Many PhD students conducting their research are not aware of the fact that conducting autonomous research is project management. This assumption is realized by most students only after graduation or in the last year of their studies (a webinar discussing project management will be held this coming May). Because being a technician and a project manager requires different thinking and skills, I’ll discuss in a 2-part series how to master both and make the most of this chimerical status.

Managing your PhD

Regard your PhD research as a project: a set of actions taken in a logical sequence to achieve a certain goal. So, the first action you must make after choosing your research question is to set at least 3 goals which will accompany you and your project and hopefully lead to establishing an answer to your original research question.

Set goals

Life goal. Why are you doing a PhD? Do you want to pursue an academic career? Or maybe you aiming for the biotech industry? There’s a big difference between these two goals and what they require from you as a PhD student. Since this is a very basic yet difficult question/goal to answer, especially at the beginning of your PhD, you can postpone it for the time being; though you should visit this question once every six months so you’ll gradually focus on what you want to do in your life.

Long-term goal. This goal should be between six months and one year from your current standpoint. Setting a desired goal (“expressing gene X in cell line Y”) with a time frame can help you see and grasp what needs to be done and at what pace. As time passes, you’ll get a feeling for how you are progressing and can act accordingly. It will also help you realize whether your long-term goal is feasible. Agree this goal with your supervisor – it needs to be reasonable, not a wishful-thinking goal.

Mid or short term goal. This is the bench level goal, covering 1-2 months ahead. This goal helps you stay in focus at the micro level while you plan week by week, what you want to do, scheduling resources, equipment and even manpower.

Plan & organize

The difference between a successful experiment and a wasteful experiment is good planning. Good planning is all about setting a clear and concise goal, choosing the right controls/samples and allocating the resources (time, manpower, equipment and materials). Choosing the right controls is not such a trivial task and it’s recommended to

  • take advice from articles publishing similar experiments/methodologies
  • ask the advice of other PhD students in the lab
  • use the help of your PI

An important aspect of experimental planning is to foresee the caveats of the method employed and prepare for difficulties that may lie ahead (for example, pre-empting the monoclonal antibody you posses might not be specific enough for your demands and seeking alternatives). It’s also recommended you plan your experiments at least a week ahead giving yourself enough time to allocate resources to meet the requirements of the whole experiment, as well as polishing your experimental plan. It can be quite discouraging to throw away 3 days of work because of a wasted kinase assay kit.

Leading, collaborating, multitasking!

Even though this is your PhD research, it doesn’t mean you must do everything by yourself. This is the point where your PhD studies can benefit tremendously from any managerial capabilities you posses. If you think you don’t posses them, then graduate school is a great place to start developing them!

Utilizing technician(s) in the lab and undergrads performing project work wisely (see my previous article on supervising undergraduates in the lab) can expedite your research and your progress. Sometimes this will require time investment and leadership to push this collaboration forward, to increase motivation and to get these people involved in your research. The more people involved in your research, the more likely they’ll be willing to support and help you in your research when you need it.

Collaboration with peers and other laboratories out with your own university is an excellent way to help you establish goals and get your work published. In most cases, your PI will probably have collaborations in place when he or she initiated the project you’re working on. In cases where the PI hasn’t initiated any such move or you’ve identified a novel potential collaboration, push forward to make it happen. This is a tricky part requiring caution, tact and knowledge of the community’s politics and it’s important that you take advice from your PI, better still, let them forge the alliance.

With all these people at your disposable, including yourself, you need to acquire multi-tasking capabilities so you’ll orchestrate this mass of work. Unlike technical multi-tasking, managerial multi-tasking requires good coordination, planning, prioritizing and macro-level vision. Coordinate and communicate clearly with colleagues regarding the experimental timeframe and clarify the goal of the experiment as well as any other aspect that may not be clear.  Prioritize your different experiments according to the availability of your personnel and the importance of your projects.

Review and criticize your work

Not least important, get into the habit of going through your lab notebook at the end of each week and mark yourself:

  • What were your failures?
  • What were your successes?
  • What have you learned from each?
  • What is your next move?

Summarizing these in a simple report will help you keep a grasp of your progress at your monthly review with your supervisor. A good review and critique on your part, as well as input from your PI, can help you progress faster when things are working and help you get out of the mud when things are going south.


What are your thoughts on project management?


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  1. Research is indeed art but the complexity and challenges in doing great research requires to adopt new tools and alter our way of thinking, build the tools that work for us and allow to answer the questions and goals we set to achieve. following the question in your title I started to write my views on project management for research

  2. I might forward to this to my PI. He believes that project management “is the work of box ticking career bureaucrats and science is an art that cannot be constrained by planning and targets.”

    I would recommend scheduling mile-stone meetings with your supervisor. Before starting anything identify key points or targets in the project which will indicate the progress of the overall plan. From this you can then plan how to re-direct the research at each stage to continue towards the final goal. This helps with time management and also helps structure report writing, as your milestone reviews can go into the chapters of your thesis. It helps maintain a feeling of progress too, which I find important for morale. You can pre-empt problems and delays as they start to happen and prevent them de-railing the rest of the project.

    Don’t underestimate data management. Form a plan of how you want to collect and store your data, and how to link it with the laboratory samples/experiments so that you can backtrack. You will need samples most often at 4am on the day before submission when the instrument has eaten your last aliquot and you need another loaded within the next 15 seconds. Will you need to access your data for a conference at 3am in the far east?

    “sh1t happens”. If something can go wrong – it will. Have a backup plan ready or your first plan will fail.

    The universe runs on irony.

    1. “Don’t underestimate data management.”
      In my second part I am discussing this specific issue as well as other issues as well.
      Thanks for the comment.

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