Project Management for Scientists

project management notesToday’s topic in my group lab meeting is project management. It took me a long time as a scientist to believe that research projects could actually be managed. I think that I felt this way given the uncertain nature of scientific research; you never know if an experiment will actually work and you often can’t predict in which direction the research will go next. I’ve always been an organized person and it turns out that managing a research project isn’t all that different from other projects that you do in your day to day life such as go grocery shopping, clean out the garage, and plant a vegetable garden. Once I started thinking about science in the same way it’s like a light bulb went on.

I don’t recall ever having explicit conversations with my research mentors and supervisors about project management. That may be because I was fairly productive and am a planner by nature, but these are skills that don’t naturally come to everyone and that can be learned and improved over time. As a purely ridiculous example, I explicitly tell students that they should do something else with their time while PCR is running or they are incubating a sample for an hour. I’d like to think that they know this, but I have heard stories from colleagues, of students who will literally sit there for the duration of the incubation thereby wasting precious time that they could have used doing anything else. It’s like the science equivalent of watching paint dry.

Here are some thoughts on how I approach project management in laboratory science:

1) My first step is to define the project clearly and to determine what success looks like. If you skip this step you’ll never know when the project is done, nor will you know if you did it well. You need to identify the full scope of the work, what resources you’ll need (reagents, people, literature, etc.), and the time that you have available to do it in. Thinking about these limitations up front will decrease the amount of frustration that you and others experience later. At the same time, there is room for flexibility, which I will talk about later.

2) My next step is to think about the major milestones that need to be completed in order for the project to be finished. For even the most basic science experiment this will include things like generation of hypotheses and predictions, experimental design, ordering of reagents, allocation of people, doing the experiments, data collection and analyses, data presentation and communication (i.e. making figures, tables, diagrams, etc.), and generating a manuscript, poster, or talk to communicate your findings. That’s a lot of stuff to complete in order to successfully finish your project! One of the major things that I struggle with is maintaining an interest in projects that span several years of work; I often get bored part way through and struggle with staying motivated to finish.

3) Up next is thinking about the flow of tasks and their relationships to one another in your project. I like to think of the major milestones in a project as parts of a puzzle that need to be put together. When I build puzzles, I always start with the edge pieces first, and then work my way in; this means that the connection of some pieces requires the presence of other pieces first. With your project you want to determine whether some of your milestones are interconnected and have to happen sequentially, or whether some of your milestones are independent and could be worked on in parallel at the same time. For example, if you wanted to clone a particular gene in your critter of interest, you would first want to obtain the DNA sequence from a molecular database, you’d then design and order gene specific primers, you’d then perform PCR with your primers, purify your amplified DNA via gel electrophoresis and a gel extraction kit, clone your DNA product into a plasmid, and sequence the plasmid to ensure that the DNA sequence matched the one in the database. These tasks are sequential and one needs to happen before you move on to the next. Other projects have milestones that could be completed at the same time because one doesn’t depend on the completion of the other. This is also the time to identify what could go wrong. Where might your project go off the rails? Can you come up with a back-up plan to get around the problem should it arise? Can you plan ahead to avoid the problem? Can you ask for help?

4) Now you need to break your project milestones into smaller mini-projects that contain a small number of discrete steps. Ideally, you’d aim to complete a few of the small tasks every day and one of the mini-projects each week in the lab. This will help to keep you motivated as you’ll be able to measure your progress on the project and you will build up lots of little wins and that will keep your mental and emotional state positive.

5) The final step is putting together a timeline for completion. I like to set a deadline that I think is realistic, but I usually add several extra weeks and expect that something will go wrong during the course of the project. I then work backwards from that date when planning my time. I schedule in my major project milestones, my mini-projects, and my smaller tasks at a level of detail that I’m comfortable with. Some projects are tricky and it will be difficult to easily identify all of the mini-projects and small tasks up front. Do your best and don’t get off target because that can lead to project creep where the scope of the project balloons out and doesn’t resemble the scope of what you originally set out to do. You need to be flexible because plans can sometimes change mid-project, but head back up to what you defined in Step 1 if you feel that your project is getting out of control. You’ll often find that you reimagined the scope of the project without really thinking things through because you got excited by a neat result or finding. Think extra hard about whether you really want to commit to expanding the scope or redefining the success of your project before you leap in! That being said, there will be times when you need to retool your plans and timeline due to the unpredictability of lab research, but hopefully because you’ve identified the possible trouble spots in advance (Step 3) this will be minimal.

6) Execute your project management plan. Enter specific tasks and mini-projects in your daily and weekly calendar and set deadlines for your project milestones.

Some great resources:

If you need help with bigger project management concepts, Melanie Nelson’s blog Beyond Managing is great!

If you find that scheduling, prioritizing, and keeping up with your to-do list is a challenge, I recommend reading David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” . It will change your life – I kid you not!

What tips and resources do you give to your trainees in order to help them manage their research projects?

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