Project Management for Academics

It started with a Facebook post from Shit Academics Say.

There’s so much truth in Dr. Kelly’s words, namely that few graduate programs formally address project management in their curriculum. When my faculty in the Texas A&M University College of Agriculture & Life Sciences encouraged me to pursue doctoral studies “one day,” they unanimously included the recommendation that I spend 5-10 years working outside of academia. It sounded simple enough– get real world experience. There’s a variety of value to be found in such advice and action. Of course, the quality of such experience depends heavily on a number of factors, including what industry you’re in and what the “real world” looks like for that industry.

To help contextualize the advice I’m about to give, consider that my academic preparation included K12 teacher licensure and adult and continuing education. After completing my master’s degree, I spent eight years working for a state agency, five as an Instructional Designer and three as the eLearning Manager. As an ID, I was part of small teams that designed telecommunications infrastructure, law enforcement, emergency responder, disaster preparedness, highway pavement marking/DOT, and heavy equipment operation training for professionals. From the andragogy underpinning each course to the participant manual and instructor guide produced and printed for each training delivery, I was responsible for facilitating workflow between myself, a graphic artist, a subject matter expert, the training program manager, and the print shop. Towards the end of this five years, my state agency began the quest towards taking training online, and I was excited to move from within one of the seven divisions into administration to help lead this change. Now, as a supervising manager, my team included two art & animation specialists and one developer. We met with the seven different divisions to discuss what courses they wanted to convert and the process I created and implemented to manage our shop, ensuring smooth operation and development. Getting started, we had 1-3 projects in development at any one time. By the time I left to work on my doctorate, three courses had been put fully online, including a formal plan on when and how to revise, another seven courses in various stages of the development queue, and two annual evaluation reports of our work. I had, in essence, become a project manager complete with formal continuing education of my own from the American Management Association.

When I saw the tweet from SAS, my immediate reaction was “It’s true, no one prepared me to juggle the myriad of research projects, students to advise, leadership service, outreach events, and classes I teach.” But my comment on the post stands– Being a project manager in industry before my PhD and academia did, though.

The following advice, tips, and resources are a collection from my eight years in industry, four as a doc student, and six as a tenure-track faculty member; almost 20 years of applied practice. Like any good academic, I must caution that there are limitations to any good conclusion.

  • No system is perfect, but they all have some similar features/functions.
  • Find a system that works for you.
  • Focus on the concept of the advice not necessarily the exact implementation.

5 Project Management Tips for Academics

These tips represent the five essential tasks that help me keep my sanity as an academic. In the interest of full disclosure, my own personal weaknesses are #4 and #5. If I’m honest, I self-check about every other month these days, using the “busy trap” as an excuse.

  1. Create a tracking system
  2. Map all projects with deadlines and milestones on the same calendar (color coding can help) — this includes grading, treat each class you teach as it’s own project
  3. Set your deadline on deliverables to be 5-7 days before theirs, when possible
  4. Do a self check on the status of your projects every week
  5. Set a cut off date/expiration for projects dead in the water

Examples of Practice

Now to explore what these tips look like for me.

Tracking & Project Expiration

My tracking system is a mixture of Google Sheet and writing on the wall (literally). The Sheet tracks planned publications, all of them. My office has one wall that is entirely glass, and I keep a running list of grants (drafting & in review), Doceo Center projects, and student class projects.

As soon as a new publication possibility comes into perspective, it goes on the Sheet. Before I can say yes to a project or publication, I check the Sheet and glance at the wall (you can somewhat see the writing in my IG post below). This tracking helps me monitor my capacity and keep me from overcommitting or letting something fall off my radar.

If you look at my Publication Plan, there are three publications in particular that are nearing their expiration date.

  • Two were research projects conducted at my previous institution. Lit review is written, data is collected. Data is qual and only half analyzed. They’re interesting. The results are still relevant. I just haven’t given them the priority they need to be completed.
  • One was a “quick and dirty” survey project with colleagues that has failed to get a sufficient number of participants. The reasons for this are primarily political and selfish, and that’s ok. The topic could be seen as attacking a national organization responsible for tremendous oversight. The survey also requires sharing some institutional processes on how they’re meeting the expectations of aforementioned organization.

The first two projects will move to status 0, or Dead, on my tracking sheet by June 1 if I do not make headway on them before then. The third project requires an email conversation with colleagues. None of us want to pull the plug, and none of us have the time to truly champion the project. The inevitable is to set a project expiration date and set tasks and milestones accordingly; we miss those tasks or milestones, and the project moves to status 0.

The historical tracking also helps me remember the forgettable. Where did I publish that project about XYZ? When did we do that research on ABC? What authorship order did we agree to at project launch? It also allows me to play Dr. Frankenstein and bring a dead project back to life for completion, if ethically feasible. This might come in handy when there’s a funding drought or some other reason for the “pipeline” to sputter and publications for the year are looking slim.

Mapping & Due Dates

Continuing my honesty here, I map my life in Google Calendar. I have sub-calendars that organize my life as general university/work, course deadlines, professional organizations (I am a leader in two), entertainment, personal, family, and tasks. These each have their own color so that when events appear on my calendar, I can glance at the color and know what’s what. Meetings or events related to research/collaboration projects get color coded as general university/work). Actual tasks (like manuscript deadlines) are…Tasks with a due date and notes.

Notice how I have set this manuscript review to be due today, February 17, but the task notes remind me that the journal has asked for it by February 26. I cannot stress due dates enough, and this is the perfect example of giving yourself a buffer. Procrastination is not just an avoidance technique, it can actually be an effective means of managing productivity and breaking through creativity blocks (a full research topic on its own right). Plan for it but don’t let it eat you alive. I originally set this task to be due earlier this past week. However, bad weather that closed the university one afternoon and related complications throughout the week, to include my own lack of motivation in the middle of a snowstorm, resulted in me pushing the task back on my calendar. It’s what I’m working on after this blog post (I swear, John & Elizabeth, I am!). It will get done approximately 4 days after I originally set it due, making it personally late. But it will still be done more than a week before the journal editors wanted it done (of note: I accepted the review request on January 29).

When it comes to mapping out your projects and due dates, do not forget to treat the courses that you teach as individual projects. Account for the time in-class teaching and time needed to grade assignments when you set events and tasks on your calendar. If you do this early (like when setting your course schedule and due dates for the semester) and make it practice, you can head off potential time conflict disasters like having to read and provide feedback on 15 Action Research methodologies while also getting revisions submitted on one manuscript, submitting an IRB on a new study, and finishing up data analysis on another project.

Pro tip: If your institution uses an LMS (let’s be honest, whose isn’t?) and you have all of your assignments in the system, it will have a calendar feed (ICS) that you can import into GCal, iCal, or Outlook that auto-populates your calendar with due dates for assignments and class meeting times (if applicable).

Project Managing the Dissertation

Borrowing from my project management background, I now ask my doctoral students to create a Gantt chart that maps out their dissertation work from beginning to end. I did not do this with my first doc student, but I suspect he had his own version saved somewhere as he’s a systems thinker just like I am. The image below is the actual chart from my doc graduate who was hooded in December 2018.

Lulu, a 3-5th grade STEAM teacher who used her classroom for her research site, chose the three manuscript dissertation format. I mentored her through conceiving of an overarching project that could be segmented into three logical subdivided manuscripts drawing upon similar theoretical and conceptual frameworks but necessitating slightly different data and analysis for each.

Notice how data collection occurred simultaneously across all three. Manuscript #1 looked at student behaviors across the term. Manuscript #2 focused on one of the instructional units within that term, and Manuscript #3 focused on a Spring Break activity camp. She worked on data analysis as the data sets were completed and extended the analysis and writing into summer and fall as appropriate.

I share both the link to Lulu’s sheet and this contextual detail so that anyone reading this may consider adapting this system for their own use. Make a copy of that Sheet. Take advantage of the conditional formatting already configured. Modify the sheet for your projects and/or dissertation.

Other Resources

I promised in that SAS thread to write this post and share my advice. In doing so, I decided to expand on my five tips as the primary foundation (the what is nice, but how and why make it useful) and provide a few other resources.

S.P.I.C.E.

At the University of Georgia, I both took and co-taught EDIT 7550 Management of Instructional Technology Projects. It was a highlight for me as both a student and an instructor, as I was able to work closely with my major professor and mentor, Dr. Robert M. Branch, who used what he called the SPICE framework to guide this service-learning applied course. SPICE stands for Start, Plan, Implement, Close, and End. The image below (note: I’ve asked Rob if he has an updated version I can share, as this one is from 2012) shows the stage, purpose, major tasks, and final product as recommended by the framework.

I offer this framework as a potential guide for those just getting started with the idea of project management. It’s likely not feasible to go through all the steps and generate all the stage products. However, the framework may help you better scope out your projects and what’s involved.

Continuing Education

If you find yourself in the position to audit a course, look for a course on Project Management at your institution. It may be lurking in Business or Engineering or even Education (like EDIT 7550 at UGA). Take advantage of your colleagues and mentors who have project management experience and teach these courses.

If your institution doesn’t offer courses or they’re so discipline specific that they may be more of a hindrance than a help, look at industry. I mention AMA above because these are the courses I took. As a new manager, my employer recognized I needed to develop skills in this area. So, they offered me annual professional development of my choice. AMA provides a variety of training topics within project management online or in-person.

It’s 2019. You can also take a MOOC on Project Management. If anyone does go this route, I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

Links

The following are blog posts, articles, and similar resources that address project management for academics. If you have one you love, comment on this post or share with me on Twitter (@tadousay), and I’ll update this list to include it.

Epilogue

This approach helps me manage expectations, both for myself and those that others hold for me. Being perpetually late is not a badge [of honor or shame] that I want to hold. I pride myself on quality work ahead of or on schedule– like a project manager. When my external promotion & tenure letters came back last semester, a colleague referred to me as a “stalwart.” My department chair chose this phrase to highlight in his synopsis letter, and I had to smile. Mission accomplished. Clearly my experience and process from industry have translated well into academia. And yes, I’m considering making a t-shirt that just says “STALWART” to wear the day after I have my notification meeting with my Dean.

1 thought on “Project Management for Academics

  1. I am the person who asked you to expand on this. Thank you so much for this information. I’m having a hard time rising above the little tasks for the important tasks, and this is helpful in reminding me how to work on things.

    And as a former journal editor, I appreciate your commitment to early returns!

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