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. 

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Can you fix a broken Gantt chart?

Workable [Photo by Tseen Khoo]

Your project’s been funded? It’s going ahead? Congratulations!

You must have written a feasible and convincing application. The timeline you put together must have looked do-able, appropriate and very neat. It looks like it’ll be plain sailing.

Six months later…

What?

A key team member’s moved to Fiji in a huff, and taken his expertise with him? The prof you’re planning to work with in the UK has taken her long service leave? You can’t find a research assistant who’ll stay longer than a month? And, worst of all, your project data isn’t saying what you thought it would?

While very few research projects go exactly as planned, the good news is that they usually still result in good outcomes and worthwhile advancement in the field of research.

When you feel like your project’s going off the rails, though, this can be small comfort.

Here are a few strategies that may help get things back on track:

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The auspicious university

Dear reader: Let me save you some time. This post is written specifically for practice-based researchers.

If you aren’t a creative type (artist, writer, poet, dramaturge, designer), you can probably stop reading now. If you are, please keep reading – I need your help.

What’s an artist to do?

Coloured grain/seed artwork that was filled by the general public

Seeking completion by Tseen on Flickr

I work with the cool people at the university: artists, designers, architects, social scientists, humanities scholars and educators – all sorts of excellent people.

Many of them are professionals in their chosen professions. That is, they are professional artists, designers, architects, poets, writers, etc. Their research is ‘practice-based’ research; they create stuff. The process of creation is an integral part of the research process. It meshes with their teaching, which is often studio-based, using workshops and mentoring rather than lectures and tutorials. These people fit very well into a university landscape.

Until it comes to funding.

Arts funding, like all funding, is built for the people who need it. It is organised around independent individuals (or small collaborations) or highly focused arts-based organisations (theatres, for example). These are the people who need the funds, so that is how the funds work.

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The Slow Seduction

If I told you that I could put a five-page description of your research program in front of your favourite funding body, even before they made their next call for applications, would you write it?

If I told you that your final project report was due, would you be so enthusiastic about writing that?

I sometimes think of applying for funding as a long conversation with the funding body. You might like to imagine it as a slow seduction, similar to the formalised literature of a twelfth century French romance.

You are the knight paramour, wooing your damsel with clever ideas and visions of a glorious future. She questions your worthiness, comparing you unfavourably to her many other suitors. When she calls upon her friends for advice, they advise her against you, speaking softly with but faint praise.

She is reluctant, flighty, unpredictable. She may spurn you again and again before granting you the first of her favours. Even then, she doesn’t take you seriously, granting only a fraction of what you ask. In return, she demands that you be true to your promise, and send her regular reports of your quest.

Finally, she tires of you. The passion is over; she has no more to give. She asks you for one final epistle, one little note to show that it has all been worthwhile. But even as you write, you know that this is not the final letter. It is the opening charge in a new battle of wills; you know that your destinies are truly entwined, forever.

Perhaps my knowledge of twelfth century French romantic literature is slightly lacking. You might prefer to think of the grant application process as one of the great 19th century correspondences or a travelling salesman who returns again and again in the hopes of winning that one big contract.

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