Attentive followers (do I have any of those?) may have noticed I didn’t post a June Blog yesterday so today I’m aiming for a double bill to get back on track^. These are going to be checklists for starting, and ending projects.
I’ve got a record, I’m afraid, of sharing my student supervision thoughts in blog posts… over the years I’ve accummulated knowledge and preferences on matters such as minuting meetings and setting deadlines. My rather-egotistical (I’m an academic, what did you expect?) assumption is that it is occasionally useful to others to share these thoughts. On a more pragmatic note, it also gives me something to signpost for new students and cuts back on me saying the same things at every new project meeting.
In this case I’m going to try to provide a checklist of actions or topics that are important when starting a new project. I’m pretty sure these apply to all kinds of research projects – from a six week undergrad placement to a 3 year PhD or more. But I suppose they’re especially relevant for new Masters and PhD students – in particular the former who have relatively little time to select, set-up, design, deliver and report their work, and want to meet the highest possible standards while doing so.
Things to do when starting a new project
in no particular order!
1. Team communications
Have an explicit conversation with your supervisor(s) and any other core team members on your projects where you aim to agree specific ways to communicate with each other during the project. You might want to talk about meetings – how often and where will they take place? Remember, even after lockdown measures* are gone, to think about whether remote meetings like phone or vidoe conferences might be more practical for busy team members. Think about whether everyone needs to attend every meeting, and if not, how the whole team will be kept up to date.
You will also want to talk about how you are sharing information. Is email best or do you want a Slack channel or something similar? Are there any situations where a text message, Whatsapp group or simple phone call might be better? I try to text my team very rarely but sometimes for quick questions it is just more effieicnt. We also use Whatsapp as a way to monitor anyone in our group who is lone working.
Fibally, think about how you want to share documents, data and other larger blocks of information. You need places where the entire team can find the core documents for the project to refer to as needed. It’s a bore to be looking through old emails to find minutes from past meetings, or drafts of papers that need comments and there’s always a risk that the version found is not the most recent. Look into shared drives, paying close attention to organisational guidance on approved platforms in relation to GDPR and likely ethical constraints in the future, when you have some data to play with.
2. Building a network
Social support from people at the same career stage as you is immensely valuable. If you are new to the team, make sure that someone introduces you to fellow lab members. Don’t be afraid to ask silly questions like where people go for lunch and whether the milk in the fridge is communal or not.
Key people in the department – like the person who will help you if you have an expense claim – will also be essential. if you don’t get a proper induction that includes meeting such people – even if just by email – ask for one.
Remember as well to ask your supervisor / line manager and other colleagues about any seminar series, journal clubs or mailing lists you should join. Make sure you’re getting the generic departmental emails that will help to keep you updated.
3. Planning your time: macro
One of the hard things about starting a new project is that it can feel like you don’t really have anything to do – especially not anything you can do independently. But your supervisor is probably busy and might not be able to meet you as frequently as you would like. It can be easy to run out of stuff within a matter of hours.
One task I would strongly recommend to fill this void is to make a gantt chart. I LOVE gantt charts. I know they are not everyone’s cup of team but I firmly believe that’s because you’re not doing it right… In fact, I’m making a note right now to dedicate a whole blog to gantt charts sometime soon.
Without then getting into the nitty gritty of good gantt chart creation and management, what’s worth saying here is that a gantt chart – or something similar if you really can’t bear it – gives you a way to break down your project into manageable steps and sequence these. The end result should tell you not only what you need to do first, but how long you have to do it. You should be able to extract interime deadlines (e.g. ethics submission by THIS date, data collection completed by THAT date). It should also reveal which things can only happen later and which things might happen simultaneously. This can be a great help when it comes to planning how to spend your time.
4. Planning your time: micro
There’s another level to time management though, which is thinking more about your average working week. Take some time to reflect on when you are at your most productive. If its the morning, don’t get distracted then by answering emails, and perhaps try to schedule meetings in the afternoons as much as you can. Reserve that time for reading and writing – or whatever stuff taxes your brain the most. Alternatively yu might feel you need a morning of warming up with easier jobs before you tackle the big stuff. It doesn’t matter – but do take some time to figure out what works for you and plan your week accordingly. You might want to schedule blocks of time for “reading and writing” or “emails” or “responding to supervisor feedback” and this can help you stay on track without burning out.
5. Gathering Resources
There’s a bunch of very pragmatic hurdles to be overcome at the start of a project too – probably this one should have come first! You probably going to need a desk and a computer, maybe a lab coat and access codes for the wet lab. You might need a new ID. You will want an email address if you ar enow to the organisation. For students, your supervisor will probably have to record somewhere that they have seen you for the first time and maintain this. It could be especially important for students who have a visa to study in the UK, so you know there’s evidence of your presence in the UK and your engagement with your programme of study.
Another thing to think about here is what training is available to you – either through courses at your organisation or maybe textbooks and online modules. Don’t go overboard, but if there are skills you want to develop or techniques you expect to be using, this is a good time to find out what training providers there are and make a proposal to your supervisors on what’s a good use of your time at this stage of the project.
6. Reasonable adjustments
If you have a disability, or are neurodivergent, have a chronic health condition of any kind, you are likely to experience some hurdles on your pathway to academic success. In addition, no-one can rule out becoming unwell or experiencing a trauma. So take a moment at this turning point to gather the resources you need, or might need one day.
A first step is to make sure you have all the contact details you need – whether now or possibly in the future – for relevant services and networks. Take a moment to look through induction materials from the organisation properly, and talk to your supervisor if there’s anything you can’t find. You ought to register with the University GP if you are a student, regardless of your current health – don’t leave it until you need it.
Think about whether there is anything you want to disclose to your supervisor, to a mentor (that reminds me – get yourself a mentor!) or to a peer. Have you had difficult times in the past and would there be value in sharing that? If you require specific adjustments in the workplace to allow you to study, or to do your job, make sure that is assessed and that the adjustments are in place. Again, be clear with your supervisor or mentor that you expect them to be an ally in this and not leave all the labour to you.
And finally, speaking of labour, think if there is a way to easily communciate your access needs to others that you can re-use in the future. Of course, event organisers etc. should offer accessibility information in advance without you needing to request it. But it is sadly inevitable that this won’t always be the case, or the information won’t be comprehensive. So let’s say that when attending a seminar / meeting / lecture etc you always need to know that there is a way in with no steps and that the doorway needs to be a certain width for your chair, perhaps it would save time later if you compose a standard piece of text stating those requirements and requesting confirmation, so you can cut and paste it every time.
7. Sharing your work
As your project evolves, it will nearly always be useful to have a place that you can signpost for people who want to know who you are and what you are doing. It might be a webpage, or just a pinned tweet. It might be an online CV on ResearchGate or your University site. A useful action in your first week or two is to build this online presence, however modest, so as you start to make connections with people you can share what you are up to. Which brings me to…
Having made a public-facing thing to tell people what you’re doing, you might well want to ask them for their input. If you are lucky and have ahd the opportunity, stakeholders might have been involved in setting up your project before you arrived. But if not, now is a chance to get a general sense of what people thing. A simple way to gather this information is on social media – posting a link to the project page and inviting people to have a look and contact you with comments is a great starting place.
If your work is less outward facing – maybe you are constructing a new algorithm to increase efficincy of a super-computer – then your engagement might just be with a difference audience. Leaders but also peers working on similar challenges around the globe, and industry professionals in a related field, might be interested to read about your new project and share their comments. Just one work of warning – do make sure that whatever info you share doesn’t violate anyone’s privacy nor any confidentiality agreements that apply – for example in relation to new inventions.
9. Top Tasks
Having done all that, at last you might ready to think about what your tasks are for the early days of your project!
Common examples will be reading the literature the forms the background to your work. What have people already done in this field? How can you be sure that your work will make a valuable contribution (which could of course include a replication of some previous work)? In reading around the topic, remember that as well as looking at new discoveries, you might want to be thinking about the types of measures you could be using. Are there questionnaires or experimental tasks that seem to be robust, well-calibrated and accessible to your planned participants?
Another useful early task might be to construct a recruitment strategy – assuming you are collecting new data of some kind. You shouldn’t be approaching anyone yet, but you could research and make a database of relevant organistions – such as schools or charities – and other ways to reach potential participants. Spending some time looking at facebook groups or exploring hashtags on twitter or instagram could in fact be a legitimate work activity right now! Along with that part of your planning, you will want to be taking a look at ethics documentation – what does the form look like? what kind of questions will I be answering and where can I find out the answers. Even if you have little idea of your study design at this early stage, you can start to think about sections like data security and how you will transfer and store the information you collect.
10. Deep breaths
Finally, take a moment. Starting a new project is oddly stressful – the very fact that you don’t feel you have much to do, or aren’t sure what to spend time on, can cause anxiety. Especially if you feel the clock is ticking. Especially if your supervisor is extremely busy. But it will come together and soon you will have a clear sense of what you need to do, as well as how to do it. Be patient with yourself – and your colleagues – if it takes a wee while to get to this point. That’s both normal, and OK.
^ unexpectedly, this post has taken an hour, so now maybe it won’t be a double bill…!
* a reminder that this is being written in the midst of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic