Entering graduate school is more than getting a degree after completing your undergraduate and learning a sophisticated technical skill in the lab.
When you start as a graduate student, there is a high-level skill to master immediately. This skill is managing and completing a research project with several tasks: planning research experiments, performing experiments, collecting data, analyzing data, and writing a thesis. Unfortunately, you only have a limited time to complete all of the tasks on this list.
Managing multiple tasks in a research project can be similar to juggling—if you drop one ball, it will be chaotic. Likewise, when you fail to manage your research project, you’ll also get undesired outcomes.
Let's say you come across one failed experiment. Performing this experiment repeatedly or tweaking it to make it work can occupy most of your time in the lab. Therefore, you get further from completing subsequent experiments. When your mentor finds out about this situation, she will certainly be concern.
So how do you find the balance? How do you manage it all while accounting for all of the obstacles thrown your way? In this article, we explore a few techniques to help you manage your upcoming research project.
In This Article
Why is managing a research project an important skill for a graduate student?
Managing a research project is an important skill for a graduate student due to the following reasons:
1.To complete your project
To graduate, you have to complete your research project and thesis before approaching the end date of your funding. The last thing you want is to find out you are unable to finish your final experiments because the funding has expired.
2.To ensure good quality
The quality of your research can also suffer when you are in a rush to complete multiple experiments.
3.To plan ahead
Planning your research project step-by-step allows you to find the right strategy to tackle each project and anticipate incoming challenges for each experiment.
4. To manage changes
When performing a research project, it’s possible that your research plan has to change. For example, due to the availability of your research materials and equipment, you may have to alter your experiment. Having a clear plan will allow you to make some changes to the original plan, achieve your research objective and still meet your deadline.
Why is the project management skill valuable for future careers?
Project management will become one of most valuable skills you develop—no matter what your future career may be. After graduating and starting a new path, you will still need this skill to plan, organize and complete projects.
As a graduate student, you build the project management skill by managing your research project from beginning to end.
Factors to consider when managing a research project
When managing a research project, there are three important constraints to consider (Williams, 2013):
- Cost: The amount of money needed to support your research.
- Time: the end date of your funding or years needed to obtain a degree.
- Scope: this includes your experiments, thesis, required classes, etc.
A change in one constraint generally affects the other constraints. For example, you decide to increase the scope of your project by adding in more research experiments. In this case, your costs will increase and you will have less available time for the rest of your project. As a result, you will also have less time to write your thesis. In this case, the quality of your thesis may suffer.
Eventually, the interactions among the triple constraints affect quality.
Helpful tips to manage your research project
Set your goals early
From early on, plan your research project based on your goals. In graduate school, your main goal is to complete these important tasks: required classes, your research project, and your thesis.
For each of these tasks, identify smaller, reasonable tasks. As an example, for the research project, completing each research objective in the project can be your smaller goal. Then, add a link between tasks, for example, a particular task that you can only start after finishing other tasks (project contingencies). Afterwards, estimate the time you need to complete each task and map out the start date and the end date.
Some of the advantages of setting small, reasonable goals are: it allows you to plan a specific strategy to finish each goal and it helps keep you motivated after finishing each goal.
To learn more about setting goals, find our article below:
Learn more about the funding
When the university admits a graduate student, it may offer the student a funding package covering tuition and fees, such as a research assistantship or a teaching assistantship. In addition to this package, another source of funding usually supports the graduate student’s research during her or his time as a graduate student.
Before starting your first semester in graduate school, investigate the details about your funding, particularly the budget, the end date and the requirements. That way you have a clear idea about when you must finish your research project.
Consider your time
As a graduate student, you have other important tasks you must complete. For example, to get your degree, you must complete all required classes. Therefore, you need to juggle time between performing research experiments and taking classes. If you are under a teaching assistantship, divide your time evenly for conducting your research, taking your required classes, and teaching your class.
Weighing the risk
The nature of conducting research experiments is that they occasionally fail. Therefore, to prevent losing time, allocate a longer timeline for the experiments with a higher risk. If possible, add this type of experiment to your timeline as early as possible. In addition, create a plan to overcome each possible failure. Finally, add experiments with a lower risk closer to the end of your timeline.
Consider the value
When adding some experiments into your research project, consider their value. Sometimes adding more experiments will strengthen your findings. Unfortunately, too many experiments also means it will take more time and effort to finish them. Therefore, only choose necessary experiments that add more value to your research and bring you closer to your main goal.
One way to manage your research project effectively is by using a tool to create clear and visual timeline of your research project.
What are some helpful tools to manage a research project?
A Gantt chart is a chart using a horizontal bar to visualize the timeline of a project and its tasks, with start and end dates within the timeline. A timeline in the Gantt Chart shows the chronological order of your experiments.
Ideally, your timeline starts from the first semester to several months before you plan to graduate. After deciding a timeline, assign each smaller task with each milestone. A milestone is a specific time point in the timeline, which contains a start date and an end date of each task.
Each horizontal bar represents a task in the research project, whereas the length of the bar shows the length of time to finish the step.
This chart provides an effective way to track progress, plan multiple steps in the project, and map out workloads.
How to create a Gantt Chart:
a. Identify tasks:
- Identify all major tasks; all the research objectives in your research project.
- Identify all subtasks; your research experiments in each research objective.
b. Draw a horizontal bar for the length of time:
- Identify a timeline; start from the first semester and end closer to the semester you plan to graduate.
- Plug in each horizontal bar for each subtask. This bar should represent how long each experiment may take. It is represented along the overall timeline of the project.
- Map out each subtask with its milestone. Each milestone should contain the start date and the end date.
- Pay attention to the experiments that can only start after the completion of another experiment. The starting date for these subtasks should be after the end date of the proceeding experiment.
c. Edit the chart if necessary, for example when adding more subtasks or experiments.
2.High-Level Process Map
A high-level process map is a map containing several key steps for each task in a research project. This map is a relatively simple flowchart, but it helps visualize all processes in a research project.
How to create the map:
- Identify all processes in the research project.
- Identify the start and the end of each process.
- Use symbols to represent each unique step, and write the detail in the symbol. The common symbols used in this map are boxes to represent different steps, diamonds to represent important decisions as go or no-go, and flow arrows to connect boxes and diamonds.
A quick way to create this map is by using Lucidchart. You can also use Power Point or Word, although it takes a much longer time. Otherwise, there is always a simple way by creating it with a pen and paper.
3.Work Breakdown Structure Example
A work breakdown structure is a chart containing a list of tasks and subtasks in a research project. This chart has a tree-like structure with the main branches containing the tasks and smaller branches containing smaller tasks. This structure helps to divide a big research project into smaller and achievable tasks you can manage.
How to create the work breakdown structure:
- Identify all tasks in the research project.
- Divide each task into three levels: big, medium, and small tasks.
- Outline and arrange the tree-like structure into three sections based on the three levels of tasks.
The easy way to create a work breakdown structure is by using Lucidchart, Excel, PowerPoint, or Word.
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