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Module 2: Commencement and Collaboration – Putting Ideas Into Practice

2.3 Milestones and timelines

At the commencement of your research project it is valuable to identify your project milestones and timelines. These become measures of how well the project is progressing and provide signposts that allow you to assess your ability to complete the project on time and on budget. While you may choose to move some of these markers as you work through the project, you should establish them in the first place before you begin. If your research project is being funded by external funding (such as grant, consultancy, or contract research), your milestones may be influenced by the agency(ies) funding the research. When scheduling key tasks and project milestones you should:

  • Clearly mark calendar dates against goals
    This ensures that you have a timeframe for the delivery of your research goals. It will also be necessary if your research project is funded by external funding, which is more than likely to involve reporting requirements. Research deliverables may be identified as part of your research goals. These could include things such as reports, datasets, and preliminary results. It is important to keep in mind that some external funding agencies link project payments to deliverables. These contractual conditions will be clearly identified in the research funding agreement (contract) that you enter into when you accept the funding. Make sure you read and understand your obligations under any funding agreement you commit to.
  • Prepare a reporting schedule
    Again, it is important to tie your reporting dates to calendar dates. Your reporting schedule will be largely influenced by the stakeholders involved in your research project. If you are receiving funding from external agencies (e.g. federal or state government departments, rural research and development corporations, or other granting bodies), the reporting requirements (including frequency, format, and any potential penalties for non-compliance) will usually be specified in the funding agreement. Many funding agencies require annual progress reports, and a final report to be submitted within 6 months of completion of your project. Other stakeholders may have reporting requirements, particularly if they are contributing to the project with cash or in-kind resources.

    Reports can be required for all aspects of the research project including
    • financial reports
    • milestone reports
    • annual reports
    • progress reports
    • final reports
    • financial acquittals.

Most universities are able to manage and monitor reporting milestones with a research management database. Check with your Head of Department for information on your university's research management system, and for any faculty/school/centre and university-specific reporting conventions that may exist at your institution.

It is also worth noting students on PhD/Masters scholarships, working as part of your research project, have specific reporting requirements – to the university and sometimes to an external funding agency if the scholarship is externally funded.

  • Identify risks in meeting your milestones and timelines
    Research projects are inherently unpredictable. As shown in the table on the previous page, there are many challenges that can affect the delivery of research outputs and milestones. You may have changes in your research team, your research may take an unexpected turn, or you may have difficulty securing the equipment or resources you need to complete your research. All of these things can make it difficult for you to stick to your original milestone targets and timeline. You should frequently review progress towards your milestones and adherence to your timelines, and assess any potential risks to these. It is important to keep all stakeholders informed of any potential delays in the delivery of milestone targets and of changes in the timeline. If necessary, you may need to seek approval from external funding agencies for the late submission of a milestone deliverable, or a revised schedule of project deliverables.
  • Communicate these decisions clearly to your research team
    Changes in milestone dates, research timelines, and research direction need to be clearly communicated to the relevant people in your research team. You should ensure that your research team is aware of any revised priorities, milestone dates, and timelines so that your research project deliverables are not compromised. You should also assess whether your collaborators and other stakeholders need to be aware of any changes in milestone dates and research timelines.

Simple timeline template

The key tasks in your project can be defined using the template shown below:
Project start date:   /   /   
Project finish date:    /    /  

Project task

Resources required

Expected completion date

Example: Recruit additional researcher

Example: Position description


Stage 1




Stage 2




Stage 3




Stage 4




If you would like to use this simple timeline template, please use one of the following links to download a file containing the table.

Timeline template (Word file)
Timeline template (rtf file)

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