Applying Sound Project Management Principles to Complete Your Studies and Enhance Your Value to Professional Organizations

Success in professional organizations in large part relies on the ability to deliver projects that meet their objectives, on time and on budget.  These are also the familiar triad of project management;  Time, Cost, and Objectives (Scope).  Research scientists utilize the principles of project management on a daily basis, often times without realizing the connection.  Let’s take a look at how project management principles are commonly used by scientists. No alt text provided for this image

There are four questions that should typically be addressed when planning out a new project:

1.     What am I trying to accomplish?

2.     What are my success criteria?

3.     What assumptions could affect this project?

4.     How do I do it?

These four questions should be addressed in order and reveal both the deep experience scientists have with project management, as well as some of the gaps that can negatively affect them successfully completing their project on time, and on budget.

Scientists are true experts at addressing question #1.  These are essentially the goals of the project which are defined by the hypothesis.  All of our technical training, and experiential knowledge from being in the lab performing experiments, attending lab meetings, seminars, national and international meetings, and keeping up with the literature defines us as “subject matter experts” (SME) and allow us to formulate well-reasoned hypotheses, and rational approaches to test those hypotheses.

This experience in planning has also provided extensive credentials for question #3- identifying assumptions.  Assumptions are those factors that can materially affect the project, but that are outside the direct control of the scientist.  Examples are the abilities of a collaborator, or a core facility or outside lab to perform a critical component of the project.  When these assumptions would negatively impact the project, they are “risks” and when they could benefit the project, they are “opportunities”.  Scientists are experts in managing assumptions, by developing appropriate controls within experiments, considering their “Plan B” within their experimental design, and then making the tactical adjustments to keep the project on track.

That experimental design also addresses question #4, which lays out the experimental procedure, which, in project management language is essentially the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS).  So, scientists truly do have significant project management experience.  They just don’t use project management language to describe what they do.  If they learn the language of project management they can then demonstrate this highly valued skill when applying for jobs.

You may have noticed that question #2- defining success criteria has not yet been addressed.  For the graduate student and postdoc, having clear agreement with your PI regarding success criteria is essential so that there is agreement as to when you are done.  How to manage this question requires confidence, good communications skills and an ability to negotiate effectively.  Mastering all four questions can have a significant impact on the academic scientists’ ability to deliver their well-defined project on time, and on budget.

So, when thinking about our project management experiences, for many academic scientists, at least three of the four questions are well within our capabilities and experiences, and we should be able to provide actual examples with accomplishments to demonstrate our expertise.  Very valuable indeed during the job hunt!

What can we do to further improve our abilities with respect to the four questions?

1.      Express our hypothesis (question #1) not only in terms of what we want to accomplish, but also why?  Express the strategic value of our work- it’s potential impact now, and in the future, and its interconnectedness with other institutions and disciplines.

2.     Find ways to advance our communications and negotiating skills in order to jointly define agreed success criteria with our PI (question #2) so that we have a clear vision of what is required to complete the project.  Obviously, science often delivers unexpected results that require a re-think of the project, but in project management terms, this is just re-visiting the four questions.

3.     Improve our ability to identify and anticipate risk, and develop strategies to address those circumstances (question #3).  SWOT analysis is one very useful team-performance tool that can be used for this purpose:  identifying your internal strengths and weaknesses, along with known external opportunities and threats, and determining in a programmatic way how to use your strengths to take advantage of those opportunities and mitigate the threats, and use those external opportunities to address your weaknesses wherever possible.

4.     Further refining your ability to carefully plan out your project, its dependencies, and associated risks increases the likelihood of success (questio

No alt text provided for this image

n #4).  And those successes should be used as demonstrations of your experience as a project manager- the skill that is highly valued by hiring organizations.

The final piece in truly understanding the role of the project manager in a professional organization is your responsibility to develop your project team, establish trust and rapport with them, understand their personalities and use that knowledge to develop a high performing team that will succeed.  The underlying communications skills required to be successful will be the subject of next week’s SciPhD Career Preparation Series.

Leave a Reply