Want to be a Project Manager? Get your PhD!
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Submitted by Jennifer Reineke Pohlhaus on Mon, 2010-10-25 12:01

As you may have guessed, my title is a little tongue-in-cheek because I’m not actually suggesting that the best way to get to Project Management is through a PhD.  So what am I saying?  To any of you who are looking for career options, I’m simply suggesting that you may want to try Project Management.

Project Management is, according to Wikipedia, “planning, organizing, and managing resources to bring about the successful completion of specific project goals and objectives,” within constraints such as time and money.  That same definition could be used to categorize the process of getting your PhD (or completing a postdoc): planning, organizing, and managing experiments (along with other resources) to bring about the successful completion of your scientific project in 5-6 years, within your lab’s budget. 

I know a lot of scientists who think that “management” is a dirty word and would be put off by any career that involves it.  If that’s how you think, I urge you to reconsider.  Project Management is the management of projects, not necessarily the management of people.  And yes, there is a difference:  you don’t have to worry about how to communicate with projects, you don’t have to worry about giving them raises or docking their pay, and you don’t have to worry that projects depend on you for work to support the family.  Project Management as a career will probably be less stressful than you think, and may be even less stressful than your current job.

By the time you’ve gotten your PhD, you’ve already learned how to do project management.  For example, you’ve learned how to break down a large task (5 years of research) into many smaller and smaller tasks (also called experiments).  Then, for any given task/experiment, you’ve figured out why it is necessary to do it, what you are expecting to get out of it, and how you will measure the results. 

You’ve organized all the resources you need for each experiment (including laboratory equipment, reagents, and other materials), you know how long it will take, and you know if it fits within your budget (i.e. you are not starting a tissue culture experiment or project if you don’t have access to a laminar flow hood).  You know which experiments have to be done before other experiments, because the result of one will affect the process or materials for the others. 

And you also have time constraints for your overall project – like when you have to schedule your prelim - which you are learning to plan around.  

Finally, you know the scope, both of each experiment and also of your entire project, and have learned about scope creep.  You know that chasing experiments down a tangent could lead you to something very interesting, but it could also change the basic research question you are studying  (or more likely, that tangent could lead to nothing and your overall timeline will have to be extended because you spent all that time working on something else instead of your pre-established experiments).  These are all just examples of project management scenarios and skills that are specific to research.  Change the terminology slightly and you are a project manager!

If it sounds like I’m oversimplifying a bit, that’s because I am.  But I want to show you how you already know the basics of project management, so that the next time you think your Ph.D. isn’t worth anything outside of academia, you will think again and consider project management as a viable career option.

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