The work of science research can be divided into two categories: the ongoing, repetitive duties that keep a lab running (restocking supplies, calibrating scales, logging animal births), and the goal-oriented project work that leads to p-values and publications. Ask any grad student which category they prefer and you’re unlikely to hear anyone proclaim their love for cleaning soiled cages and filling out purchase order forms. We put up with these tedious tasks because we’re driven by the project. Grad students, and I’m going to generalize here, like projects. So could we find career fulfillment as project managers?
Before we get to that question, let’s pause here for…
A very brief definition of “project.” In project management terms, a project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to achieve a specific goal within a defined budget. Is a graduate thesis a project? Let’s take a look. It has a defined budget, however small that budget may be, desired outcomes, and start and end points (this does end at some point, right?).
I heard from two women who had both considered academic careers during their PhD programs, but after frustrating post-docs, found project management positions at organizations situated at the intersection of human health and science research. They do still use their science backgrounds to understand the goals and processes behind projects, but now rely much more on organization and communication skills to orchestrate all of the moving parts that make up a project.
I was intrigued. To learn more about the gritty details of project management, I met with Eric Verzuh, a family friend who runs a project management training and consulting company, and who pretty much wrote the book on project management. Oh and I don’t mean that figuratively: he really did author a bestseller on the subject.
Much of project management, I learned, is dedicated to optimizing three project variables: cost, schedule, and quality. Restricting one of these variables will undoubtedly affect the outcome of the other two, an interdependency that rears its intractable head all too often in academic research. Unless you inhabit some alternate universe in which the NIH is flush with cash and throwing it at you with abandon, your lab is likely forced to sacrifice schedule, and sometimes even quality, for the sake of saving cost.
Case in point: you need a new apparatus for your experimental paradigm. The price of the catalogue model is a number so unfamiliar to your grad student eyes that you can barely process it, so your PI sends you off instead with a hammer, a sheet of plywood, and three weeks to finish a working model.
The trifecta of cost, schedule, and quality is often skewed heavily toward saving cost in the academic world, but in other environments, a more balanced approach usually prevails.
Project management also requires preparing for the unknown. Good project managers, like smart grad students, expect problems to arise, though some – a snowstorm delays your time sensitive shipment – are easier to prepare for than others: your PI launders all the grant money, buys a Harley Davidson, earns a spot on the Inspector General’s “Most Wanted Fugitives” list.
As grad students we are trained to consider the possible pitfalls in our projects: What if the antibody doesn’t bind? Why might the circuit short out? How can we prevent thousands of rare and valuable research animals from being wiped out by a storm of catastrophic proportions? (hint: don’t house animals in the basement). An intuition for risk management, though sometimes developed only through familiarity with failure, would serve a project manager well.
Key to a project manager’s success, beyond the hard skills of planning and executing projects, are the soft skills required to satisfy the project’s stakeholders. A stakeholder is anyone who is involved in, or affected by a project. For a graduate thesis, stakeholders would include your PI, your thesis committee, other lab members, the university, and even the taxpayers funding your grants.
Stakeholders establish project goals: your thesis committee wants a vaccine for malaria, and stakeholders also impose project constraints: the university gives you 8 years and very little money. The process of identifying stakeholders, aligning their interests, and motivating their contributions requires strong interpersonal skills and is crucial to effective project management.
So what are the career prospects for an aspiring project manager?
Project managers need not only skills in the discipline of project management, but also business aptitude and technical knowledge. For example, a PhD graduate in biochemistry might spend a few years working at a pharmaceutical company in the technical side of drug development before advancing to project management, and would hopefully be developing business acumen along the way. Eric also emphasized that project management is a skill set that can aid in any number of careers, even those without “project manager” in the job title.
Interested? Check out the links page for more information.