I want to reflect on the relevance of project management during my own PhD graduate experience. There is no question that the discipline of research science teaches you many essential project management principles. Designing well thought out experiments with adequate replicates, time courses and appropriate controls is actually an application of strategic and tactical planning, risk assessment and management, and defining of milestones and deliverables. That planning also clearly lays out the dependencies of one task on another- we can’t treat the animals with the fusion protein until we successfully complete the production of that protein.
But there is one aspect of my own graduate experience where a lack of project management awareness probably cost me at least 2 extra years. You may recall that there are four questions that should be addressed, in order, for any new project:
1. What is the goal?
2. What are the success criteria?
3. What are the assumptions?
4. How do I do it?
Many of us adequately cover 1, 3, and 4. The goals are set with our advisor. The assumptions are essentially the risks associated with the project that generate our “plan B”, as well as all the well thought out controls that are the foundation of good science. The “how do I do it”, or “tasks” in project management language are the product of our hands-on training in the lab from our PI, or other more senior people in our lab. But the success criteria, at least for me, was the elusive component that was really never defined before I dove into my project.
My project was to study the effects of a blood clotting factor, fibrinogen, on pulmonary inflammation. This project required the development of an animal (mouse) model to install the protein directly into the lungs of mice, and then follow the consequences of that treatment, and compare that to installation of control substances (saline as a negative control, and LPS as a positive control). Evaluation included histology, electron microscopy, and lavage of the lungs to determine the kinds of cells that were entering the lungs associated with any observed pathology.
This was an exciting and complicated study that took some time to develop. But with some practice, we got it to work, and discovered some interesting results. Was I done? Was I now going to graduate? It wasn’t clear. Based on the results, we (my PI) decided we should evaluate those lavaged cells in vitro, and see if we could find some pro-inflammatory factors. An exciting great idea. So we did it. And we found activity. Now for sure I’m done, right? Not so fast. Why don’t we see if we can reproduce that entire response in tissue culture, using continuous cell lines and primary culture from lung. Great idea! OK, lets do it. We did it. It worked. Now for sure, I’m done, right? Not so fast. We probably should try and identify the actual factor(s) in the supernatant that are responsible for the activity.
This went on and on for about 7 years before I finally graduated. I want to be clear, that I was complicit in this delay, in that I got excited about that next great question, but lost sight of what the real goal of the project was. Getting my PhD! If I had a clear agreement of the SUCCESS CRITERIA for completing my project at the beginning, I likely would have been done far earlier. It was obviously beneficial for my PI to have me there longer, but had there been more structure to my project, I would have had a much earlier exit. I recall during one of my committee meetings around year 5 one of the members commenting “why is he still here?”. Having success criteria defined, which is a core feature of disciplined project management would have been a big benefit!