labs or facilities needed for your work including doing required inductions or becoming known to technical staff
  • start developing your research artifacts or pursuing the initial studies in your program!

Your “plan” should be a 2–4 page PDF document created in LaTeX that outlines:

  1. The main idea/aim/area of your reseach (your research problem)
  2. An initial attempt to situate your research problem in the literature
  3. Plans for initial investigations into your research problem

You should send your annual plan to me for feedback before submitting the “official” eForm.

Later: Annual Report and Plan

Your later annual plans also include a report of your progress over the previous 12 months.

Similarly to your first plan, this should be a 2–4 page PDF document created in LaTeX. At this stage you will be articulating your work in more detail in your TPR and/or publications, so your Report and Plan can be a brief update on the “main idea” and definition of your research problem and lists of your completed and planned projects:

  1. The (updated) main idea/aim/area of your reseach (your research problem) in brief (elevator pitch)
  2. A brief report on projects, publications, presentations, or studies completed in the previous year
  3. Plans for projects and studies that will take place over the next year.

You should send your annual plan to me for feedback before submitting the “official” eForm. Your publications or other research documents can be attached to your report/plan to keep them in your official record.

Thesis Proposal Review

The “Thesis Proposal Review” is the first major milestone for a PhD student and should be completed between 9-12 months into their program (or a little after that depending on practicalities). This submission should reflect on research completed in the early stages of their program and propose a realistic plan for the completion of the rest of their program. At this point, the candidate will probably have two existing “research proposals”, one written as part of their PhD application and their “first annual plan” completed 3 months into their program. In contrast to these previous documents, the TPR is a more realistic proposal supported by evidence, that is, reviewed literature and early research work that may still be in progress.

Let’s look at how a TPR is described by others and then I’ll introduce some guidelines for our lab.

ANU TPR Bootcamp text:

The TPR should set out a clear research problem, situate your research proposal in the literature and tell the audience how you plan to carry out the research.

ANU Research Candidates Milestones:

The Thesis Proposal Review (TPR) is a detailed thesis proposal, literature review, report on research activities since commencement, and plan for the next year. The review indicates the subject of your proposed research, the methodology to be employed (including proposed fieldwork, if applicable), an analysis of relevant literature, and a description of how your research will contribute to the field of study.

All members of the supervisory panel participate in a TPR, and the Chair of the Supervisory panel should include comments made during the meeting, and make a recommendation on progress in the eForm.

College of Engineering, Computing and Cybernetics guidelines (2018):

The recommended length of the TPR document is 5 to 10 pages, while a longer document is also acceptable if it is required by the student’s supervisory panel. All members of the student’s supervisory panel are expected to attend the TPR review and/or presentation. The TPR would be a comprehensive document to allow the student’s supervisory panel and the HDR Delegated Authority and/or Convener to assess whether the student has a deep and well-rounded understanding of the research of interest, as well as a clearly organised and well-thought-out plan for completion.

Of the above, the TPR bootcamp description is concise and clear and is a good model for our local requirements. The ANU and CECC guidelines show that all members of your panel need to provide feedback on your TPR and it is a chance for the panel to be fully briefed on your research plan. The CECC guidelines provide a reasonable page range and a quick poll of School of Computing academics suggests that about 6 pages (single column A4 LaTeX) is often the norm.

SMCClab requirements

So given the above, for your TPR you should prepare a document and present it to the supervision panel. Optionally, the presentation can take the form of a public seminar advertised to other students and staff. Here’s what we expect in the SMCClab:


  • 5–10 pages
  • PDF produced in LaTeX with excellent formatting and referencing (APA author-date style referencing preferred)
  • Follow a standard structure: introduction, related work, proposed (and completed) methodology, research results to date, discussion of findings so far and expectations for future studies
  • You don’t need to repeat the content of existing manuscripts (just refer to them)
  • Your TPR document should provide a clear and persuasive description of your research problem and how you intend to address it.
  • Your plan should be backed by evidence from the literature and your research so far.
  • The future work plan should propose specific research projects that will each be likely to become an important publication.

You should plan to have your TPR document completed at least one week before you “submit” it in the eForm system so that (at least) I have a chance to provide feedback on it before it is submitted.

Creating your TPR isn’t supposed to be scary, but it should be a bit scary as you need to articulate your research direction in a more official way than you might have done so far in regular meetings.


A public seminar or presentation of your TPR is not required by ANU policies. That said, many groups in the School of Computing have expected students at the TPR level to do a public presentation as part of the TPR assessment. The seminar would normally be:

  • 45 minutes with 15 minutes for questions
  • scheduled to take place in a public seminar room (e.g., CSIT Room N101, Hanna Neumann building Board Room)
  • be advertised on the School / Cluster mailing lists
  • be structured similarly to your TPR document but with more focus on justifying your research problem, your work so far and (briefly) what you plan to do next (nobody wants to hear a literature review being read out loud)
  • at least one week after your TPR document has been submitted officially (so that all supervisors can read the written version).

Idea: PhD monitoring presentations may work better than a public seminar for communicating with School of Computing community and should now be preferred.

TPR Process

So given the above, here’s a process we will follow to manage your TPR.

  1. Candidate submits agrees on TPR timeline and formatting with primary supervisor. Decide whether to hold a seminar or a closed supervision meeting to conclude the TPR.
  2. Candidate creates TPR document as outlined above and sends to primary supervisor (and others) at least a week in advance of the planned eForm submission.
  3. Candidate incorporates feedback from supervisors and submits eForm
  4. Supervision panel and candidate meet, candidate briefly presents TPR contents, supervisors present feedback and initiate discussion.
  5. Supervisors upload feedback or recommendations into eForm after meeting.

Hints for your TPR

  • talk to other PhD students / recent grads about their TPR experience to gauge the expectations
  • if you want, attend the ANU TPR bootcamp for inspiration, but not direction: all ANU schools have different requirements and some expect a long TPR (e.g., 30+ pages) that is not the standard in computing
  • some folks view the TPR as “box ticking” and not to be taken seriously, this is not the approach within my lab, I expect a real effort to level up your articulation of your research plan which is hard work regardless of the length of document
  • the TPR is one of the few opportunities for supervisors to officially provide negative feedback with consequences, if you don’t engage with the process properly and respond to feedback you may need to redo/resubmit your TPR document

Thesis Completion Presentation

Before you can submit your PhD thesis you need to complete an oral presentation giving your supervisors the chance to agree that you are “ready to submit” your thesis.

Oral presentations are:

  • normally 60 minutes in length plus time for questions
  • advertised within the School of Computing and are public

You will give an exceptionally high quality presentation covering your whole thesis and be ready to answer questions on any part of your research including some potentially tricky questions from your supervision panel. We want to celebrate this part of your work so you should invite friends and family and we will arrange a morning/afternoon tea reception.

After your presentation, you should submit the eForm including:

  • your slides
  • a brief document (2 pages) indicating the details of your talk (time and place), brief summary of the contents, and summary of the discussion.