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About a year ago a colleague recommended some free courses being offered at the university, one of which was Foundations of Project Management. I’d considered it, but felt I didn’t have time. A few months later, a commenter on my post about managing deadlines in grad school noted that my description for managing project deadlines was similar to the basic principles of project management. It had me thinking that I should look more into this, but never did. Then I started to organize my thesis projects and all I could think was, “You know what I wish I knew more about…project management”

I think grad school, and especially a PhD, is a crash course in project management. Here we are organizing four to five studies, many of which require new techniques, coordination of resources, and have items that are dependent on earlier work. When we first start to think of our projects, the world is our oyster. We have ideas and thoughts and everything seems fine. And then we dive in… But sometimes we haven’t taken into account how long a task would take, the risks involved, the dependencies, and leaving you behind schedule. Although supervisors can be helpful at guiding you through these steps, we are left to do most of the planning and how you manage your projects is a big part of determining when you’ll finish.

After reflecting on the use of project management tools in my thesis, here are some things to think about when planning your projects. Many people may already be doing these things, but there is something to be said about establishing a framework for how you go about setting up and managing your projects that you can refer to when things go awry.

  • Brainstorm your tasks early on. David Allen’s Getting Things Done discusses the task of collection before organization. Come up with some general headings  (i.e. for getting my study off the ground, I chose setup, piloting, data analysis, and participant recruitment) and then brainstorm tasks that would fit in these areas. By doing this early on, you can get an overview of what tasks need to be done, then determine the order with which they are completed.
  • Perform a risk analysis. This goes beyond brainstorming potential risks to your participants. Are you performing a new technique? Do you have to wait on a lengthy submission process with your Internal Research Board or have to apply to multiple boards? Could equipment delivery be delayed? You may not be sure of what roadblocks will occur, but your goal with a risk analysis is to determine what potential risks could occur and how you’ll prevent or handle each of them. Even things that you deem “out of your control” are technically within your control since you can plan for or react once they occur. For example, you can look up ahead of time or call your ethics board to see what is required, potential length of time that the process will take, and make sure you have included everything that they’ve asked for so that you’re giving yourself the best chance for the process to take the least amount of time possible.
  • Budget a realistic amount of time for each task. Have you ever said, “I should be done by X”, then sit back and wonder how you decided on that date? This has been my biggest struggle, especially when setting up a study. One thing that is different when managing your PhD projects is that you aren’t sharing the load with a team; you’re responsible for something in every task.  Remember that you are one person so don’t over extend yourself. Sure, some tasks may only take a day or so, but cumulatively, they add up time and could take you longer than you anticipated when you were thinking about them individually.
  • Determining the best-case scenario, worst-case scenario and critical steps. For more information on how to do this, you can review the method of the Critical Path. Since you’re going to be doing most of the work, this can help you to determine where you need to concentrate and what is the most critical thing that you need to be doing to prevent major delays from occurring.

Like I mentioned in my deadlines post, grad school is your opportunity to work on all of these skills so that you will be prepared in your future career. Many of you will one day run labs. You’ll order equipment, write grants, and mentor students. Determining what is most important to be done, establishing realistic deadlines, and the potential risks to your research programs will be very important. Also learning how to develop and manage a diverse team of students will be important for the success of your research program.

This is just a basic overview of project management, and to get more information you can  browse the internet, pick up a book at the library, or take a short course on the topic to give yourself the general idea of what you’ll need moving forward. If you’re a grad student in Canada, I would highly recommend the free (!) Foundations of Project Management (I and II) courses put on by the MITACS Step program.

Have you incorporated these techniques into your work or developed your own tips and tricks for successfully managing your thesis projects?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

7 Responses to The PhD Thesis – A Crash Course in Project Management

    1. Bavardess says:

      I think this is a very helpful way to approach a project as long and daunting as a PhD. While your post is geared towards sciences/social sciences, it is equally applicable in a field like mine. As a History grad student, I need to budget for time in archives etc, and I need to make sure I’m planning to do those tasks at the right times – too early and I won’t necessarily be clear on what I’m looking for, too late and I run the risk that the time- consuming tasks of finding, transcribing/ translating and interpreting sources will put me behind schedule.

    1. This is a very useful post. I my experience both when I did my own doctorate and when I then went on to supervise PhDs, I have always felt project management to be a really crucial issue. Getting Things Done works extremely well for getting control of your workflows and getting perspective, ie not loosing sight of priorities. When it comes to actually doing and implementation at each stage of the project I have found Personal Kanban to be extremely helpful in the conduct of my own research projects as a historian, especially as it is a perfect complement for GTD. Personal Kanban ( is a Lean management pattern which is incredibly simple as it is based on only two simple principles: visualise (typically with post-its on a Kanban board, sometimes with a software) and limit you Work in progress at any given time to fully concentrate on what you have chosen to focus. It allows a researcher to run visible experiments of continuous improvement in the conduct of her project.It is really powerful because of its flexibility and simplicity as it allows to be very effective.

        • Kaitlin Gallagher says:

          I’ve only heard of Lean Management Pattern in passing and I’ll be sure to take a look at those resources. Thanks for the info!

    1. Christy says:

      Super great reminder that I need to go back to these principles as things fall apart in research.

      I am doing a PhD in animal science in commercial production. So there are a ton of factors that not only influence my results, but also my timelines. I have tried to stick to project management to help organize commercial, internal and university aspects to the multiple projects I am responsible for. Definitely helps to take the time to set this up.

      My biggest challenge is the variability that can be added to risk/timelines due to unforeseen events. I think it is important to recognize that even in project management you can’t plan for everything. Personally, it is very important for students to learn how to develop the skills to handle such situations.

      Thanks for the resources!

        • Kaitlin Gallagher says:

          Definitely agree with your second point. Although we try and prepare as much as possible, being realistic and dealing with uncertainty and the unexpected is extremely important. Thanks for the comment!

    1. […] everything you can. Read this post. Read the one I wrote in August. Read this one by Kaitlin Gallagher about PhD thesis project management, or the one she wrote on sucstress. Read […]

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