Analysing the Project Plan within a research proposal

Project management is an important graduate research capability. Elsewhere in this blog I have commented on the importance of scoping the research project. This is usually a task that is set as part of developing a research project proposal and one which can be used to analyse your student’s progress.

A project plan often emerges in a research student’s development of their research proposal once the student has established how they intend to investigate their particular issue (the methodological argument) and sets out a plan of action as to how the investigation can be undertaken. The project plan helps the student to understand the process of research and the sequence of events or actions that will be necessary to undertake their specific investigation. It signals a move, for the research student, from the theoretical of arguing an investigative approach to the practical of considering how that approach will unfold. The task also enables a research administrator or research supervisor to ascertain if the proposed research project can be undertaken in the prescribed period of time allocated for the student’s specific degree. It is quite common for the question to be raised in an oral presentation of a student’s research proposal, ‘can this (proposal) be done in the prescribed time?’ This sense of largesse in degree based research prompted the now common statement (often attributed to Jerry Mullins and Margaret Kiley at Australian National University) ‘it’s a PhD not a Nobel prize’, suggesting that more often than not, the scope of a research proposal is much larger than can be done or is required at PhD level.

As the supervisor is the primary reader of the research proposal, it is important that they bring to this aspect of the research proposal an evaluative agenda, as this may present the first opportunity, before an oral presentation, to question whether a project is doable in the allocated time.

What sorts of issues might a supervisor look for in their review of the project plan?

  1. Prescribed milestones. Does the project plan acknowledge the university prescribed milestones? One of these may be an ethical clearance, and recognising that it is important that this happens earlier rather than later, so as not to jeopardise the authenticity of the investigation, can be an important part of the process.
  2. Method. Does the described and argued methodology match up with the process as detailed in the project plan? Does the project plan recognise the elements of an investigative process such as
      1. Data collection
      2. Data analysis
      3. Write up

One of the highly debated areas of research supervision is ‘when does the student start writing?’ Do they wait until the investigation is well underway or does their project plan suggest a staged writing up process which commences almost as soon as they start reading literature?

3. Additional research degree capabilities. Some requirements for a research project include statements from the students as to how they propose to acquire additional research degree capabilities during the process of their candidature, in deference to the Graduate Research Capability agenda. While this agenda is in essence a body of evidence, the project plan can identify events which will lead to this acquisition of this body of evidence, such as conferences proposed to attend, journal articles proposed for submission, and journal submission deadlines.

A good research proposal provides the basis for ongoing monitoring of the project. That is not suggesting that the plan will necessarily be followed to the letter, but that it provides a means of regular review and revision of expected targets and schedules. As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, research does not always go according to plan and when confronted with things not working as they were intended, a research student has the opportunity to recalibrate their method to accommodate these variances or to write into the methodology a discussion about how real research problems arose and how they were solved in the course of the candidature. This later option recognises that not only is a research project making a contribution to knowledge in the field of the study, but that it can make a contribution to knowledge with regard to the methodology as well, illuminating the real problems that arise with certain methodologies and how those real problems are addressed.

As the notion of a research supervisor as a project manager or project executive grows, these sorts of strategies around the evaluation of a project plan fill out what might be required of a supervisor in their review of the proposed project plan.

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About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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