The ability to manage oneself and one’s team in identifying and achieving goals is of paramount importance in virtually all careers. The sections below describe two areas of management – time and project management – that most students try to cultivate, implicitly or directly, during predoctoral training.
Managing time, particularly when there seems to be so little of it in graduate school, is one of the most difficult skills to master. Yet, it is one of the most important, as it is often the time spent on what truly matters that is the limiting factor in productivity. As many students find out, the most effective way to manage time is, in fact, to protect it. The skill of managing time can devolve, in our experience, into four simple activities:
- Making “to-do” lists
- Identifying one’s times of peak productivity during the day (or night)
- Organizing time into “blocks”
- Eliminating “time wasters”
These lists can be separated into a Master-list and a daily or weekly To-do list. Master-lists might contain goals and commitments for a month or even year at a time, while a to-do list is a way of identifying the more immediate tasks and demands on one’s time. Keeping separate life and work lists is often useful. Lists should be captured centrally, in a notebook, a phone notepad, etc.; one should avoid sticky notes and scraps of paper. A good to-do list should be quite specific with regard to what needs to be done. Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important matrix (http://www.eisenhower.me/eisenhower-matrix/) can help in this regard, specifically in the sense of categorizing and prioritizing activities that need attention versus those that can be ignored. There are 4 categories in this matrix: urgent and important, urgent and not important, important and not urgent, and not urgent and not important. Items should be listed in a way that ensures the likelihood of accomplishing them so as to prevent frustration and to keep tasks in perspective. Having lists in which items can be crossed off with some degree of frequency is both satisfying and encouraging.
Times of peak productivity
Be cognizant of the times during the day or night you are most productive. Knowing when you work best and subsequently saving this time for important tasks will allow you to use that time on tasks that require concentration and stamina. The Morningness/Eveningness Questionnaire (http://www.cet-surveys.com/index.php?sid=61524&newtest=Y&lang=en) can help to identify times when you may be most productive.
Focusing on one task at a time helps with completing tasks. Block out time to plan and accomplish high priority tasks, and be realistic about constraints on time. In graduate school, coursework is pre-arranged but research time is flexible. For example, reading papers and designing or performing technically challenging experiments require more concentration, therefore use peak productivity blocks of time for these types of tasks. BeFocused is an iPhone App that allows you to set blocks of time with prearranged breaks to keep you on task. And remember that focus is implicit to any block of time. As we advise below, don’t let too much in the way of extraneous thoughts distract you from what’s at hand.
Value your time and be ruthless about safe-guarding it. Cluttered environments, constant notifications about new mail, perusing websites for entertainment, and even multi-tasking can force time away from a single, focused task. Check e-mail periodically but turn it off when focusing on “Must do” tasks. If you are involved in unproductive projects stop as soon as you can and recalibrate your day.
Project management involves a wide-range of skill sets that relate to planning, scheduling, managing conflict, and controlling or assessing individual projects. No formal training in these skills exists in predoctoral work, which is unfortunate, but most students come to grips with what’s needed by the time they begin thesis research.
When graduate students first think about thesis projects there is almost always a sense of wonder and creativity. This wave of enthusiasm can, unfortunately, be lost over time should the student fail to recognize the practicalities of translating goals into reality. This is where pragmatism with regard to project management comes into play. How a student manages a thesis project is a major factor in its timely completion.
Prior to entering a thesis laboratory, a graduate student passes a “candidacy examination,” which typically entails writing a research proposal. This is a good chance to generate a project overview, i.e. a chance to evaluate each and every component of the project, the way in which the components interrelate, probabilities of success for each, potential obstacles, and time-lines. The more time spent thinking about a project at its inception, the more efficient the time spent carrying out the project’s objectives. Any good project, however, demands frequent overviews throughout its life – projects can change with time depending on outcomes, opportunities, and exigencies. Individual development plans (IDPs), required on an annual basis for BGS students, are used in part to facilitate this kind of review. But any student is well advised to review her or his project on a more frequent basis.
An illustration of the overview process is provided through the Critical Path Model (http://hspm.sph.sc.edu/Courses/J716/CPM/CPM.html). The essential aspects of this model require the project manager to 1) make a list of all activities that would be required to complete the project, 2) identify the time that each activity would take to be completed, 3) consider the dependencies among activities, and 4) identify milestones or deliverable items, either from each activity or from the entire project.
Keeping on a schedule and respecting deadlines is critical to the success of a project. Some schedules are non-negotiable, such as timelines for presenting to your thesis committee, abstracts for a meeting, and submission of grant proposals. Others are softer, such as finishing a draft of a paper or completing a set of experiments. One issue to contend with regarding soft deadlines is Parkinson’s Law, which simply states, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. While we often set arbitrary deadlines for ourselves, its important not to allow too much time for completion, otherwise according to Parkinson’s Law, you will take a lot longer to complete a project (paper, experiment) than if you set a tighter deadline.
Be realistic about budgeting an appropriate amount of time for any given task. And prioritize, as over-extending can be dangerous. Individual tasks may only take a day or two, but cumulatively they add up. Holding to a realistic schedule, one that’s constantly reviewed and prioritized, ensures productivity externally and a sense of accomplishment internally. It is as important to consider the time to review results with a mentor and planning for next steps as it is to consider the actual experimental timeframe.
This goes beyond brainstorming potential risks, and applies to identifying and strategizing how to deal with those risks if they are to occur. Are you performing a new technique? Do you have to wait on a lengthy submission process for animal or human subject protocols? Could equipment or reagent delivery be delayed? You may not even be sure what roadblocks will occur until a project is started, but the primary goal with a risk analysis is to determine what potential risks could occur and how you’ll prevent or handle each of them. Even things that may seem out of your control are technically within your control since you can plan for or react once they occur. For example, reviewing a protocol in advance of performing the experiment ensures that you have everything needed for a particular series of experiments so that you give yourself the best chance for the experiment to run smoothly and in the least amount of time possible. Risk management is the process of identifying risk, assessing risk, and taking steps to reduce risk to an acceptable level¹. The overarching goal of a good risk management approach is to determine the processes, techniques, tools, and roles and responsibilities of anyone working on a specific project and to manage them according to the overall benefit of the project.
¹National Institute of Standards and Technology, July 2002, Risk Management Guide for Information Technology System, Special Publication 800-30, p. 1.
Project Management Institute, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, (PMBOK Guide), Fourth Edition, ANSI/PMI 99-001-2008, pp. 273–312.
Conflict in any organization is inevitable. As a graduate student you may experience conflict within the classroom or laboratory. The skills you develop to deal with conflict will support you throughout your career. Conflicts can be broadly categorized into two types: people-focused, which tend to be more emotion based, and issue-focused which tend to be more rational based.
While there are many styles and tactics that individuals and organizations use to manage conflict, most agree the basic principles can be distilled down to a few important strategies. We note these strategies here. Be aware, though, that some conflicts can seem intractable. Students are encouraged to use all resources available to them in such cases, including their graduate group chair and BGS staff.
Accommodation. This strategy is employed when keeping peace is important or the conflict is relatively minor. By making an accommodation for the person who initiated the conflict, or giving in to their demands, tensions are often reduced and conflicts can be resolved quickly. But when other more important conflicts arise, the individual who was accommodated in the past may be more likely to engage in more challenging demands. The expression “pick your battles” is appropriate when considering accommodating strategies.
Avoidance. This strategy aims to postpone or ignore the conflict, thus hoping the problem resolves itself. Using this strategy too often is not beneficial as it may give the impression that by actively avoiding a conflict, the individual has no strong say or and may even be perceived as weak. While this strategy has merit, it should be used sparingly. If you are involved in this type of behavior, it may signal that it is time to take the issue to a supervisor or principal investigator for resolution.
Collaboration. This strategy takes into account many people and ideas that may surround a conflict. By integrating these ideas, an agreement of how to move forward can be mutually agreed upon, primarily because everyone had some say in the resolution. This strategy can be time-consuming, and not useful for some conflicts that need to be resolved quickly.
Compromise. This strategy requires that both sides involved in a conflict give up some aspects of their position and agree on a common acceptable solution. This is particularly useful when a conflict arises between two individuals or groups that have equivalent power or stature in an organization or laboratory. This strategy may or may not require a moderator, but a clear outcome must be communicated to all involved.
While managing formal budgets is usually beyond the scope of the role a graduate student plays, it is always helpful to be conscientious of how much a project costs. Understanding the basic cost of materials, along with the cost of resources associated with bringing on those resources will help keep your project on task as each added cost can make or break a project. Most of science has a budget attached to it with a finite amount of money and time to spend it. The better the idea you have of the cost of an overall project, the better you can plan your resources appropriately or look for alternatives that could achieve the same outcome with less cost or money.