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How to... manage the research process

Options:     Print Version - How to... manage the research process, part 1 Print view

Why manage the research process?

A project can be defined as a one-off activity which has limited or clearly defined resources. The point of project management is to ensure that the activity takes place within those resources, financial and human, and within an acceptable time-scale. There is no such thing as a typical project, but examples commonly cited are the building of the Scottish Parliament and the Channel Tunnel linking England with Europe (neither of which were completed within originally stipulated resources).

As distinct from a tunnel or a building, research can seem a very nebulous project to manage. At the outset, researchers can often have a far from exact idea either of research outcomes or how they are going to achieve them; research can frequently undergo changes in direction; the collection of data can be notoriously hard to control as people fail to return questionnaires, and the organization you hoped would grant access fails to do so.

If research is so uncertain, why does it need to be managed? Answer: because it is so uncertain. Because, too, almost all research projects, from the undergraduate dissertation to the doctoral thesis or post-doctoral group project, need to be done in a finite time (say a month before finals start/in three years if you are funded) and with equally finite resource (you/the team/a particular budget from a research grant, etc.)

A common reason why research projects come adrift is that people run out of time. Applying project management procedures to your research project will provide you with a structure that will give you some sort of control. According to Sharp and Howard (1996) project management will help you to:

  • clarify your aims and objectives
  • define your activities
  • identify critical milestones
  • ensure effective use of key resources
  • define priorities
  • increase the likelihood of successful completion.

The feeling of uncertainty is particularly acute with PhDs, where the student may be working full time on a project which is not due to end for another three years. Other large-scale research projects may also suffer from lack of definition, but there may be particular reporting requirements from the funding body which give a structure.

All projects have a particular life cycle, from definition to description. Research too has its own life cycle, from defining objectives to drawing conclusions and writing up/reporting. The following table shows how the project life cycle and the research life cycle relate to one another:

The relationship between the project and research life cycles
Project definition Define the research objectives – what are the main questions to be answered? Prepare the research proposal
Project design By what methods shall we investigate this problem? Finalize the research design
Project execution Obtain and analyse the data, and determine findings
Project description Write the report

We will look in more detail at different aspects of project management in subsequent sections.

Sharp, John A. and Howard, Keith (1996), The Management of a Student Research Project, 2nd Edition, Gower.