Thursday, March 6, 2014

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to manage a research project

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

Any large research project, whether it is writing a PhD dissertation, working on a journal publication or writing a grant proposal, is obviously rooted in your analytical skills and research abilities, but won't get finished unless you manage your project and time very well.

In most fields, however, our training in managing our projects (related to research or not), is rather limited. When you come to the Netherlands for your academic career, you will see that one of the advantages of doing science in the Netherlands is that there is good support from universities and funding bodies for short workshops that can help you develop these managing skills.

If you have no training in managing projects or have never really streamlined your research processes, you might like to stop and pause for a moment and ask yourself: "What does my usual workflow process look like?". Then, ask yourself: "How can I do this more efficiently and effectively?".

To work more effectively, it is important to ask yourself regularly: "Does this answer my research question?". If not, file it in a "sometime" folder and play with that research idea later. At this point, it is not relevant enough to spend more time on it.

To work more efficiently, you can follow these steps:

1. Write a quick outline

Start with a plan. If you just start researching in the wild without a plan, it would be like driving to a new place without a map or GPS.
Before you do anything else, before you estimate how much time the whole thing will take you, just take a sheet of paper and write down a quick outline of the steps that need to be done. For these steps, list down the tasks that you need to carry out, and estimate how much time they will take you. Always add 20-30% extra time as a buffer for your tasks to be on the safe side.

2. Plan the parts of your outline

Once you have your outline, you can start planning when you will be doing these tasks. Whenever you plan, keep in mind that you never get to really "work" all the hours that you are in your office. There can be phone calls, emails and other interruptions (I do suggest you plan in a time slot per day to deal with these, and ruthlessly eliminate these distractions at other times of the day).
Unless you have no single other responsibility but your task at hand, you will need to carve out a few hours a day to work on it. For PhD candidates, the other responsibilities can be limited, and you typically can devote at least 5 to 6 hours a day to your project at hand. For a starting assistant professor like me, who is developing new courses and having a high teaching load, finding 1 to 2 hours a day for research is a challenge (I tend to do my research early in the morning, before students start showing up and other tasks creep into my research time).
Now take your physical or digital calendar, and start scheduling time slots to work on your research tasks.

3. Assemble your toolkit

Before you enthusiastically start delving into your new project, take a moment to ask yourself: "What do I need?". Do you have the books you need, or do you know where to find them in the library? Do you have access to the right journals and software licenses? Do you have the material in the lab that you need for your experiments? Take a moment to make an inventory. If something is missing, start bugging the right people for getting your licenses or material to avoid that you'll get stuck at some point, waiting for the delivery of a missing piece of equipment.

4. Checkpoints

Plan time while you are working on your project to check your progress and course-correct if necessary. A checkpoint can be a meeting with your supervisor at a certain point into your research to see if you are on the same track and if he agrees with the direction in which you are going. Another checkpoint can be your weekly or monthly self-assessment, in which you analyze what work you did the past week/month, which work you did not do, and why you couldn't do it. Revise how much time things really take you. Think about what goes particularly well, and what you might be struggling with. Self-assessments are important in the process of becoming a fully independent researcher.

5. Document your assumptions and process

While working on your research project, keep track of the trails that did not work out. Keep a version management tab in your spreadsheets so that you know what you did when and why you made certain changes. In science, your basic assumptions are extremely important - so write them do.
I like keeping track of my assumptions and choices in a separate file. I also like keeping all the handwritten pages that led me to my ultimate choice for a certain model or theory, so that I can later on revisit the logic I followed.

6. Project journal

You will lose pages of calculations, and you will forget where you put a certain measurement device in an experiment. Therefore, keep your labbook or research journal or whatever you like to call it - and write down briefly what you did every day in your project, which files you created or worked with, and why you made certain choices. Such a journal will give you the quick overview of the progress of your project, and can be a lifesaver when you try to remember what you did a few months earlier.


  1. Its a very tough to handle to manage a research topics, but after read your blog it should be helpful to us

  2. Great post! This informative and helpful advices, would likely allow us to all in succeeding as more planned and arranged. From my point of view, these steps are the most important aspects of managing a research project.