As a researcher you will have a project supervisor or line manager who is responsible for making sure that you are working effectively and keeping your research project on track. But the responsibility for management of your research project lies first and foremost with you.
Effective project management requires strategic planning as well as attention to the detail of day-to-day work. It also requires good time management, teamwork skills and a certain entrepreneurial flair.
Setting realistic, achievable objectives is an important aspect of project planning. Your funding body might require evidence that key goals of the project are being met at particular times. You may have to obtain certain results or deliver papers for publication at pre-set points or ‘milestones’ in the project. But even if this isn’t the case, you still need to plan strategically, to make sure you can achieve what you are setting out to do.
The acronym “SMART” can be helpful with your strategic planning. It means that your objectives should be:
- Specific: They should be clear, and targeted in both meaning and focus
- Measurable: You should be able to measure your progress and know when you have achieved your goal
- Advantageous: what's in this for you? A publication to add to your CV? A new skill that you can master? You are more likely to be motivated if you know you will gain some personal benefit from achieving it
- Realistic: make sure that you stand a reasonable chance of achieving your objective in the time you’ve given yourself
- Time limited: Review your progress regularly. If you realise you have no chance of achieving your objective in the time you have available, it might be time to set a new objective.
Keeping on track
One way of keeping track of project milestones is by using a Gantt chart. This is a form of bar graph in which each bar represents a key task of the project. Tasks are plotted against the project timeline. The length and location of each bar represents the start and finish date of each project task.
A Gantt chart lets you see at a glance:
- the proportion of project time (and energy!) which needs to be allocated to each task
- which tasks have to be completed before other tasks can be started
- which tasks have to be done in any given month of the project
- whether or not the project is running to schedule.
The Gantt chart in Microsoft Excel provides an online guide to creating your own.
Pause for thought
Allow yourself ‘thinking’ time as well as ‘doing’ time. In lab-based or fieldwork projects especially, there are always new experiments to be done, and it can be easy to get lost in activity. Make sure to give yourself regular time for reflection and ‘reading around’ your subject. This will give you the best chance of bringing your creativity to bear on the project.
Comment on this page.