Project Management Tips for Researchers

Jan. 23, 2019

In research, time and results are the two biggest assets. Being an effective project manager in your research group can save you time and maximize your results. Project management is also a key transferable skill that you can utilize within academia or the broader workforce. 

Lets review five stages of a typical project management life cycle and how you might apply these fundamentals to your own research projects. 

Initiation

During the initiation stage, you determine the scope and feasibility of a project. Scope can refer to the complexity of the work. You can define a project as a single experiment or a group of experiments. It depends on your particular body of work. In the business world, feasibility includes analyzing project profitability and assessing budget availability. In the research world, feasibility includes analyzing the literature, generating a hypothesis, and discussing the project with your research mentor. Has this experiment been done before? How will you be contributing to the field?  Next, make sure that you have access to all relevant equipment, protocols and expertise to execute the project, especially if it involves steps that you aren’t familiar with. If you need to make non-routine purchases, make sure your mentor has the budgetary bandwidth for these materials.  

Planning

In the planning stage, you find the protocols and materials that you need. You check your inventory to ensure that you have enough materials. It can be very tempting to get excited over a new project and use up all of the reagents. Don’t do that. Replenish the inventory during your project to keep the laboratory functional for your colleagues. Also, the planning stage is where you break down the work in order to execute the project. Also, make sure that you balance your protocols to maximize your bandwidth during the day. Lastly, give yourself ample time to become familiar with protocols that you have not done before. 

The planning stage is also where you plan your risk management strategy. If something can go wrong, how can you avoid it now? For example, if your cells need to be split every 3-4 days and senesce after the 15th passage, make sure you plan for having enough cells to see the project through until the end. You may find that you need to thaw a new vial in order to start a project instead of seeding an experiment from passage 14 cells! I learned that lesson the hard way. 

Execution

The planning stage is pivotal to ensuring that the execution stage is as smooth as possible. If you planned correctly, you should be conducting experiments and getting results at this point. If you are collaborating or soliciting help from colleagues, then everyone should know their role and when they are needed. Prior planning also gives you the flexibility to respond to unforeseen circumstances as you are working, and we’ll talk about that next. 

Project Monitoring and Control

This stage usually happens during execution but I want to highlight this separately so that you can ensure that it’s happening. Are you getting the results that you expected? If not, why? Is it a biological phenomenon or a technical flaw. Be sure you have designed ways to distinguish these during your planning. One important way to do this is to have controls during your experiment - one control that has been tried and tested to give you a positive result and another control without the “active” reagent to ensure something funny isn’t happening. Also, pre-schedule your experimental repeats to ensure that the result is reproducible. If it isn’t, then you may have a technical mishap in your protocol. If it is, then congratulations, you might have a result! 

Project Closing

Congrats on completing your experiment! Now, document all of your methods and findings in your laboratory notebook. Make sure to note any modifications that were made to the protocol. Also, keep track of mistakes made and obstacles encountered along the way. Lastly, check in with your mentor on your progress.

Laboratory research provides a great platform for pursuing intellectual curiosity, making key discoveries and advancing your scientific discipline. However, you do need to add structure to your projects so that you can maximize limited resources and thrive in collaborative environments. Utilizing a project management framework like the one above will also provide invaluable skills that you can articulate during job interviews and utilize across industries.  

Author: Caleb McKinney

Caleb McKinney
Caleb McKinney is Assistant Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Training and Development for Biomedical Graduate Education at Georgetown University Medical Center.