Sonja Reiland
June 24, 2020 · 3min read

Ex Novo – Science behind the scenes

“Ex Novo – Science behind the scenes” is a series of articles born within ISA’s blog in collaboration with the Collegio Nuovo – Fondazione Sandra e Enea Mattei in Pavia, whose students community is marked by a strong presence of women in science. Science is research, long hours to carry out experiments in the laboratory or in the field, but science is also communication, grant writing, entrepreneurship, administration, teaching, project management, leadership and many other facets. We will post articles, interviews and short stories on these multiple aspects of the scientific endeavour. Should you like to contribute with your experience, do not hesitate to get in touch with Michela, ISA’s Head and Collegio Nuovo Alumna, here:

Project Management in academic research – a navigation toolbox

Being a researcher is a tough job. Even more when you are not experienced and you do many things first time, you depend on your supervisors’ decisions, and you do not have a supporting network. In European Commission’s slang, we would call you an Early Stage Researcher, ESR. There are different personalities amongst ESRs, some do maaaaany experiments as “trial and error” – they spend a lot of lab budget; others read, study, plan, read again, and are afraid of doing the key-experiment – they will not have enough data for a thesis. Supervisors can also show very diverse behaviors, some you do not even remember how they look like – you will not receive much feedback or advise; others will be a shadow behind your shoulder – well, who would not be stressed about it? How to deal with this diversity of behaviours? How can you, as a fresh PhD student, as example, get more attention by your supervisor? How can your supervisor gain trust in your work, so she will not control every step you do? Probably as important, how can you yourself, know if things go all right? My recommendation is not about psychology tricks, or neuro lingual programming, it is simply about management, project management.

My colleagues of the ISA team and I are offering a workshop in Project Management1 to our young research fellows in our institute, the Centre for Genomic Regulation. In this article, I will share with you some elements of project management that I believe can guide you through your research project, and probably through many other adventures you might find yourself in.

Junior researchers discussing and learning about Project Management.

It is not only you, who is interested in your project.

As a junior researcher, you might feel sometimes a bit lonely. Your project is a tiny little piece of a big puzzle and it feels that nobody else is really interested in it. In our ISA workshop, we first asked our participants to do a stakeholder analysis, and they were most surprised that besides themselves, and maybe their direct supervisor, there are many other people potentially interested in their research project. In the feedback round with the participants, they called the stakeholder analysis an eye opener. I felt it was not only motivating them to attend the complete workshop with four morning sessions, but also to have a new view on their research projects. “Oh wow my project has actually more social relevance than I thought!” The exercise to identify those stakeholders and to plan communication activities to inform, update or consult them is a very practical tool to manage expectations and avoid frustration, and even to create new opportunities.

Going back to the PhD student – supervisor relationship: If you manage to agree with your supervisor on clear objectives of the project, on the steps how to achieve them, and you also inform her on a regular basis on the results (even if negative results), trust can grow, and you will be on the highway to become an independent researcher.

You do not depend on feedback, but you can know yourself if you are doing well.

Project Management is not only about planning a project in a structured way with deliverables, milestones and key performance indicators, but also a tool for analysing how well the project is going. Do my achieved results allow the continuation of my project? Will there be enough time to collect sufficient data for my thesis or even a publication? You probably do not want to pass the “point of no return” without having thought carefully about alternatives and tested your opportunities. If results are not as expected, you do not have to trash your project immediately, but you might want to change your objectives slightly and adapt your work plan accordingly. Finally, you will be much better off, if you discuss those changes with your supervisor, collaborators and other stakeholders. Project Management helps you to think through your plans carefully, know where you are on the map, and communicate your ideas.

Next time, you can do it even better. 

As I said at the beginning, being a researcher is a tough job. The good news is, you can do mistakes; but you must learn from them. That means you need to remember what went well and what went wrong, identify why misunderstandings happened, and which risks you underestimated and why. Basically, every project should have a closing, where all involved people sit together and reflect on the successful and painful moments. If this reflection is done properly, you will feel the energy to start a new project right away, and you know it will be successful.

Discussing and exchanging with colleagues about science, being curious and creative, and having the academic freedom to choose the project you are excited about is the fuel for successful academic research. Project Management can serve you as a navigation system in the sometimes misleading labyrinth of research.

1 If you are interested to learn more about project management skills stay tuned for the next edition within the PRBB Intervals Programme here.


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