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Project management in research

Research project management

While project management is widely popular, this popularity mainly relates to application areas outside of academic research. In part, this is because the position of ‘project manager’ is typically rare in academic settings, and project management thus needs to be performed by research scientists.

While the skills required to perform research successfully are already numerous, project management is not typically given significant consideration and it is rarely part of the undergraduate or graduate curriculum. Despite this, the ability to complete research projects on schedule and successfully with respect to the project goals is essential.

Therefore, we want to focus here on the essential aspects of research project management and provide guidance on how to get started effectively.

What are the essential elements of a research project?

First, we will explore the specific characteristics of research projects as a basis for their effective management. The three aspects all research projects have in common are a goal, a timeline, and a budget.

The goal of a given project is defined at the very beginning. While it sounds trivial, in research, the definition of goals is far from easy but among the most important factors for making a project successful. Significant effort should be made to make the project goals as precise as possible, as they will be the basis for the downstream definition of specific tasks. Furthermore, they will serve as a reminder of what you’re trying to achieve during the course of the research project.

The timeline of a research project is an aspect that is frequently overlooked. Research may often be exploratory and it may be unclear whether certain milestones can be achieved at all, casting doubt on the benefit of specifying a specific timeline. Or, based on experience, one may have a rough estimation of how long a given project should take and the need for creating research project timelines may be less obvious.

However, creating timelines is a great way to think about the specific tasks that are required to achieve your overall goal. Considering these specific tasks allows you to see how and when they interact and build on each other. Having an estimation how long these individual tasks will take will also allow you to check how effectively you are progressing.

This is particularly important in collaborative research projects, because projects may experience delays if tasks assigned to certain project partners cannot be completed in time. Knowing when to expect the tasks to ideally be completed will help you to plan and potentially take mitigating action.

This is why research grant applications typically require the definition of milestones and associated timelines, which also allows reviewers to evaluate whether a given research project appears feasible.

Finally, planning budgets in advance is essential for projects to have a realistic chance for success. This may, for example, include the personnel costs, material costs, or costs for instruments or experiments. While some of these costs are defined as part of the budget in advance, others can be managed during the course of a research project that this may have important consequences of whether a project can be completed as planned.

What is project management in research?

The principal aim of research project management is to achieve your aims on time and within the allocated budget. The critical elements of research project management that should be performed early-on are to

  • Define a precise overall goal for your research
  • Break down the overall goal into approximately 3-4 achievable tasks
  • Identify how the tasks will depend on each other, in particular if multiple project partners are involved
  • Create a time plan with an approximate duration of each task
  • Define achievable milestones associated with each of the tasks
  • Identify all the resources you need, including for personnel, materials, etc.
  • Define the budget for these resources, and when it will be required
  • Identify potential risks and mitigating actions in advance

What are the tasks of a research project manager during the course of a research project?

What are the tasks of a research project manager during the course of a research project?
  • Define tasks at a more granular level that are needed to work towards a given milestone. This is important because it defines your day-to-day research activities and can help you to improve your time management. Defining specific research tasks will also help you to identify gaps in knowledge or resources, such as in required IT equipment, that you need to fill in order for your research project to progress effectively. The earlier such gaps can be identified, the better.
  • Communicate with all project partners to get an overview of the progress made and to update the time plan if needed. Communication is particularly vital in collaborative research projects. Besides the ability to manage research projects well, communication is also essential for the identification of follow-up projects, or the application of new funding.
  • Anticipate potential roadblocks in particular with respect to the dependency of tasks assigned to different research project partners. If some tasks cannot be completed in time, this may have downstream effects on other parts of the research project. By knowing this in advance, mitigating action can be taken, and tasks may, for example be re-ordered, in order to still complete the project on time.
  • Manage the budget in order to complete the project objectives as efficiently as possible. In research projects that involve the recruitment of new personnel it is not rare that delays are encountered that are due to delays in recruitment. As this may cause a delay in milestone completion, an important consideration for research project management is how to use the budget as effectively as possible to mitigate this issue.

Manage your research projects with foldercase

Foldercase allows you to effectively manage your projects and was designed specifically for science. You will find GANTT charts, Kanban boards, and Wikis, as well as tools that allow you to communicate effectively in collaborative research projects. This will help you manage your research projects well and complete your objectives on time.