Modelling Project management skills – 5 strategies for juggling multiple priorities and managing time.

In an ideal world, a research student would be able to just focus their energies on completing their research, but in the reality of contemporary university life, doing research is often part of a juggling act between lecturing, managing a family, and actually having a life yourself. Although it may not appear in official lists of Graduate Research Capabilities, juggling portfolios is something most academics learn to do.

If a research supervisor is mindful that their every action models how to survive as a researcher to their research students then there are a number of strategies that they can implement to model the ability and importance of juggling all your academic responsibilities.

1. Be a good time manager yourself.

Being on time for your meetings and making the most of the time you spend with your research student not only helps you in efficient management of your research student but it models that this is an effective way to operate. When you are running late for meetings you often inadvertently give permission to others not to be on time for meetings, and so research students can begin to think that it is fine for them to be late as well.

2. Show students how you make the most of five minutes.

Time management often involves making the most of the time you have rather than actually creating more time in the day. For example, one of the maxims of time management is to make use of spare five minutes when they come your way. You might be waiting for a bus, or having to hold on waiting for a person to answer the phone. These five minutes can be seen as time wasters, or, if you have something that you can do in five minutes, then this makes this a bonus time for you to do one of your five minute tasks.

I used to have copies of papers that I needed to read for when I was delayed somewhere so that I did not feel that the delay time was wasted time.

Showing your research student your pile of papers to read in an available five minutes models for them that this is an effective way to manage the large agenda of reading that is often associated with doing research.

3. Be focussed and keep focussed.

One of the big time wasters is being distracted from the job at hand. If you can focus your energies on what is at hand and put aside other issues you are thinking about, you will find that you get a lot more value out of each task you set your mind to. This can apply to the supervision meeting.

If you focus yourself 100% onto the needs of your research student during a set and allocated time for a supervision meeting, then it is amazing how much work can get done. At the other end of the meeting you also need to be firm that you have other things to do which have been put aside while you supervised and now you need to get back to those things. This assertion at the end of the meeting ensures that meeting ends on time.

This also models to the student the value of being focussed on your work, not thinking about something else that you have to do at some later stage, or worse still simply worrying about what you will not get done!

4. A strategy used by people working in the not-for-profit industry is called Moves Management. It involves contemplating what is necessary to move a person from being interested in your cause to becoming a donor. Although in the not-for-profit literature there is some discussion about the worth of endless hours of discussing what is the next thing to do with this person, a similar  strategy can have value when we are considering what is the next thing to do within a project. Spending time identifying the next step in the project is a useful way to advance the overall project. If you also note when this step needs to be done, this establishes deadlines.

If this is your standard practice as a professional, you can model it to your research student by simply referring to it. You can also implement this into your meetings with your research student by dedicating some minutes at the end of a supervision session to determine what is the next necessary step for the student and what is the next necessary step for the supervisor. The supervisor’s next step may be driven by university based deadlines and in order for the research supervisor to sign off on a particular deliverable, they need the research student to also undertake an identified set of next steps.

5. The character Ford Prefect in Douglas Adams’ novel The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy had a lapel pin with the words ‘don’t panic’.

Panic is the most harmful response to juggling multiple elements of your research profession, because it means that your mind is not focussed on what it needs to be focussed on at any particular time. Just saying to your student ‘don’t panic’ is unlikely to influence their state, but talking to them about what is the next thing that they can do to progress their research may help them to focus again on what is necessary and not be overwhelmed by the juggling act. Not that I have ever been a juggler, but I would imagine that at any time you are only focussed on the next ball you have to catch!

Another non directing strategy, when you can see or hear that your research student is panicking, is to listen to their anxiety. Saying things to them such as ‘I can see you are anxious about all you have to do’ does not resolve their anxiety but it does affirm that you have noted this and are concerned about it.

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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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