Research projects are often highly complex requiring several objectives to be completed and various tasks that must be carried out at specific times. To be an effective and efficient researcher you will need to plan your research projects carefully to make the most of your time and research opportunities. Your plan will need to be revised over time as your research develops and changes over time. The plan will help you quickly identify if you drop behind your targets giving you the chance to make the necessary adjustments, to the plan and your objectives, to ensure you complete your research. In this section we present an overview of project management, you will find more detail in textbooks or via training provided by your institution. Vitae has produced a training package used by many institutions called ‘How to be an effective researcher'.
The requirements of your research
As a project manager your goal is to ensure that the expectations of all the stakeholders are met. Clearly you are an important stakeholder, but there is also your supervisory team, your examiners, your institution and other researchers in your field. This is to emphasise that the publications of your research including your thesis should have value for all of these stakeholders. Your first task is to establish what these stakeholders want, discuss this with your main supervisor.
These questions could form part of that initial discussion:
- when is your deadline?
- what are the main milestones in your research?
- does your institution require you to complete anything or produce any reports by any particular date?
- how much have you got to write?
- how long do you think the writing will take you? Remember to leave some time for editing and correcting.
Although this is your research project others will be involved in it. Some of these roles will be clear now, others will need to be defined as the research progresses. All of the people you work with will have limited time, so it will be necessary to ensure that they will be available when you need them most. You will also be able to clearly communicate what you need them to do, to help you. This should be worked into your plan to ensure you are able to provide your contacts with the information they need, when they need it.
Identifying critical research periods
At this stage you need only a rough idea about what your research will involve. Most students start their study with some ideas about the question to be answered and the data sources or research opportunities that will be used to answer it. You may find that you can identify critical periods in your research by considering the following questions:
- do you need to travel to do any of your research? You may not be able to carry out other tasks at this time and you will need to make appropriate travel arrangements before setting out
- do you need to undertake any training? These should be scheduled before you need to undertake the task that requires it
- do you need any special equipment? You should ensure it is sourced, or booked in advance of when you need to use it
- is your research opportunity time limited? For example if you were studying nesting birds you would only be able collect data in the spring and summer, therefore you should ensure you are ready to undertake the data collection at this time.
Building your initial plan
When you know what you need to do, when you need to do it, and who you depend upon, you can start to build an initial plan. This does not need to be complex, and could simply be a list of milestones in your diary or calendar. Where there are several tasks that you will be undertaking simultaneously you should identify any critical paths that exist (those where you must complete certain tasks before beginning others). Some students with highly complex projects may find project management software useful, and many institutions offer training to use this effectively.
Identifying project risks
With an initial plan in place it is worth looking at each of the tasks and milestones to identify any risks that might be present. For each risk estimate the impact it will have on your project, and how likely it is to occur. You should consider setting up contingency plans for any risks which are high impact and most likely to occur.
For example in most research projects the availability of data can have a significant impact, be this the availability of an industrial partner or access to archive data. It is often hard to be certain that you will get the data that you want and expect to be available. If in your case you assess the likelihood of the data source being unavailable you could manage this risk by investigating the possibility of alternative data sources and make initial preparations to use them.
Keeping stakeholders updated
A key role of a project manager is to keep stakeholders updated. In the case of your research this means making regular reports to your supervisory team, who will help you to decide the best way to continue the research. It also means keeping other staff updated with information that concerns them, so that if you no longer need the use of equipment you booked, it can be made available to others. There are also some key requirements such as delivering reports that your institution's regulations require in a timely manner.
Revising your plan
It is not uncommon for doctoral research projects to dramatically change as you discover more about your research area. As changes occur update your plan to keep it realistic and deliverable. You may also add more detail to your plan as the research method becomes clearer, to facilitate you thinking about this you may find that a work breakdown structure will help you.
If you miss a target
Identify the reasons for why you did not finish on time, and identify the problems you faced. You may find the following reasons occur commonly:
- if it was due to other commitments, have you take too much on?
- if it was due to unexpected complexity, will other tasks also take longer?
- if it was due to the unavailability of equipment, did you manage to start another task in your free time?
Now modify your plan to take account of your changed situation. You may have to reduce the amount of work you plan to do. If so discuss this with your supervisory team, taking care to identify the tasks that are essential to completing your project successfully.