Academic Project Management 101

by | Mar 15, 2018 | academic project management, academic writing, publishing, time management

Academia is maybe the only career where you study for years and years, but your studies only partially prepare you for your actual job. Becoming an expert in your field does not necessarily mean that you are prepared for the day-to-day tasks of academia. For that, we need to learn academic project management.

As we craft, execute, and write up our dissertation projects, we learn about research design, library research, data collection, and document crafting. Writing a dissertation takes project management skills. Depending on the amount and quality of mentoring we get during this process, it can be a struggle to figure out these skills as we go. Never-the-less, if you’ve done a dissertation, you’ve done project management.

However, you’ve done project management on ONE academic project. And often, while dissertating, this is the only major academic project you’re working on.

Fast forward to the tenure-track and you are expected to manage the following academic projects simultaneously:

  • Teaching new course preparations, often more than one at a time
  • Participating in service activities such as curriculum re-design, governing committees, etc.
  • Mentoring students
  • Running a lab or research center
  • Writing and submitting grant proposals
  • Writing and publishing articles and books
  • Managing a publication pipeline

All. At. The. Same. Time.

Without a system for project management, you feel overwhelmed and exhausted all the time, no matter how much progress you’re actually making. What’s worse, you’re not even really supposed to talk about this, since asking for help and admitting you don’t know how to do something are big no-nos in the (ridiculous) culture of academia. So most of us just re-invent the wheel, to varying degrees of success.

So much study, so much rigorous preparation, and the fact remains that the day-to-day project management tasks of being an academic are not part of our training. In some cases, these tasks are modeled by excellent mentors, in some cases not. Most of the time we’re making it up as we go along.

If you’ve been following along, you know that I’m on a one-women mission to reveal all the “secrets” to how to do academia successfully so that we can all be happier, healthier, and more fulfilled in our careers. So let’s start with academic writing project management.


Academic Writing Project Management Basics


1. Not all writing tasks involve actual writing

When I say “writing,” I don’t mean only putting words on a page. I mean all the things you must do to complete a writing project. So, yes, when I say “writing” I mean: reading, collecting data, analyzing, creating charts and graphs, proofreading, etc. By thinking about all of these things as writing, then you can feel happy that you are making progress towards your publication goals when you are doing them.


2. Project vs. Task

The first step to managing your academic writing projects is to know the difference between a project and a task. Projects are big: writing an article, a book proposal, a grant. Tasks are small: Write the introduction, investigate competing titles, create the grant budget.

Tasks are what we put on our calendars. Projects are what we put on our publication pipelines.

There are some project management skills to hone here. First, you need to be able to break a project down into tasks. When coaching academic women on their publication strategies, I have found that many (1) don’t take the time to break the project into tasks and (2) don’t have a realistic picture of how long it will take them to complete each task.

To solve the first problem, you need to actually dedicate time to project management. That is, you need to schedule time to break a project into tasks so that you can schedule it out. This gets easier with a system.

To save time and energy, create templates of the tasks necessary to complete common writing projects that you do. That way you’re not re-inventing the wheel every time you start a new writing project. I use Trello for this (more about Trello in next week’s blog, where I’ll review project management software), and you can download some of my Trello writing project templates free here:

Get the Trello templates!

If you have templates of common writing projects already broken down into their component tasks, then you can just tweak the template for each new project and the time it takes to plan out projects is greatly reduced.


3. Estimating how long tasks will take

OK, but how do you know how long it will take to complete each task? No one can tell you how long it will take YOU to complete a task. Variables include: how fast you write, time of day/energy level when you attempt to do the task, complexity of the task, ability to focus, momentum, among others. Your ability to estimate how long it takes to complete a task will get better with time.

That said, most people underestimate how long it will take to do something (no, I couldn’t possibly be talking about you!). The danger of this is that you start to feel bad about your writing. This leads to guilt and overwhelm, writing’s two biggest enemies. You write less. You lose confidence. Bleh.

No, don’t do that. Instead I want you to overestimate the time it will take you to do tasks. You need to create positive feedback loops between you and your writing. To maintain and perpetuate positive feelings about your writing tasks, you need to feel like you are “winning” at it. Checking things off the list. Moving projects forward. Creating momentum. But you need to proactively set yourself up to “win” at writing.

If you over-estimate the time it takes to do a writing task, and then you get finished earlier YAY. That’s what you want!


4. Scheduling projects and tasks

After you’ve broken down your writing project into tasks and you have some sense of how long each task will take, it’s time to schedule tasks onto your calendar.

I recommend one of two methods: (1) actually give each task a due date or (2) have a prioritized bank of tasks and scheduled writing time (during the writing time you pull from the bank of tasks). Either way works, but be open to trying something new to find what works for YOU.

It is best to work on one project at a time, but this is pretty much impossible in academia. So strive to work on one writing project at a time and move it all the way to completion. Again, this is difficult but the focus you get from sticking to one thing at a time can help you build momentum and get your project out the door faster. Avoid the “buffet” method at all costs: a little of this article, a little of that book proposal…nothing gets done this way.


If you are interested in learning more about my system for academic writing project using Trello, I invite you to sign up for my workshop that will take place live via Zoom on April 11th at 11:00 EDT. I’ll start with some quick Trello basics, then move on to my board system, and by signing up for the workshop you’ll get templates for all the boards in my system so you can set yourself up!

Register for the workshop!


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