Get me a project manager, stat!

Underside of a Roman arch, showing the keystone in the centre

Keystone (Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell)

A while back, one of our Twitter followers asked whether The Research Whisperer had any posts about project management.

At the time, I could only think of @jod999’s megastar post about what a Gantt chart is, and mine on whether you can fix a broken Gantt chart.

While Jonathan’s post was about planning and putting in place a feasible and ideal timeline, mine talked about the common mistakes and remedies for timelines that don’t behave.

Research projects are very much about project management, and that tweet nudged me in the direction of this post.

Project management skills are elements that many sectors require, and this means that there is a weighty bunch of pixels already dedicated to the topic. For a great recent post on research project management, read @evalantsoght’s “Smart way to manage a large research project” at the Next Scientist blog.

Rather than rehearse what many others have already said (better than I could), I want to focus on someone  you should consider requesting as part of a major research grant:

Get yourself a project officer or a project manager. 

Why would you want such a person?

Because they make your research life worth living!

Seriously, a good project officer who is dedicated to your team and its work can boost the productivity of the entire gig. They concentrate on ensuring things are on track and perform that essential project management function of judicious nagging (I do a fair bit of this myself – on many fronts – and it works).

What do those in project management roles do?

  • They navigate the HR and recruitment jungle for project personnel (students and staff). Employing staff requires an impressively annoying amount of work.
  • There’s the regular ‘check-in’ liaising with project partners and other collaborators that should be done. It’s easy to lose track of this level of connection, and it’s not enough only to inform them of milestones.
  • Project officers provide a consistent point of contact for media, broader university administration and the funding body.
  • They know where everyone is in the project (physically and productivity-wise).
  • Often, project officers also manage project finances.

Can I have one?

A range of funding schemes allow you to budget for a project officer for the duration of the project. This person is distinct from a research assistant, but can sometimes be the postdoc fellow or associate.

If your funding scheme won’t allow you to put on a specific person to do this stuff, there are a few options:

  • It might be worthwhile giving someone on the research team responsibility for this role. They can delegate to others, but there needs to be one person who stays on top of the project as a whole and knows what’s coming up.
  • Check with your organisation about what admin assistance they might provide for your project – you may need to fight for this (e.g. getting a day a week from an existing staff member, or having your School fund a person for you). Usually, it’s best to arrange this kind of thing when you’re putting the project application together, and get it in writing!
  • If you’ve just scored a shiny grant, though, it can be effective to say: “Well, if I don’t get X amount of project management assistance, I’ll have to write to the funding body to say that I can’t do the project because my university is unsupportive…” (or similar). Very few universities would let grant money escape their clutches. As always with ultimatums, this is a last resort. Don’t throw down gauntlets if you can’t follow through on the duel.

You may have to compromise on your ideal, but ensure you get the best possible environment for getting that project done. You should always have a Plan B should your organisation stick to its denial-of-admin-assistance ways.

In addition, think about how much work would actually be done by someone in this kind of position. If your project will be compromised significantly without this role, think about scaling down or adjusting the way you’ve planned it.

If you’re a solo investigator, and it’s not a big enough grant for you to be able to heave your weight around, it’s a perfect opportunity to learn all the ropes of project management. This means that, in your future of uber-shiny grants, you’ll know exactly how to delegate and appoint (because you’ll actually know what needs to be done…). Win-win!

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

8 Responses to Get me a project manager, stat!

  1. PM Hut says:

    Dr. Tseen,

    The roles and the responsibilities of the project manager listed above are the generic ones.

    Is it possible to provide a list of the roles and the responsibilities of a project manager in a research grant project?

  2. Pingback: Get me a project manager, stat! | Australasian Research Management Society - Western Australia Chapter

  3. Pingback: Materials & Corrosion Design Advisor at Dovre Group | Richy Bug

  4. Great post Tseen,

    I agree a brilliant PM can reap far more rewards that playing it safe and not investing. But sometimes companies can’t afford to splash out, whether because they are a start up with limited funds or for another reason.

    For those people Earned Value Calculations are a great way to keep track of your project, whether you’re a pro or a noob to PM.

    Simple as tracking in an Excel Spreadsheet, progress can be tracked via recommended charts and the like.

    EVM is so simple, I wrote a post for PM’s of all abilities at Microsoft Training dot net:

    http://www.microsofttraining.net/b/projecttraining/2013/04/02/how-to-effectively-monitor-your-project-by-learning-earned-value-equations/

  5. Andre says:

    Reblogged this on Synkronicity and commented:
    Project management techniques and project managers are poorly recognised assets in the academic research arena. If industry can effectively project manage large tasks, why can’t the same apply in a research setting? Perhaps we need to train undergraduate scientists project management, just as we do engineering undergraduates?

  6. Pingback: Interesting article « Better learning & teaching projects

  7. Paul Mayes says:

    I’ve mentioned this v interesting article in my blog at http://betterprojects.jiscinvolve.org/wp/2013/10/08/interesting-article/
    Thanks for publishing it :-)

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