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Using Project Management Approaches to Tame Your Dissertation

How applying principles of project management can help keep dissertation work on track.

January 22, 2015

Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. During her free time she writes about microbiology-related topics at microbematters.org, kdshives.com, and on Twitter @KDShives.

No one finishes a STEM dissertation by doing just 100% research all day every day; you have many other tasks including classes, writing manuscripts, attending journal clubs, teaching obligations, seminars, lab meetings, public presentations of your work, and the need for sleep and a healthy body. All of these activities need to be planned for and the time necessary to complete them taken into account. Once you do that, research effort is really about 50% of what you are doing (although this can vary quite a bit depending on your particular project and field). These are a lot of tasks and obligations to keep track of and can easily derail your research progress, which will be the determining factor of when you actually get to graduate.

So how do you proactively manage a dissertation project so that you can accomplish all the other tasks involved in getting a PhD while staying productive in your research? Enter project management. A dissertation at its most basic level (if there is such a thing) is simply a complicated task that will take up the next 4+ years of your life. Using the traditional approach, project managers divvy up a major undertaking into 5 steps that you can use to manage your dissertation project so that you can make progress in your research and all of the other activities that make up a PhD today:

1. Conception and Initiation: This begins the day you walk into your thesis lab and your advisor hands you a stack of papers and says “here, this will get you up to speed.” During this phase the most important parts are learning as much as you can in your classes (for future reference) and in your lab so that you will be able to understand the basics. What is known about your project? What kind of approaches can you use? This is also a good time to grab your student handbook and find all of the required courses you need to take as well as the major milestone exams that you need to complete so that you know the broad outline of the first few years of graduate school.

2. Definition and Planning: Once you understand the basics of your research project, it’s time to define the scope of your project with your advisor. Go over the experiments to be done, and figure out why they are being done. How do you follow up if they do or do not work? Ideally, you will have more than one research goal at a time, so that if one does not work or takes significantly longer than you planned, you will have an additional, worthwhile project to focus your efforts on once you start.

This phase culminates with a formalized process known as the comprehensive exam, where you submit a written proposal outlining your planned dissertation research. This will act as a guideline for the rest of your dissertation work, so put in the effort to make a strong proposal as it will help you down the line when determining which experiments to run, how to interpret your data, and where gaps in the field exist that you can fill in with publications.The point of planning is not about making a plan that you will follow to the letter no matter what happens. Rather, it is about getting all of your information together so that you know what needs to get done to complete your dissertation. Substitute “a dissertation” for “battle” in the Eisenhower quote below and you get the idea:

“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

– Eisenhower

3. Execution: This is the real work component of the dissertation and PhD process. Now that you’re familiar with your subject and have successfully finished your comprehensive exam, it’s time to enact all of that careful planning that you outlined in your proposal. This phase usually coincides with a drop in coursework, freeing you to put significant amounts of time and effort into your research. Keep a close eye on your experiments and data by working up your results on a regular basis. If your program has publication requirements for graduation, be sure to stay focused on compiling a body of data suitable for publication and not on generating lots of interesting but ultimately unrelated data points.

*4. Project Performance/Control: This is where you compare your actual progress to the experiments and workload that you have outlined in your proposal. Are your experiments supporting your hypothesis? Do you need to redesign experiments or scrap entire ideas that seemed great on paper but did not work? This is the time to do that. If major re-designs of you planned experiments are necessary, you will have to go back to phase 2 or 3 to start the process over once again.

5. Project Close, AKA Graduation: Once your advisor and committee have signed off on your research you’re ready to write it up and finish. Congratulations! A thesis defense is like a rather stressful project debrief with your committee: you’ve completed the work, wrapped up the loose ends, and now you just need to answer a few final questions to put the project behind you.

*Note: Your dissertation project will likely go in an unplanned direction at some point as research can be notoriously non-linear. It is important to embrace this aspect of research and factor it into your planning. In reality this sequence has a loop from Performance Control back to Definition and Planning, especially if issues occur during project performance. This is not an uncommon occurrence in research, as hypotheses fail in the face of data, additional controls become necessary, and experiments need to be redesigned. Smaller transitions also occur between project control and execution and sometimes timelines need to be altered due to uncontrollable circumstances (like mice that just won’t breed).

Know roughly which phase you are in, write down your short-, mid-, and long-term goals often, check back on them regularly, and continually readjust based on your current position and abilities in order to maximize what progress you do make. This project management approach is not unique or limited to giant projects like a dissertation. You can apply these tools to smaller projects like writing a journal articles as well. These are good skills to build as a graduate student since they will serve you well in the future whether you pursue a career in academia, industry, or some other line of challenging project-based work.

Have you used formal project management approaches to help with your dissertation workload? Share your experience in the comments section below!

[Image courtesy Flickr user roberthiggins, used under Creative Commons license.]


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