This article is not only a blog post but also a resource linking to other good blog posts and to free downloadable templates of project management tools for PhD students and supervisors.
To create this resource I asked around me and on Twitter if people had good references. I got a few nice ones, but actually I got many suggestions about self-organization and time management. It then appears to me that we tend to mix up what project management is versus time management, and even for me today it’s still not 100% clear.
In this research and student-supervisor relationship context, I would like to suggest the following:
- time management is a personal skills: you manage your own time, you decide what to do Tuesday at 10 AM, maybe you agree to meet with someone at this time, but ultimately you’re the one who decides when for example you want to have lunch or coffee (at least I hope you can). This also means that, to some extent, it doesn’t matter if your time management style does not align perfectly with your colleagues. Again, I wrote to some extent.
- on the other hand, for project management and in this context, there are at least two persons involved: the student and the supervisor. In my views, project management is as much about planning and conducting a project as about finding a compatible way for two persons to work together. Project management is a team skill.
Therefore, what I’ve been looking for are references to help both PhD students and supervisors to first understand what the underlying principles of project management are, and secondly to get an overview of different tools available to help them work together.
Below you will find interesting blog posts, whenever possible I selected those giving concrete advice on how to implement project management in research, and I also looked for free ready-to-use templates.
Click on each drop-down item below to see the content.
1. Understand the underlying principles of project management for researchers
Project Management for Scientists - blog post
meant toward supervisors
This article tries to define what project management is, argues that it can be applied to research and introduce the principles for how to do so:
“Projects can be large or small, planned and tracked formally or informally, and defined by a legal contract or an informal agreement.”
“Project management allows–indeed, insists–that the components of a project be constantly revised as new information arises.”
“The greatest chances for project success are realized when PIs, acting as managers, embrace the following premises. Project management is a way of thinking and behaving, rather than just a way of analyzing and presenting data.”
How Project Management Techniques Can Improve Research - blog post
meant toward supervisors
“research project management as a subdiscipline that can provide the tools and resources for researchers to better organize projects, but with flexibility in the planning process to evolve with the project as needed”
“Creating a road map to guide successful project implementation create a culture of shared ownership toward research goals and open communication throughout the project life cycle.”
There is a recommended reading list at the article’s end.
A PhD as a project - blog posts
from Fiona Saunders on her website and on the Thesis Whisperer website in 2013
meant toward PhD students
Introduction from the Thesis Whisperer: “Fiona Saunders is a Senior Lecturer in the Management of Engineering Projects at The University of Manchester and a part-time PhD student. Her research interests are in the management of projects in safety-critical industries. Prior to academia, Fiona enjoyed a successful 15 year industry career in project management.”
“It strikes me that, at least in the early days, most PhDs are akin to “Lost in the Fog” projects.”
She recommends to “Have a plan – even it only stretches out over the next six months and changes frequently”
“Having a documented PhD scope can help guard against a loss of focus, or drift in what the aims and objectives of the PhD are.”
“The third and final lesson from project management that is highly relevant to a PhD is the importance of communication.”
“One of the hardest lessons for new PhD students to learn is that the PhD is your project as such you are the project manager and you must take responsibility for managing the various communication channels on the project.”
The Smart Way to Manage a Large Research Project - blog post
meant toward PhD students
Tips on project management and also to manage data and files. Plus the article acts as a resource with an extensive list of tools to help you get organized.
“Planning consists of the following subtasks:
- Identifying the tasks that need to be carried out.
- Splitting the main tasks into their respective subtasks.
- Considering how much time each task takes.
- Determining which tasks run simultaneously.
- Assess the consequences if a task takes more time.
- Allow some air to breathe
Continuing the ideas to manage a large research project, regular checkpoints are an important aspect of a successful planning.”
Making the Right Moves - book - PDF
the book subtitle is: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty
meant toward postdocs and new faculty as the subtitle says
“Based on workshops co-sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and HHMI, this book is a collection of practical advice and experiences from seasoned biomedical investigators and includes chapters on laboratory leadership, getting funded, project management, and teaching and course design.”
You can download each chapter as a PDF for free. Chapter 7 is about project management while Chapter 6 is about time management.
2. Get to know different project management techniques and tools
- Gantt chart
- PERT chart
- Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
- SMART goal
- Kanban board
Each tool has its pros and cons. Therefore, one could combine them on different levels. For example, to visualize a complete PhD timeline I would recommend Gantt charts. To make this timeline, using WBS and SMART goals will help break down the project into smaller achievable tasks. Then to implement work and to track the progress throughout the project, one could use the Agile principles and use a shared Kanban board.
I don’t pretend that this resource is complete, there is surely much more which I don’t know about. Nevertheless, this was done to the best of my knowledge and it includes the project management tools which I’ve seen the most often in academia.
Academiac - blog posts and template
With my complete unbiased objectivity, I think that my 2 articles about Gantt charts with a free downloadable template are the best ones to explain how to use these charts for a PhD project =)
In the first article, Are Gantt charts useful for PhD students?, I introduce what Gantt charts are and what are the drawbacks to keep in mind (i.e. lack of flexibility).
In the second article, Guidelines to draw a timeline of your PhD, I provide guidelines to use Gantt charts specifically to draw a PhD timeline and to use it throughout the PhD. In this article one can also download for free the Excel file I used to create the timeline.
Templates by the I think well coaching team
on the website ithinkwell.com.au by Maria Gardiner and Hugh Kearns
Different templates and ready-to-use tools both for PhD students and for supervisors. For PhD students they have thesis planners and forms for different time scales, from a 3-year PhD to 6 months to a week to a one day plan.
I highly recommend supervisors and students to look at other materials which are available on their website like:
Online planner to create a PhD road map
This is a tool where you can drag and drop pictograms onto a 4-year calendar to create a road map for your PhD. They have signs for things like writing, conferences, meeting, holidays, risk analysis, etc.
The display is quite old fashion, but I like the idea of cards which one can drag and drop on the calendar. In a way it allows to create a simplified Gantt chart with the PhD main steps.
Templates for different PhD length by the University of Adelaide
This university seems to require doctoral students to draw a thesis road map as a Gantt chart. Nicely they provide templates for different PhD length, from 3-year up to 6-year-long program:
“A Gantt chart helps you plan your activities, communicate with your supervisory team and the University, and helps you keep track of your progress.”
It happens that I don’t know much about PERT charts but I’ve seen it mentioned in many references (often together with Gantt charts) so I thought it would be good to put it here.
PERT charts - articles and templates
PERT means Program Evaluation Review Technique.
Like a Gantt chart there is the idea to draw a diagram for a project but instead of horizontal bars here it uses boxes and arrows. Again each technique has its pros and cons, have a look at these two articles to try to understand the differences between Gantt charts and PERT charts:
In this extensive article, they suggest a formula to calculate an estimate of how long a task might take:
- “For each task, give three time estimates in days: the most optimistic completion time (O), the normal/most likely time (M), and the pessimistic time (P).
- Calculate expected time (TE) using the formula (O + 4*M + P) ÷ 6 = TE.”
They also talk about PERT charts in the book Making the Right Moves chapter 7 (see above)
Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) - articles and templates
It is often recommended to first break a PhD project into small tasks and make a Work Breakdown Structure before making a Gantt chart or PERT chart.
“The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) organizes and defines the scope of the project, breaking it into manageable tasks.”
Definition, templates and examples on the website workbreakdownstructure.com.
Plus, see again Making the Right Moves chapter 7 (see above).
SMART goals - blog posts
A 1 page document subtitled For use with the Doctoral Student Yearly Reviews from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute:
“SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bounded objectives.”
It provides a quick introduction and some examples.
An article entitled ‘Understanding SMART Objectives’ – for Your Project Proposals
“SMART objectives are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-related.”
In this article, I like the idea that we should “use an action word to describe what you want to achieve. Using an action word makes sure that your goal is clear and measurable.” and that they provide a list of such action verb to use.
Briefly the Agile method is to define a concrete goal (like SMART goals) to reach in a short period (typically <1 month), to work hard and focus toward this goal (as a sprint), then to analyze results and define a new goal for the next short period. In particular, it promotes communication and forces to regularly get feedback from stakeholders.
Be an Agile Academic - blog post
An introduction to Agile and how she implemented the methodology in her PhD studies.
meant toward PhD students
“I’ve isolated a few key concepts that really challenged how I thought about my work and helped me build systems to move quickly and efficiently through the dissertation process.”
“In Agile systems, being adaptive is a core value that underpins so many of the actual day to day practices.”
“Having milestones like sprint goals ensured that I never got too far off track, and checking in every day gave me structure even when things were shifting, but Agile showed me that I could let the project evolve all while staying in control.”
A drawback of Agile
One potential drawback is that it doesn’t force people to look at longer time goals and that consequently one might lose sense of the bigger picture. From a video by Fiona Saunders
In my PhD studies, setting up short time goals like performing experiments x, y and z for the coming month was not the difficult part. What I missed was a sense of longer time goals and the big picture. This is why for me using Gantt charts to create a PhD timeline and promote communication between students and supervisors seems like the most important project management tool to implement.
However, we do need to consider the two scales: the project long-term goals/big picture, and the short-term goals which make the project move forward step by step. Therefore, using Agile and SMART goals in combination with a PhD Gantt chart does sound like a great way to grasp hold on both scale.
The Agile Approach with Doctoral Dissertation Supervision - Publication & model
Tengberg L.G.W., 2015
I haven’t read it whole but this paper seems interesting. In figure 1, the author suggests a model for the doctoral dissertation:
In a Kanban board one creates different columns where tasks are placed depending on their status. The simplest way is with 3 columns To Do, Doing, Done but, of course, you can adapt this to your needs and I will even recommend having columns like Waiting For, or Someday/Maybe Ideas.
When you search for tips on how to create Kanban boards, it’s likely that you’ll be suggested the online tool Trello. I also use Trello a lot and love it, but there are other software available, also paper and pen is always a good way to start!
Live a PhD life less disorganised with Trello - blog post
“I’m an academic always looking for ways to manage my work and writing more effectively. I’m also in the thick of my PhD. For both of these I can recommend a very intuitive (and free!) web-based project management tool called Trello.”
“I then invited my supervisors (one of whom insists she is a technophobe) to access the Trello board, and waited to see what would happen next.
My supervisors took to the software like ducks to a pond.”
Using Trello in academia - blog post
“I lead a team of 10–15 scientists and a nonprofit company. Over the past 15 years, I used various methods and tools to manage projects, keep track of the scientific work of doctoral students and postdocs, recruit dozens of people, and organize my own tasks in research, teaching, and administration.”
“I use group boards for all research projects and for some other processes with at least two persons involved, such as managing job applications.”
Progress tracking tool for managing PhD students - StackExchange
In 2016 a supervisor asked on StackExchange for “Progress tracking tool for managing PhD students”
“I am looking for good options for tools to manage my PhD students, in terms of seeing that they are on track in working out their PhD theses (…) So some basic features would be:
- Collaborative software (preference of hosted on a server)
- Task lists with deadlines
- Timeline progression”
and was recommended to use Kanban boards and Trello.
More ideas on StackExchange
More ideas of software and project management tools for researchers on StackExchange discussions:
There is not 1 and unique way to manage a project, everyone finds its own way, adapts it to the persons involved in the project and even makes its practice evolve with time. So the take-home message would be like Katy Peplin wrote in her article about Agile: “Google a lot of things and borrow what works for you!”.
I hope you find in this resource a list of relevant materials for you to figure out your own project management way :) I also highly recommend you to attend a project management or leadership workshop. If you’re in Switzerland 🇨🇭, make sure to check out the CUSO transversal program with whom I first learned about project management.
And if you’re looking for more solutions to help you communicate with your student or with your supervisor, have a look at my checklist to clarify students and supervisors long term expectations.
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