Managing Research Projects is Painful but Necessary

I am occasionally asked to be on advisory boards or committees for research projects.  I recently went to an advisory meeting about one such project, and I saw a scenario which I have unfortunately seen many times in the past.  Good people, good ideas, but disappointing progress because of management issues.  We had a good discussion at the meeting about management issues, and hopefully my advice (and that of others on the advisory committee who made similar comments) was useful to the researchers.

It is a truism that a good researcher is not necessarily a good manager, and also that good researchers may not want to spend time and energy on management, they may prefer to focus on doing the research.   This may not matter much if the project is simple and easy to manager, such as a project involving a single postdoc (research fellow) and PhD student, both of which are located in the same building as the academic leading the research.  And for the most of the time I have been in the UK, most academic research projects in computer science have been of this sort of size.

However, over the past 5-10 years, the main CS researcher funder in the UK, EPSRC, has  emphasised larger projects, such as the one I visited, which involves two universities, three academics leading different research strands, 3-4 research fellows, and several PhD students.   This is not a large project by commercial standards, but it is large enough that management and coordination become serious issues.

Working together

The biggest problem with the project I reviewed was poor coordination between the different universities and research groups.  It is sometimes said that getting academics to work together is like herding cats.  This is a bit of an exaggeration, but there is some truth to it.  In an academic project, the participants (academics, postdocs, PhD students) usually have their own research agenda, which they want to follow. And the agendas are usually individually sensible and exciting , but if everyone follows their own agenda, its difficult for the project as a whole to make progress.

I remember one project I worked on where we hired an excellent postdoc, who was working on something else when he joined.  I agreed it was fine for him to spend 1-2 months finishing this work, but afterwards I really wanted him to focus on the research project, because we needed him to do things in order to keep the project as whole moving (in management terms, he needed to complete tasks which were on the critical path).  However, once he finished his old project, he then decided to work on another personal interest which had little to do with the research project I had hired him for!  Which was pretty frustrating…  Anyways, we managed to resolve this issue, and then he focused on the research project and did some fantastic work on it.

In this case, I managed to resolve the issue.  However, I know of several projects (which I was not involved in) which had similar problems  which were not resolved.  So the researchers worked on (interesting and valuable) research topics which had nothing to do with the project which they had been hired for, which in turn really damaged these projects.  I dont know the details of how these projects were managed, but I suspect that in some cases the lead academics may not have been comfortable managing this kind of situation, and decided it was easiest to just let the “rogue” researcher do what he or she wanted.  Especially since EPSRC does not ask for deliverables or check outcomes.  Once EPSRC have decided to fund a research project, they essentially trust the “principal investigator” (lead academic researcher on the project) to deliver the outcomes promised in the research proposal, they do not check or monitor this.  Which perhaps makes it easier for PIs who are uncomfortable managing people issues to put off actively dealing with problems, and hope they will resolve themselves,  And sometimes problems do resolve themselves, but in my experience this is the exception, not the rule.

Hiring

Another common management issue in academic research projects is hiring.  Getting good people is of course essential to success in a research project, as in anything else.  And hiring good people is challenging; you need to bang every drum and shake every tree to find candidates, figure out which candidate is best, and then do what it takes to bring this person in.

Flexibility is essential.   One of the most successful research projects I have been involved with in the past ten years is Babytalk.   I like to think that I personally did a lot of good research work in Babytalk, but I suspect that my single greatest contribution to the success of the project was in the hiring phase.  We were funded (by EPSRC) to hire a single post-doc for 4 years (plus some PhD students).  We banged drums and shook trees, and found two excellent candidates with complementary skills, both of whom said they didnt want to spend 4 years as a postdoc; they wanted to work for 2-3 years and then look for a permanent academic job as a lecturer.  We were agonising about who to hire, when I had a brainwave; why not split the job and hire both!  And this is exactly what we did.  It was a bit of a hassle, because we needed to free up some money from elsewhere in the project, and also deal with some HR hassles because what we were doing did not fit the formal job spec.  But we persevered, and this turned out very well.  The project was very successful, in large part because of the fact that we managed to hire both of the excellent postdocs.

However, I have seen some hiring disasters as well, especially when the principal investigator (lead academic) didnt bang drums and shake trees, and instead just followed the standard HR procedures.   I remember one such case where there were two candidates.  Candidate A ticked all of the boxes on the HR job specification but was unimpressive, while candidate B, who had an unusual background, did not meet some of the formal job-spec criteria but was impressive.   The PI in this case followed HR guidelines and hired the candidate A.  Well, candidate A turned out to be completely useless (despite meeting all of the HR criteria) which meant the project was disappointing and also caused the PI a lot of hassle.  The lesson is, do what it takes to hire the best candidate, regardless of what HR says!

Final Thoughts

If you are running a research project, you need to worry about management, especially if the project involves more than 1-2 researchers and PhD students, and/or involves multiple research groups or universities.  I know its a hassle and much less fun than actually doing research, but you have to do it if you want your project to succeed.

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