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Keys to Running Successful Research Projects: All the Things They Never Teach You

By: , Posted on: December 21, 2018

Management of anything is difficult when you’ve had no preliminary training, and, in my experience, young scientists need way more help than they usually receive to set up and run their new research labs or research projects. The classic method is to soldier on, on the basis of the experience you have had during your PhD. While this is a valuable starting point, building a new lab or research project and serving as its sole head is very different from working with an established group which has senior students and support staff. Suddenly you are on your own, with the independence you have been longing for, but it is you who has to sort out all the problems and make all the decisions. It can be very scary and very bewildering and mistakes with staff or money or time can be very costly whether measured in cash or stress.

A typical first fright for the new lab head inexperienced with leadership is a team member melt down. One minute, there is a normal, reliable research assistant or PhD student who always turns up at the expected time and goes about their business; the next minute there is a wreck. What on earth could be the matter? The answer could be one of many – trouble at home, run out of money, pressure from other commitments, they’ve broken the equipment, lost data or don’t understand what to do next. Why was this problem a surprise? Why hadn’t the team member been able to approach her boss? Had the boss ever thought to have a regular meeting with her at which this sort of thing could be discussed, or has she just been left to get on with it? Had they, indeed, ever been thought of as a person, and one with fragilities? 

How about errors in a budget? “Help! I didn’t know we’d have to pay for that!” or “No one told me the university would take 20%” – and suddenly you are $50,000 down.

The list goes on and on.

Managing budgets, working out collaborator agreements, sorting out IP, promoting research, recruiting staff or study participants are generally outside the skill set and experience of early-career researchers. The dual pressures of having to publish and attract funding leave little time or inclination for attending professional development courses and acquisition of these “soft skills” is often neglected. This is unfortunate, because they really matter. Apart from immediate needs in the research institute or academia, you should reflect that these generic skills are required in the world outside. Team management, leadership, planning, communication skills and managing money are essential selection criteria for employers looking to fill science positions in areas such as industry, government or the law.

Keys to Running Successful Research Projects was conceptualized as a tool to help researchers, particularly early-career researchers in the sciences and health sectors, manage their research projects and their new teams.

Starting from the beginning – career planning and grant writing – the sections move through writing up the stages of project management to working out and then managing that first budget through to building and looking after your team. Eventually, team leadership and moving on or up the ladder are covered. All the way through, suggestions are provided for ways you can enhance your profile and your reputation.

So saying, this is not a book to be read from cover to cover, but a reference to be dipped into when you’re doing something for the first time or are just plain stuck. The checklists at the beginning of each chapter will give you the outline. If, at the bare minimum, you just read those (and, of course, follow their suggestions) you’ll be well ahead of where you might have been.

Although attendance at training courses is strongly encouraged, and should be regarded as essential, not as days lost, Keys to Running Successful Research Projects will always be there to offer you on the spot training in the essential management skills needed by everyone in the early, frightening days of managing a lab or research project – and for everyone else who finds there are “soft skills” they have missed along the way.

If you find this story stimulating, you may be interested in browsing more content within this book on ScienceDirect. We are pleased to offer you a free chapter – access this content by clicking on this link – People Management: For Yourself and Your Team

Visit elsevier.com and use discount code STC317 at checkout to save up to 30% on your very own copy!

About the author

Katherine Christian has worked in health and medical research for over 30 years, mostly for organizations conducting and supporting cancer research. Scientifically trained, she has chosen not to work in a laboratory, but to use her scientific background and a flair for organization to manage research projects and assist scientists with the management of their research. Her objectives have included providing environments and skills which encourage effective, efficient research and to encourage and facilitate communication about that successful research to all stakeholders. The nature of her work has involved Kate with many early-career researchers in a range of disciplines, and she has developed skills in teaching them how to manage themselves, their research and their careers. Now, having built up a body of expertise over many years, Kate is seeking to take this learning further by undertaking a higher degree. This is focusing on the challenges faced by early-career researchers in the sciences, and looking for opportunities to address some of them. This book provides one such tool.

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