Tracks and Milestones of PhD Research

When starting your research program, there are certain questions about your trajectory towards acquiring a PhD and certain expectations that others will have of your accomplishments along the way.

To understand what accomplishments and trajectory you may consider, this document describes two tracks for guiding your research efforts and expected milestones to be completed along the way.

Startup track

Think of your research as a product. You are solving problems that are worth paying for, but no one else in the world has the skills needed to do that but you. This track will also prepare you for leading new product development in industry.

  • Mik Kersten created the Mylyn project for Eclipse as part of his dissertation research, which was used as the basis for founding Tasktop.
  • Shauvik Roy Choudhary has turned his dissertation work on cross-platform web and mobile issues into the company, CheckDroid.
  • Amy Ko has co-founded AnswerDash as part of Parmit Chilana's work on LemonAid, which supports crowd-sourced answers on websites.
  1. Identifying a problem that will have customers in the next 5 years.
  2. Building something more than an one-off prototype.
  3. All the extra effort: branding, scaling, funding, etc.

Research track

Think of your research as a seed. Your are planting the connections, knowledge, and publications needed for a life-long career in research at an university or research lab. Your research may also one day blossom to impact future generations in the next 10, 25, or 50 years.

  1. Completing dissertation is not enough, you must build a portfolio of strong papers and projects.
  2. Identifying conceptual and intellectual contribution of your work and performing strong evaluations.
  3. The long road ahead: Sustain effort on a single topic for many years, with pay-off still several years further ahead.


Year 1

Finding your place.

  • Build your core.
  • Read many papers.
  • Contribute to an existing research project.
  • Write your first paper and submit to workshop or new ideas track.
Required Courses
  • CSC 510 - Software Engineering
  • Core: Graphics or AI
  • CSC 554 - Human Computer Interaction
  • CSC 710 - Software Engineering as a Human Activity

Year 2

Finding your speciality.

  • Implement an exploratory idea.
  • Attend your first conference.
  • Specialization course in another area: machine learning, visualization, etc.
  • Write your first conference paper and submit top-tier conference.

Startup track: Network with local startup groups, participant in startup competitions.

Required Courses
  • CSC890 - CSC Written Qualifying Exam

Year 3

Draw a line in the sand.

  • Take lead on your primary research idea.
  • Mentoring, pairing with Masters or new PhD students.
  • Literature review: You should be able to summarize and critique related research approaches.
  • Identify a research community that fits your research and style.
  • Present ideas well when public speaking.

Startup track: Customer engagement. You should have a solid idea of software engineering problem that a company or set of developers has.

Startup track: Your trick. You should have a special technique or novel approach that will address a company's pain point.

Research track: Feedback. Get feedback from others researchers and students. Attend graduate symposiums or workshops based on a short paper.

Research track: Grant writing. You should participant and gain experience in writing grants for your research. Think of this as a first draft to a proposal.

Year 4

Design, Build, Predict your research.

  • Carve off a piece of your primary research idea into a more focused research question.
  • Design conceptual frameworks and system architectures, build prototypes and experiments, predict research results.
  • Publish your seminal paper in a top-tier conference.
  • Complete your Proposal/Plan of Work

Research track: Disseminate your research to a wider audience through blogging or other forms of public outreach. Create public artifacts.

Startup track: Laying out tracks of company. Explore funding avenues.

Year 5+

Demonstrate your abilities.

  • Evaluate your research.
  • Write down your research.
  • Communicate and defend your research.

Research track: Evaluation of proposed research with strong connections to theory and experimental or empirical evidence.

Startup track: Strong implementation of a research product with evidence of adoption, impact, or successive iterations through user-centered design.