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Project Management for PhDs (rachitnigam.com)
79 points by rachitnigam 11 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 28 comments

The title of this article should rather be "How I approach project management as a PhD student in a computer science research group". In my experience, there is no silver bullet for PhD projects. It really depends on the field, the advisor and the student.

My strategy was to have a kid. Really lights a fire under you and motivates you to finish before you rapidly go broke.

That worked for my wife and me as well :). To be fair, my advisor went on sabbatical for a year and I helped manage the group while he was gone. I learned a lot... My wife was an organic chemist working with some nasty monomers (not good for pregnancy...), so we swapped some tasks. She did my literature searches (this was before easy access to data bases) and I handled her last few reactions. Everything worked out well. The salary for a research scientist was very welcome at the end...

Do they have deadlines in the US?

I've heard about US PhD students going on for seven years, ten years, fourteen years, and so on.

In the UK I had to submit before four years. If I didn't do that I literally just failed the degree.

I worked twenty-hour days for about a month at the end and then submitted with one day to go. Not even exaggerating.

In the US, there's a lot of administrative pressure to keep the time-to-degree somewhere in the neighborhood of five or six years, but there's not usually a fixed cut-off date for everyone there.

Instead, they just get increasingly insistent about you making "forward progress" and increasingly reluctant to keep your funding going.

I've been at 3 different universities now, and all of them have a 8-year cutoff for credits expiring even at the PhD level. So I've definitely seen folks push that number but in my experience no one has gone over that.

7.5 years for myself, USA PhD at top-ten institution in Computer Science. This was straight from Bachelor's without Master's degree.

I'm in Australia, no deadline when I went through but it seems like it is changing. Plenty of friends who took 6+ years, record of 13.

Brian May, started 1970, submitted 2007. https://ewikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_May#Scientific_career

They may have made an exception.

The hard time limit on UK PhDs is a recent-ish thing, which started coming in around 2010ish from memory (as is usual with such things, there was a fairly long phase-in, which messes with my memory). Broadly speaking, anyone who started in the old system could still carry on for as long as they wanted.

[It's also possible to "suspend regulations" -- which is University speak for "something happened which the rules don't deal with sensibly" -- and extend a PhD's length, though this is generally accompanied by weeping and gnashing of teeth by administrators. It's much harder to do than it used to be.]

In the US, most go from BS to PhD, not BS to MS to PhD. A MS is 2 years, so your deadline would be 6 years if it was the same system.

No that’s the same in the UK. You wouldn’t normally do both an MS (we’d call it a MSc) and PhD - you’d just get on and do the PhD.

And what’s more four years is the limit - the intention is three.

So in the UK most people go from zero to PhD in six years total, rather than ten or more in the US. And we still manage to get papers into top tier venues in that time so it doesn’t seem to be too short.

I know someone in Austria who got a great PhD in two years with multiple top-tier papers! That’s pretty extreme though.

This is really helpful article, and I think the concrete questions they lay out are ones all PhDs should answer explicitly when starting a new project.

That said, I think the biggest risk to PhD research is not just project, but product management. That is, many PhDs will set up meetings, TODOs, and communication channels, but they won't explicate...

* why the project is being done

* an ordered list of desired outcomes

* acceptance criteria

* who they'll communicate with, how, and how often

* some kind of list of risks

Not locking down acceptance criteria with an adviser is, IMO, the biggest thing that keeps people from graduating (and is generally what a dissertation proposal is for).

Author here. Acceptance criteria are hard to lock down, especially in new projects. The whole point of research is to explore domains and to expect a lot of dead ends.

I’m unsure what a concrete acceptance criteria will look like given that we want to encourage researchers to explore.

Acceptance criteria in the CS department of my alma mater is on a scale of 3-4 peer peer-reviewed papers, accepted in some journals. I would also be careful about what the point of research might be. The most important purpose of a PhD student is to produce a thesis in a foreseeable future, to qualify himself for scientific work. The success of the thesis depends on the advisor(s), and later the department and the reviewers. Thus, it's important to choose a topic, which is NOT an ultimate dead end. Even if your topic leads to a successful thesis, it might be a dead end later on. Because your advisor has no network, or because nobody is interested in your results etc. And even if you can continue with research, you are rather occupied with fund raising, networking and marketing. If I had to do a PhD again, I would try to figure out as fast as possible what is expected to do in the specific configuration I'm in, and then try to minimize all obstacles and distractions which might be in the way (teaching, assistance for the prof, fund raising, conferences etc). After that, if your're are lucky, you have 1-2 years left to write down your stuff.

(off the cuff answer) Well the basic acceptance criteria should relate to the research goals, so that the exploration is focussed in some sense.

There is clearly scope for iteration here. If I was assessing an open ended exploratory project, I'd expect to see that a problem space has been defined and that some sort of question has been posed within it. Yes, it might take some time to find out what the question actually is, and the question might be to some extent retrofitted.

Once the question has been defined then you can imagine research subgoals that involve creating the required tooling / infrastructure, collecting test data, running a trial, analysing the outputs, etc. Actual software dev activities should be traced back to one of these research subgoals, or you'd have to question why they are being conducted at all.

> Acceptance criteria are hard to lock down, especially in new projects

In industry research teams it is essential to lock them down at some point and you may not get paid if you don't complete against them (accepting that a negative result might be a valid research outcome). This ability to focus was the hardest thing I had to learn when I transitioned from academic to industry research. Even in an open-ended exploratory academic context, you still do need to prove, as the GP said, that you have in some sense answered a question.

Better to have an answer that is wrong, than something that isn't an answer at all.

It sounds like you're saying that acceptance criteria are hard to define when there's high uncertainty (a lot of activities are high risk of not yielding anything interesting), which makes sense.

In that case, it seems like...

* acceptance criteria over "explore" activities (e.g. achieving failure, we are running X high risk/ high reward activities per Y period of time; someone signed off on its value before running it)

* acceptance criteria over "exploit" activities (e.g. I need to produce these very clear things of value)

In retrospect, though, I think my research community (in psychology) was very open / interested in learning about dead ends. The weirdest outcome is when an advisor learns something from research, but then feels like its obvious, so the research gave them something, but is perceived as low value.

I think PhD project management should explicitly tie everything back to the actual research goals, so that effort can be justified / prioritised against these.

Source: I didn't achieve a PhD (I bailed early with an M.Phil) because our group project devolved into a poorly structured software development that contained numerous software rabbit holes. Once we'd gone down these, we never converged on a useful research output, as opposed to a massive codebase. That said, with the tools described here, our codebase would have been cleaner.

This says "for PhDs" but then I found that it's more geared at PhD students working in research groups. A different type of PhD is the tenured professor who has to deal with a large number of projects at the same time. There's research, but there's also teaching, service projects, reviewing/editing, students asking for letters, and dozens of other things. At that scale, it's tough, and I still haven't found a complete solution. I use Todoist, email, Basecamp, version control (Fossil) and a few open source apps/apps I've written myself. I spend about 60 minutes on project management each day - that's organizing projects, not working on them.

And it's not just research, but several different research projects in various stages. I would feel lucky (but also a bit panicky) if I had just one research project to worry about at a time. It's extremely hard to stay organized and focused at the same time.

I think the title implicitly means 'for PhD students', rather than 'for people with a PhD'. I don't know any tenured professors who would describe themselves as 'a PhD'.

My school required 16 credits to graduate with a PhD. Also, MS and of course, PhD theses. I worked on an MS in dataflow distributed system security for 1 year before my advisor bailed out on the topic. No credits for thesis work, 2.5 classes per term for 3 years. 3 accepted journal papers is the standard graduation yardstick. Under these circumstances it was impossible to finish in 4.5 years (brilliant + lucky) or 5 years (very smart) I guess I made the mistake of sleeping (6.5yrs). My dad did it in 3 years but he went to a #1 school that wasn't insecure (Princeton, math) so not so many damned courses.

> Chat apps, on the other hand, make it really quick and easy to communicate with the team but are usually bad at maintaining separate threads of conversations cleanly.

I disagree with the author. Most modern chat applications like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Skype etc allow separate threads of conversation cleanly.

IMO email is the worst platform for having conversations about a project.

Author here. I do recognize that slack has thread by that doesn’t make it easy to refer to an exact thread like email does.

I’m looking for something like a “named thread” which the Twist Chat app has, but is unfortunately not the preferred means of communication in my group.

I think you need a forum for lengthy discussions. It's common to try to use email or Slack like a forum, but it's better to just use a forum. Basecamp works great in this capacity, but something like MyBB works well too.

Hire a project manager for your lab.

I think a big part of doing a PhD is managing your own research.

Yeah, since the article specifically is titled project management not research, I assumed this was about project management for people who already have their PhD, i.e. are working as faculty or in a research lab. And in that environment, there are definitely project managers employed. Managing your own research is one thing -- managing projects, grant applications, dealing with institutional and funding agency paperwork are all things that most PhDs would absolutely flounder at.

Should have read more closely.

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