Introducing a research student to project planning

When a research student prepares a research proposal for consideration by their university, and often as a milestone for continuance of their candidature, they are often required to include in it a project plan to show how their proposed investigation can be completed in the allocated time. With greater emphasis on completions, this project plan becomes an important part of estimating the do-ability of a particular project. It also acts as an introduction into the skill of project planning for the research student, and this graduate research capability if one often sought by potential research graduate employers.
The skill of project planing can be a bit overwhelming in the early stages of candidature. It is not normally a skill that prospective students bring into the research process. There are a number of ways in which a research supervisor can scaffold the development of this skill.
One way a research supervisor can build up the student’s confidence about completing a project plan is to alert them to their prior knowledge which may be able to transfer into project planning. For example, where a student has estimated how long it might take them to undertake a lengthy road trip, this form of estimation is related to their scoping their particular research project. Looking at how long it may take to pay off a bill can also be related to the scoping process.
Another way to scaffold a student’s development of the skill of project planing is alert them to the milestones that are established as part of the university’s administration. The handing in of a research proposal or presenting an oral presentation towards the end of candidature are both administratively established milestones, which, if they can be built into the reality of the research project, can help a student to understand the competing agendas in undertaking research. These university established milestones may not have been rigorously estimated, and as such they present a biased priority for the student to take into consideration as they plan their research work. The same thing happens in real research projects. A particular deliverable takes a greater bearing with the person who has commissioned the project, and all other elements work in response to this biased requirement.
In most cases, the lack of experience as a researcher means that the research student will have to rely on the research supervisor to provide estimates of how long certain research practices might take. The supervisor’s choice here is to simply tell the student what would be a good estimate, or to make explicit their own practices of estimating so that a student is learning the estimation by understanding the thinking processes modelled by their research supervisor. This additional scaffolding of the decision making processes can enable a research student to take a little more ownership in the playing out of the plan, and will thus find it easier to monitor their actual work against the estimated research project proposal.
Along with this very real plan that can be subsequently used by the student to monitor their progress along the articulated pathways, the research supervisor can also introduce them to a range of project management practices that both help with the thoroughness of the research and also provide valuable groundwork for their later work as an independent researcher.
One such skill is breaking down the deliverables into smaller doable chunks of work. A good example is the actual dissertation. It is a large document and being able to identify sections of the dissertation that can be addressed at various stages of the research process helps to break this down into writable chapters, rather than one overwhelming text. Part of this project management strategy can be to create a set of electronic documents so that as material becomes available for various sections of the dissertation, that material can be placed in the template of a chapter and be ready for use when the student starts to write that section.
A second set of skills are introducing systems to facilitate data management and checking of the final document. A dissertation refers to many different pieces of literature. Systems such as Endnote can establish a process of writing practice such that as soon as a new piece of literature is opened, the student creates an Endnote file for it, so that notes they make about that piece of literature are captured electronically, and there to be transferred into the final document. Endnote is reliant on accurate data being transferred into it about the publication details, and while many modern electronic pieces of literature also have the facility to infil the end note file, it is a useful process to check that data in the first instance, so that when ever you are drawing from the data base, you are assured that you have correct information.
A similar system is collecting correct referencing processes at the time of starting with a new piece of literature. Noting somewhere in the Endnote file, which particular page number of the writing style book you have referred to, allows you to develop a body of knowledge about particular referencing, and follow these rules with similar types of literature. Following on from this is establishing an editing checklist of errors which readers of your work point out, so that as the document develops, you can check against your check list to make sure that those errors don’t appear again.
These project managing and project scoping skills are likely to emerge in an overall research candidature without the researcher being overly aware of them. In the current climate, where a research graduate may be asked to identify how their research process contributed to their overall skill development, it is worth these extra efforts so that the research student is fully aware of their acquisitions and able to articulate these to a prospective employer.


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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