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PhD Life

Recognising your PhD project management skills.

Project management becomes so instinctive as a PhD student we forget it is even a skill. Being able to juggle your PhD and everything else that’s going on in your life should not be overlooked as a transferable skill.

When it comes to navigating the course of your PhD, there is always one core skill that underpins it all – project management. Often, people overlook project management as a skill, but essentially being able to plan, forecast, and consider how to get to the finish line is what separates a good PhD from a great one. Nonetheless, if you have a PhD, it’s pretty much guaranteed you have good project management skills anyway. Some PhD projects are more complex than others, but ultimately, they provide a breeding ground for project management – irrespectively of the complexity.

For starters, your PhD is a unique piece of work that you are responsible for. Perhaps you’ll have a supervisor, co-supervisors, and possibly other research collaborators. But at the end of the day, you’re responsible for conducting this piece of research. To begin with, you must ensure that your project is consistent with the requirements of a PhD, and secondly, to ensure that the research gets completed to a sufficient standard (irrespective of the PhD or not). Because of this, it’s likely that you’re having to navigate multiple moving parts, sometimes in tandem. Collecting data, writing reports, analysing/reading papers, and other various tasks require excellent organisational skills (which is a different transferable skill by the way). These different components can represent a unique ‘project’ that you must manage in order to complete your overall project – your PhD. When you start adding in other duties such as teaching, conferences, publishing, and those ad-hoc tasks you have to do for your PhD – your project management skills really come to fruition.

What really speaks to your project management skills however, is the fact that you’ll be carrying 80% – 100% of the workload. You create your deadlines, you create your deliverables, you assign yourself (and maybe others) tasks, you figure out how to solve problems, you do it all. This very process of juggling multiple things, either simultaneously or in a chronological fashion is very much the essence of project management. In instances where you’re not doing the heavy lifting, you’ll still be needing to identify problems and delegate accordingly – which is also a core component of project management. We can extend this concept further as well when we think about the budgets and financial considerations of a PhD. Juggling a PhD budget for research equipment, additional support, or whatever else you might need, is again the crux of project management. You’re identifying where you need to go, what it is you need to get there, and then most importantly – how to execute it. This juggling of the finances provides is also something you do not want to overlook. Indeed, this might not sit in your personal bank account, but to have awareness of it, and being able to communicate this on your CV, cover letter, or at a job interview can add value to your employability.

Project management also requires great interpersonal skills – especially if you’re on a bigger project or a more complex PhD. If you need to communicate solutions to particular problems, delegate responsibilities, or even feedback your current progress to a supervisor your communication skills and subsequently project management skills are only improving. Furthermore, being able to communicate your work or ideas, especially the more novel and creative ones, the more competent as a project manager you actually are. Your project management skills can develop even further if you’re working with challenging people. Maybe your collaborators or supervisors are difficult to manage, or an important person is interfering or changing direction of a project.

Being able to keep them happy whilst also ensuring the project doesn’t double in size or get derailed is essential. Your mission is to finish the project and therefore you must manage everything accordingly. It’s not just the hard skills of planning, putting together a timeline, and managing budgets that make you a great project manager. It’s also the navigation of people, relaying information – whether verbally or in a written format and keeping everyone satisfied which really supplement this skill. It becomes even more pronounced when you’re having to satisfy people from different disciplines. Are you able to communicate data to non-data people, are you able to communicate science to non-science people, are you able to keep your supervisor happy, can you explain to your funders (if you have some) what your deadlines are and why you have/haven’t met them on time, and can you explain to that junior researcher what it is you actually want them to do for this project? It’s all project management skills which you should certainly recognise.

Another component of project management includes time management. We mentioned briefly about deadlines and forecasting of events, but in the real world a LOT of people underestimate how long it actually takes to do things. This is also a hallmark of poor project management. Ensuring you’re able to give accurate, or reasonably accurate timelines to people really helps with expectation management. Furthermore, being able to accurately estimate how long a task takes to complete allows you to correctly prioritise and de-prioritise certain parts of a project depending on where you’re at. As a PhD student this actually becomes second nature. You do it so intuitively, so instinctively, you almost don’t even need to think at all! Project management eventually becomes an auto-pilot response, which again is why so many people overlook it as a skill. In fact, the majority of stress and anxiety that’s experienced during the PhD is because of being able to accurately predict the time needed to complete a task. You know that a certain task will take x amount of time, but you are also aware that you need to write a paper, respond to peer-review, or produce a conference poster. The stress doesn’t arise from the fact you can’t do them, the stress originates from the fact that you don’t feasibly have enough time to do it all. This is where long hours, poor time management, and lack of work boundaries begin to creep in. Some people are able to delegate, reprioritise, and navigate through this process seamlessly. Others find this a bit tricky. They may insist on ‘working overtime’, and possibly burn themselves out. Where you sit on this continuum will vary throughout your PhD, but in the end, both are reflective of good project management skills. Estimating accurate deadlines/time needed to complete a task and being able to prioritise accordingly (or prioritising all of it) is a core strength. In the end, the project is managed and completed successfully.

Whatever happens, it always gets done.

The biggest hallmark of your project management skills can be highlighted by two key examples. The first is writing your thesis. A thesis is a massive compilation of all your work, writing it alone is a project in and of itself! Being able to forecast this, plan it, and write through everything really is a challenge a lot of people wouldn’t even know where to start with. Simply by getting it done is a testament to your project management skills. If you haven’t got a clue on how to plan your thesis by the way, check out this post for a Gannt chart template that is free to download. The second biggest example is being able to juggle your actual life with a PhD. Your life, relationships, and social networks can loosely be thought of as a ‘project’. Being able to fit this all in alongside the points mentioned above further demonstrates your project management skills. If you throw kids into the mix or you care for somebody else, your project management skills are going to be on a different level! It’s likely you’ve never thought of this before. Again, this relates back to this being second nature, on autopilot. You’re so proficient it doesn’t even feel like a skill anymore.

The final benefit of project management skills is that it translates to almost any career change after your PhD. Whether you decide to do a post-doc or not. Project management speaks to a whole host of careers, including entrepreneurship. Feel free to stick ‘project manager’ into any job search engine or on LinkedIn and you’ll be taken aback by how many opportunities there are. The project management part isn’t the difficult bit for you, it’s working out what kind of project you would like to manage. For more guidance on that, have a read of this post about deciding your career path based on your life values.

This post hopefully has given you some food for thought when it comes to project management and your other transferable skills. Take some time to reflect on the content discussed and give yourself some credit for your outstanding project management skills.   


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