The management side of your project

Apart from the scientific and methodological aspects of your research, it is often very wise to consider yourself as the project manager for your research project. As a project manager you will sometimes need to take distance from your project’s content, have a birds eye view on issues such as planning, scope, available resources, deadlines, and deliverables. If you are too busy reading and writing (i.e. doing research), you might end up with a lot of stress just before delivery time because of the lack of this birds-eye view.

Of course you could take a project management course, but some tips from my side for simple project management follow here:

  1. Work hard on defining your project’s scope: You need to continuously strive for focusing your project on target. Focusing will define the scope of your project and will decide where you use your resources (i.e. your long evening hours). You do not need to worry about too much focus because often there is no such thing. Focusing will not happen over night, and will follow the process of problem definition. Scope will be where your research problem focuses, and will exclude the rest. In order to eliminate misunderstandings, it is also a very good habit to define what is NOT within your scope!
  2. Make a time line for your project: We all know what John Lennon said (for those who do not know: “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans“). He was right. But in any case it is wise to do that planning (and re-planning). It makes your life (and your supervisor’s life) easier if you have a time line that you can return to. Your time line should at least tell when you have to deliver your report! It should also have major milestones (e.g. “By end of February I should have a full draft”) and dates for delivery of your deliverables. In some cases you should also consider dependencies. Dependencies are foreseen events you cannot control. They might be hardware/software you are waiting for, other students to finish their job, your supervisor traveling, etc.
  3. Do some resource planning: Since your main resource type is often your time, a time line-based plan will also show when and how you spend your resources. But if you have additional resource needs, such as software/hardware, books, other students, etc. you need to accommodate for these and make sure you will have those resources when you need them.
  4. Work results-oriented (or “Work with the end in mind”): It does not help to read 10.000 papers on your topic, if your results do not reflect this. Remember, what you deliver at the end is the only thing your examinator will see. You will be evaluated based on that end result. Try to sit down a few hours and imagine your delivery date in details. What will you deliver? Will there be a report, a demo, a component, a presentation? Try to break down these into smaller pieces. Most probably you will find smaller, more manageable deliverables. For instance, a report in most cases consist of three main parts: 1) problem analysis, 2) state-of-the-art analysis, 3) own contribution and discussion. Or a demo might consist of many different pieces such as a GUI, 2-3 components… Write down all these deliverables. They will also constitute your research contributions at the end, so this exercise is not a waste of time! Try to specify them as much as you can, and estimate how much time it will take to finish each of them. In most cases you will see that you were far more ambitious than what you realistically can achieve with the number of hours you have in your possession.

Make a document with one page for each of the topics above (Excel sheets are excellent for this). Call this document “project_admin_mmdd” or something else. Make it a habit to share this document with your supervisor and to update it actively all during your project. This simple practice will eliminate a lot of nasty surprises and last-minute stress!