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So far, my master thesis had an initial plan, and I would keep in contact with the PI as I need. However, now that the academic course comes to an end, all the students in the lab (3) we have to finish our projects. He is also applying to grants that have tight deadlines and supervising 1 PhD thesis that will be presented in a month, together with addressing the reviewers of two papers and supervising a new one (with part of my work :). This is a lot of work (I am sure other people are more stressed though) and sometimes I feel I am not given all the advice I could due to poor project management of the lab and projects (yes, I tried more frequent meetings but they keep being postponed).

I would like to start a PhD soon, and later to have my own research team; what project management skills should I learn for a successful PhD/career?
Some skills I thought as important are:

  • Time management

    I found useful answers here at the tag time-management

  • Multiple (parallel) projects management

    My current project started as to analyze some data and ended up analyzing data and developing, testing and prove a new method. (That's another reason why I consider my project was poorly thought out.)

  • People management
  • ?

And more importantly, how can I learn them through the master thesis and PhD?

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    The only good way to gain skills in project management is to manage some projects. (See also: Every other human activity.)
    – JeffE
    May 6, 2017 at 21:15
  • I am managing (to some extent at least) my own master project but maybe I could do better. To rephrase, how can I make out the most from managing my project?
    – llrs
    May 9, 2017 at 6:55
  • @llrs Hmm... When you put it like that, I suppose my comment wasn't quite fair play. Apologies, will delete. Jun 3, 2021 at 11:48
  • Watch successful and unsuccessful efforts (not necessarily projects), understand what went wrong in each and learn. There are plenty of books, but they tend to imagine a project manager being a dedicated and assigned role. I expect your challenge instead will be to lead projects involving yourself, your peers, and your supervisors. If you've played team sports you might have a leg up on this. The skills you ask about are the ability to listen in all its forms, to work sympathetically, to understand what success means for the effort, and to understand everyone wants success. Jun 3, 2021 at 14:47

3 Answers 3

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Time management: I recommend to everyone the book Getting things done by David Allen. It is briefly summarized in different YouTube videos and is about personal organization and stressfree productivity.

Project management: For project management and a good visualization of your process (e.g. of publishing a paper) you might want to look into IT Kanban and use a real Kanban board or a software like Trello. If you work in a team on that project, look into Scrum. Also, shared calendars are helpful (e.g. Google calendar).

People management: For teams, it could make sense to use a team collaboration tool like Slack (or Mattermost).

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    People management is really about managerial skills, not tools: how to help your team develop, set goals and hold people accountable, deal with problems in a constructive way, etc.
    – user24098
    May 5, 2017 at 14:19
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    I don't see how Scrum can work in an academic team. In an academic team you usually have one or two members that actually do all the work. Also, who is going to be the product owner?
    – Bernhard
    May 6, 2017 at 5:12
  • @Bernhard Thanks for your comment. I had the same doubts. Scrum is agile project management and agile is the main thing most academic research teams have to be. There are good websites and implementations like this. The professor or a post-doc could be the product owner for example.
    – felice
    May 6, 2017 at 9:32
  • Still doesn't make sense to me. That whole story still assumes there is a team of researchers. Being agile also means that you are agile in your methodology. Sticking strictly to Scrum is not agile actually. Agile, in academia, obviously, goals msy change as you go. Scrum is just a waste of time and effort
    – Bernhard
    May 7, 2017 at 6:01
  • Some parts of this answer assumes I can push changes to the group I am, like introducing the Google calendar to set goals and milestones, or managing people like I am a manager while I am the last monkey :D
    – llrs
    May 9, 2017 at 6:52
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There are various ways to approach project management, so what works for some people may not work for you. So, take advice for what is is - advice and not a formula for success.

That being said,there are many resources on leadership and management that may be helpful, as suggested by felice. A good start is to develop and maintain good organizational and people skills. The latter can be difficult for academics, because we tend to work in isolation for a good portion of the time. However, using organizational and communication tools that are available to you will help with managing projects. For instance, google docs and calendars are tools that can help a team communicate project goals and timelines with one another.

Also, check with your university's research and HR departments. They often offer courses on research project management and management in general. For instance, I once took a workshop at my former institution on research budget management. If you are able to enroll as a student, you can gain the skills you want in a more formal setting than just reading a book. Good luck!

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  • Thanks for your answer, however I haven't found any courses on research project management. There are courses in research integrity, not budget management (I have a subject about building a company, which is not the same as managing grants)
    – llrs
    May 9, 2017 at 6:53
  • Maybe there are some mentors at your institution who manage large grants? You could invite them to coffee or lunch and ask them for tips on success. May 9, 2017 at 15:48
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I would start by defining the scope of your research by writing down all the tangible things (also known as the deliverables) that you expect to produce during your thesis. You will probably naturally think of the end products (e.g., publications, the thesis itself), but also prompt yourself to think of interim deliverables you will produce along the way, like ethics approvals, permits, data, analytic tools, instruments, etc.

When you think you have the complete scope defined, talk about it with your supervisor to make sure that you haven't missed anything, and update your deliverables based on what you hear from them. A one-page work breakdown structure is a great tool for articulating and visualizing research scope.

Once your scope is defined, set target dates for the deliverables. This will give you something to measure your progress against. Talk to your supervisor about how they want to be updated, e.g., whether they want a monthly dashboard, or a meeting every two weeks, or something else, and then start the "monitoring and control" work of your project according to your supervisor's preferences. If you find that your first approach to providing updates doesn't seem to be working, try providing less details. You can always provide more on request, and it is good to practice and develop skills that allow you to communicate essential information about project progress succinctly.

You may also want to join the Project Management Institute. They offer a student discount, and have lots of free resources for members. If you keep track of the time you invested in project management, and the approaches and tools you used, you may even be able to count the hours you put into your thesis project management toward Project Management Professional certification.

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