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CAREERS

on the process of research rather than on


measuring outcomes and productivity.
Although a range of users, from lab heads COLUMN
PhD project tips
to graduate students, say that using Scrum
has made them more efficient, the university
has not yet found a reliable way to measure
those efficiency levels. A possible metric,
May says, comes from examination of how
manuscripts are prepared and submitted. Angel Santiago-Lopez shares six tips from the private
Anecdotal reports from researchers ­suggest
that papers are being written and sent off to
sector on how to manage a PhD project.
journals more quickly than before because

I
deadlines are communicated b ­ etter under n my experience, a PhD project sometimes Add value, not experiments. What is
the regular feedback of the sprint sys- feels like it demands more time than is absolutely needed to maximize the value (or
tem. Priority-setting also encourages lab possible — especially if you were hoping impact) of your project? When creating your
­members to agree on draft sections rather to maintain a healthy work–life balance. In master to-do list, reflect on what would bring
than get stuck in endless cycles of ­revision. my view, every graduate-school curriculum the most value to your project. Once these
Another possible test of the benefits of the should carry a course on project management. elements have been identified, devote all your
Scrum approach, May says, is to see whether I am a PhD candidate in bioengineering efforts to completing them to the best of your
lab members can increase the number of at the Georgia Institute of Technology in ability. As graduate students, we are sensitive to
papers under review on which they are the Atlanta, and, during my studies, I have the double-edged sword of academic freedom
first author. developed project-management skills that and scientific curiosity. You should let your
One of the most striking benefits of might help others pursuing a PhD. Here curiosity take the driver’s seat in some cases,
using Scrum at the University of Oregon, are six pieces of advice that helped me. The but do not use scientific curiosity to justify
­DeStasio says, is how it has changed lab strategies below follow a common idea: define fishing expeditions outside your project scope.
­culture for the better. Previously, it was rare the undefined. As a graduate student, you have limited time
for members of the group to interact, partly and, often, limited resources.
because they worked across different rooms Define your timeline. Start the academic
and offices. The regular all-hands meetings, semester with the end in mind. What would Define metrics of success. Well-defined
although they are short, encourage and you like to accomplish by then? Begin each metrics of success lead to small victories.
­foster more interaction. academic term by defining major milestones What does success look like for each item on
May says it’s clear that many graduate associated with your research project (for your master to-do list? Having these metrics
students suffer when they do not work in example, completing the first draft of a review in place helps to address whether you are
a shared space, and that the collaborative article) and your graduate programme (for moving in the right direction. Ideally, reaching
nature of Scrum example, conducting a PhD-proposal defence). each metric should provide a glimpse of the
has help e d to “It’s much more Break down what actions you need to take final product of your research project. I con-
b r i n g p e o p l e efficient to be to achieve each goal. At this point, you can sider reaching each metric a small victory, and
together. Some able to have assess the time commitment required, as well each provides a boost of confidence to keep
of these obstacles those quick and as existing hard deadlines, then prioritize each moving forward.
break down along easy questions action item to fit within the time available for
discipline lines, in real time.” the semester. Make progress by failing early. Failure is
she a d ds . For inherent to the research process, and fear
example, May and her team realized that Prepare to be ‘punched in the mouth’. of failure can damage your productivity by
most biology principal investigators were US boxer Mike Tyson once said “everyone has inducing what is known as analysis paralysis
frequently around the lab, but the offices of a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. — the inaction that comes from overthinking
senior scientists in ­psychology were often on Unforeseeable events (such as a broken pipe what needs to be done to achieve one’s goals.
a different floor from the workspaces of the in your laboratory or a change in deadlines In my experience, analysis paralysis is hard
rest of their teams. from your supervisor) will affect your time- to overcome when there is a lot at stake. To
Berkman says that Scrum has changed line. It is important to keep in mind that the avoid this, design experiments that address
that separation: he now has a standing projected path for your semester will need small portions of your overarching research
desk in the same room as his graduate continuous readjustment. To account for the question and give you space to fail early — if
students, which features coffee-shop-style dynamic nature of a research project, I perform you’re wrong about a key assumption in your
couches. “It just doesn’t make sense for us a mid-semester revision to assess overall pro- project design, you’ll want to know as soon
to be in separate spaces,” he says. The con- gress and decide which aspects to prioritize. as possible. An early failure is a successful
ventional style of training and mentorship It is good practice to build margins into your failure because it allows you to recalibrate
is based on a centuries-old tradition of schedule: overestimate the time required to and quickly address the shortcomings of your
­apprenticeship, he adds, and is not suited complete a specific task. Margins will serve project.
to modern ­science. Still, his embrace of at as a protective cushion against unpredictable These project-management strategies can
least one ‘­radical’ Scrum principle sets him events that threaten to thwart your progress. help to introduce a degree of control over the
apart from his colleagues. “This system is uncertainty of graduate school. Moreover,
being implemented in lots of labs across Define your project scope. Your project scope they are often used outside academia for their
the ­university,” he says, “and I’m the only should start with a clear statement of overall proven ability to increase the probability of
faculty member I know who has moved his goals, followed by a list of specific things that success. If they work for the private sector, they
office into the lab.” ■ you expect to deliver in the course of your pro- will work for your research project. ■
ject. This part can be simplified as a ‘master
David Adam is a freelance writer based to-do list’ that, once all checked off, will indicate Angel Santiago-Lopez is a PhD candidate at
near London. project completion. the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

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