Simplifying Research Project Management

Project management is too complex. And therefore project management in research is regularly avoided. BUT – researchers can fix that with some simple approaches.

Fix 1: Don’t expect others to use your project management tool or approach. Expect you’ll need to do all of the work maintaining and updating the plan.

Fix 2: Don’t have a detailed plan covering your entire project or PhD. But do know how long you can spend on your project or PhD.

Fix 3: Use an iterative project management approach. One that checks in against progress and experiments on a monthly basis.

Fix 4: Use a simple project management tool, such as one-page-project-management so that if others need to see the program, they can, but it is not overwhelming.


Project management in research has been made overly complex by the adoption of construction project management methods in research. When reality is we need to adopt a more I.T. based approach.

Let me explain. I guess project management stems from construction projects where the aim was to create a new building or another vehicle or whatever it might be that was very similar to the last. In construction, it’s impossible to cut, and paste the buildings that you have created, and so the need for project management in the context of having the same workflow is really really important. The need for gates, the need for quality assurance along the entire pathway. The idea that there are dependencies all really matters. To some extent, dependencies matter in research but not necessarily in the same way, and same with I.T., you can build different parts of a piece of software before you create the bits that it might plug into or the bits that might plug into it. So have a think about the kind of project management approach that you’re using there.

The other thing that I’d say about project management, even in construction where it’s used heavily and there’s an expectation that you will use project management. There are people who are reluctant to manage projects using a project management tool or a project management approach. So, if they have trouble in their industry as a researcher, if you’re keen on using project management approaches, don’t expect that your team to use it because it’s probably not going to happen. 

In terms of a detailed project plan, yes it’s really great to know what you want to do in each of the 3 years of your PhD but I would say don’t plan out the experiment down to the day, week or hour for your PhD. Rather have a broad understanding of what you’ll do over your 3 years, and then have an increasing level of detail the closer you are to now. So, maybe if you’re in the start of year 1, you have a good detail about the first 6 months with less detail but a bit of an idea of what you want to achieve over the next 18 months or so after that. You still need to be aware of what your deadlines are because you do need to build that in, and you probably need to therefore plan quite regularly. One of the things that I think is most useful from I.T. that we should be doing in research that we’re not doing so much is an iterative approach. So, before I mention that you can’t you know, cut and paste a building as it were but you can cut and paste software, and as a result in I.T., there’s no real need to create the same package twice because you can copy it, and paste it from one location to the other, and transport it basically anywhere in the world to any system in the world. So, the idea everything that we create in I.T. space is going to necessarily being new because we could if we didn’t if it did exist, we could potentially copy it and paste it. 

And the same kind of is true for research. Yes, we want some quality control about the collection of data. In that respect, we can’t you know, copy and paste the same experiment over and over again. Unless we’re running a simulation but what we have in research is that we get different results every time. That even though, we might control for as much as we possibly can. There are variables that we can’t control. Indeed, sometimes we’re trying to measure the impact of the variable on our system. So, we need to conduct these things over and over and over again, and that can impact whether we need to do more research more experiments or less. Thus, the idea of you know, detailed project plans that go many years out into the future doesn’t quite work for research. But what does work is a more iterative approach. So, the idea that we do a little bit. Check whether we’re on course. Check whether that’s what we expect. Check whether we might change what we’ll do as a result of what we’ve got, and then we proceed to the next step. And they do that a lot in I.T., and I think that’s something that we could learn a lot from in research.

Finally, if you are going to expect other people to have a look at your project, I should say use a tool or a layout that works for a lot of people. Don’t choose something that’s proprietary or that other people can’t get access to. Choose something that’s simple, and at the very simplest that might be something on just on a piece of paper hand drawn. But if you want to be able to update it something a little bit more editable but nonetheless simple would be something, say in a spreadsheet. Which would be nice, and easy for people to manage and to see. But I do understand that spreadsheets turn some people off. Increasingly, kanban boards things like Trello are being used. So, if that’s something that you’re into, give that a crack to you. So, don’t just turn off project management, and don’t expect everyone if you love it to love it as well. Note that they might have different preferences to you and working in with them will be the best way to achieve your project goals.