When a research student is developing their research proposal, they are often required to produce a project plan to show how their proposed process of research will unfold, and how it can be undertaken in the prescribed completion deadlines. This is a specific task for the research student and one also seen in the context of the broader research agenda of Graduate Research Capabilities, as an important skill for the emergent researcher.
The role of the research supervisor in this task is an interesting one, as while they may be able to construct a project plan for their student, it is in the best interests of the research student to develop their own research project plan so that they develop the skills for future research work. The research supervisor therefore needs to resource their student to help them undertake this important task and in doing so they draw on their own skills of project scoping. This aspect of research supervision is often seen in the context of Research Supervision as Project Management.
Project management involves breaking down a complex task into sub tasks, estimating length of time to undertake these subtasks and aligning them so that the overall complex task is finished on time and on budget. As it is unlikely that any two research students would have the same research project plan, or project planning needs, it is difficult to be prescriptive about strategies for developing a project plan, but I do believe that there are some key processes which feed into the development of a project plan for a research degree research project.
Given that a research project is about completing the project on time, it is important to identify the critical dates that apply to the particular research project. The most obvious of these is the expected completion date. In addition, when the overall task is broken down into smaller tasks, each of the subtasks can have a critical date. Some of these interim critical dates are stipulated by the university.
Identifying the critical dates in a research project is where a research supervisor can resource a student, pointing them to appropriate university research regulations and procedural manuals which detail due date requirements for the overall task and for the indentified sub tasks. For example, at the university at which I work, the PhD regulations indicate reports, such as the research proposal and the annual progress reports, that are due during the research student’s candidature. For each of these reports there is a formula, often expressed in a number of months following commencement, which indicates when individual documents are due. These are the dates that the research student can calculate and include in their project plan.
Another aspect in determining critical dates is recognising when the project or part of a project requires approval by external committees. A good example is that aspects of the research project may at times need to be approved by a Research Degrees Committee. This committee would meet regularly at the university, publishing both their meeting dates and the dates by which material to be tabled at these meetings is required. These are another set of critical dates that a research student might need to consider so that they are planning to submit agenda items to the committee in due time for the committee to consider them.
A common part of project plan development is undertaking a risk analysis. This is a carryover from the building and business environments from which project plan development first emerged. The greatest risk in terms of a research project plan is the failure to complete, so all elements of risk analysis for a research project link back to that consideration. The other determination of risk in research is the sensitivity of the topic under investigation. Research topics that involve indigenous people, children or sensitive matters have a higher prescribed level of risk and as such, require longer amounts of time for various stages of the research project – such as gaining ethics approval.
A common set of risks impacting on completion are dates for which one or other stakeholders are absent from the project. A research supervisor or a research student taking holidays is a potential for delay in the project. These expected absences from the project need to be noted in the project plan.
Another risk factor, particularly for overseas research students, is consideration of the length of their visa. Given the difficulty in extending a study visa, the expected visa expiry date is an important critical date.
Having broken the overall task into subtasks, what is required is to sequence the sub tasks in an order that reflects a likely process of the project. This will require consideration of whether tasks can be done concurrently or need to be done sequentially, and where certain tasks are pre-requisites for other tasks. For example, an ethics approval is a prerequisite for data collection so these two sub tasks must be sequenced in an appropriate order.
Finally, when we have a sequence of sub-tasks there is a need to estimate how long each task is likely to take (Scoping of elements of the project plan). This is the aspect of research practice which draws on the research supervisor’s knowledge of the research process. There are few sources which will accurately estimate how long various research tasks will take and the supervisor’s own experience with these tasks provides a valuable insight into task time estimation. For example a choice to undertake interviews needs to consider the time taken to interview subjects as well as the time taken to transcribe notes. From my own experience I know that an interview takes about one hour and transcription of that interview about three hours. If the project budget permits, this step can be supplemented with the use of a court reporter who can undertake the transcribing for you.
As you move into this level of detail with the project plan, this also generates additional critical dates. In the example of undertaking interviews, dates when subjects are available to be interviewed become a new set of critical dates. Adding these additional critical dates may also impact on previous established critical dates warranting some revision.
Given that the predominant method of skill development takes place in the context of research supervision, this provides another aspect of the project plan to consider. Some research projects adopt an ad-hoc approach to research supervision, providing it when needed. Others like to pre plan meetings and establish a routine of supervision that works throughout the candidature. This schedule of meetings can also be added to the overall project plan. Others still will have more focussed supervision to coincide with other project deadlines, and similarly these variations can be built into the plan. As most research supervisors will expect to read drafts of documents before they are submitted, allowing time for reading of the drafts before the actual document is due to be submitted is another consideration.
It needs to be emphasised that the project plan is an estimating device. The real action in research can sometimes take less time than was estimated, or unfortunately more time than was estimated. Both instances create variations in the project plan so that it is a working document. Despite these variances, as a final completion date may be unchangeable, tasks taking longer than estimated may require extra work for the research student so that the overall delay does not impact on the completion date of the research project.