The Research Proficiency Evaluation process
The official guidelines are provided on the department website. On this page, I give my take on the process and provide some pointers.
The goal of the RPE
The purpose of the RPE is to 1) make sure you are ready for research; and 2) that the supervisory relationship is working. It is best to identify problems early, and the goal is not to fail you but to ensure you are ready to succeed. In my opinion, the RPE should be a well-defined, reasonably scoped, and self-contained project. The RPE is not your Ph.D., you should think of it as starting to work on your first paper (at UBC) and it should be scoped consequently. You may have a grand ambition for your Ph.D., but you need to wrap the RPE project in only a few months. Consequently, you need to identify a set of clear and meaningful objectives where you can make significant progress within the available time frame. There is an expectation that your RPE will lead to a publication, but this is not expected to happen before your defense. However, you need to show you are working in that direction (e.g., by showing preliminary results and a prototype). Finally, The self-contained aspect is important if you are working as part of a larger project, the RPE must be based on your work and your contribution must be clearly identifiable. My role is to work with you, support you, and make sure things go smoothly.
For written reports, I suggest using the USENIX template.
RPE proposal: expected length is around two pages. This should focus on the problem definition. However, from experience, most students submit slightly longer proposals (5-6 pages) including an expanded related work section and a description of their proposed solution. This is not necessary, but you should feel free to include this if you want feedback on those aspects.
RPE report: expected length is around twelve pages. Your report should be written and organized like a conference paper. You may consider including a long discussion section containing: 1) limitations of your current prototype/proof of concept; 2) work you are planning to do over the next few months to turn your RPE work into a publication.
RPE presentation: expected length is around twenty minutes. You should present your work as you would at a conference. You should cover the following topics: 1) context and problem; 2) solution; 3) evaluation; and 4) future work. You should rehearse your presentation (you can ask me and your peers).
You should not hesitate to discuss with other students in the lab, and ask for examples of their submissions. Further, I am expecting to see several drafts of your written work/presentation. I will normally ask for it, but you should feel free to send it to me as soon as you want feedback. Unlike work you do for a joint paper submission, I will avoid rewriting your text. However, I am more than happy to (and will) comment. I also encourage you to share drafts with some of your peers working on different projects (forming a writing group with other students taking their RPE at the same time can be a very positive experience). Sharing your work with peers help you gauge how accessible your writings are.
Assume a student starting in September (if you start in January, tweak the timeline accordingly). Here is my vision of how you should approach the RPE process. Remember, as your advisor/supervisor it is my job to get you through this process successfully. This means you should talk to me and seek help and support.
September, you hopefully have an idea of why you came to UBC and what you want to work on. You should spend your first few months getting familiar with the relevant literature, writing an annotated bibliography/notes about your reading, and start designing and implementing prototypes to test your ideas. In addition, you may also decide to join an existing project, get up to speed with the project, and participate actively. During our 1-1 meeting I would expect to discuss your growing understanding of the field, and your ideas. Part of my job is to challenge your ideas and force you to think critically about the problems you propose to investigate and potential solutions. Defining research problems is one of the most important skills to acquire early on.
December, you should start crystalizing the research problem you want to tackle during your RPE. Identify, the relevant literature and what is the state of the art in that space.
January, this is the time to start working on the proposal. In addition to formalizing and writing down your proposal, you should consider doing some preliminary technical experimentation. My advice is to take only a single course during this term. You want to ensure you have enough time dedicated to research.
March, we select together your RPE committee. This is relatively simple, we need to identify two faculties such that their interests overlap with your RPE project and who have time to seat on your committee.
April, you submit your proposal and get feedback from the committee. You should expect again your ideas to be challenged in a supportive way. The goal is to help you formulate a clear problem. You should digest the feedback and make corrections accordingly.
May, you can now start working on your project in earnest. At this point, you should be done with courses and you should be able to focus on your research full-time. You are strongly encouraged to do so. I am expecting to get messages from students several times a week at this point. Don’t be shy, if you need to discuss your struggles and/or design decisions do so! You may also want to chat with other students in the lab, especially those working on related topics.
August, you have hopefully been taking notes on your implementation, design, and the literature you have read. It is time to write your RPE report. Remember, the goal is to show you are able to perform research at a level expected from a Ph.D. student. You may not have finished everything you wanted to do, but you need to show at least an early prototype and some early evaluation results. You should also demonstrate that you understand how to move from what you have to a publication (i.e., clearly articulate the work you are planning to do over the next few months).
September, it is time to submit the report and organize the defense. Do not be overly concerned with the defense. You will be told before the presentation is scheduled if there are any concerns about the quality of the report.
Failing the RPE
In my opinion, a student failing during the public defense should be avoided and in most circumstances would be the supervisor’s responsibility. There are multiple deadlines within the RPE that are opportunities to give feedback and to have a difficult conversation if things are not going as they should. Your proposal and report are read by your supervisor and the committee members, you should be told if there are concerns about their standard. If that is the case, you should work with your supervisor on a positive outcome. This outcome will depend on why things are not working well and can include solutions such as an extension, looking for a new supervisor, or continuing in the MSc program if you are a Ph.D. track student. I also strongly encourage you to talk with other faculties or your peers in such circumstances and to seek support to decide on your next steps. In short, the process is designed to avoid failure.