Shouldn’t we start talking about project management in academia?

I stole this image from Wikipedia.

Taking a job in the private sector after finishing a Ph.D. (as opposed to an academic job) has brought me many realizations about both environments. As someone that didn’t plan for the position I currently have, I cannot help but constantly compare where I am to where I think I was meant to be. As you might imagine, both academia and the private sector have their pros and cons, and right now there is no way for me to objectively assess which one I prefer. I acknowledge, however, that despite the prospect of being now in a much better situation than the one I would be if I had a job as a professor, the mismatch between my aspirations and my reality has taken a toll on me. I am disgruntled and bitter, and it shows. I am often hypercritical of academia because I thought academia was objectively (morally, even) better than the private sector. But academia is not better, I am sorry to inform. It is not worse, but it is certainly not better. I am constantly updating my mental list of all the things I find deeply questionable of both environments but I tend to manifest more often my disappointment about academia, in all honesty.

The latest addition to such list has to do with the way professors deal with project management. I’ll explain. All aspiring professors know well what will be expected of them. They are supposed to research, teach, provide service to their department and supervise students. They will be required to provide proof of their abilities to perform the first two activities through their publications, teaching materials and evaluations. The service that new professors will provide to their departments will depend on the needs of the faculties, but the Service section in a CV could somehow do the trick. There is, however, no requirement for the candidates to prove their abilities to supervise or manage a project. You can always try skimming some academic job calls from — let’s say — University Affairs, to see if you can identify anything.

Current and future professors apply for a job that requires the performance of management tasks that they have never performed, for which their employers provide no training, but have a great impact on other people’s lives.

I have informally asked several profs in North America, in different stages of their academic careers and all of them have told me their universities did not provide them with any form of training on supervision or management. For the most part, they either imitated their own supervisor’s approach or greatly digressed from it, depending on their experience as graduate students. This is an issue because, more often than not, the success of a graduate student depends on the supervisor. Consider this section of UBC’s description of supervisor responsibilities:

“Your supervisor is the key person in your graduate degree program. Graduate education is greatly affected by the nature of the supervision and the quality of communication between graduate students and their supervisors. When students work closely and effectively with their graduate supervisors, they will improve the quality of their dissertations or theses and their educational experiences.”

So, if the product of my informal inquiries is true, current and future professors apply for a job that requires the performance of managerial tasks that they have never performed, for which their employers provide no training, but have a great impact in other people’s lives. Because it is easier for me to empathize with graduate students, I have made the mistake of blaming current and future supervisors for this issue:

Some professors consider that supervising students is not management but advisory, which reduces the perception of accountability for the supervisor. I am sorry, but if verbal authorizations and signatures are needed for a student to advance at any stage of the project, you are a manager.

I do realize that my passive-aggressive tweets don’t make things any better. In my attempt to side with “the client”, I am putting the onus on “the employee” when it should be on “the employer”. An employer that, in my estimation, does not seem too interested in fixing the issue. Instead, I decided to put myself in the recently hired professors’ shoes and figure out how I would try to make the situation better, at least for myself, and I discovered some potential interesting approaches that I would use. Now, I realize that some professors consider that supervising students is not management but advisory, which reduces the perception of accountability for the supervisor. I am sorry, but if verbal authorizations and signatures are needed for a student to advance at any stage of the project, you are a manager.

How hard would it be?

So I started by looking at existing project management methods that could be applied to specific projects within academia. I tried to adjust some of the methods that I had recently become familiar with (mostly software and design-oriented) but I soon realized those were not really helpful in academic contexts. Finally, taking the doctoral dissertation as my main reference for an academic project that would require extensive management, I found something called Critical Path Method (CPM). CPM is not really a management system, but a scheduling tool. There are several guides out there for understanding this tool, but I found this one quite useful. As I understand it, the entire idea behind CPM is to timebox a sequential project by identifying the shortest path from start to conclusion. It involves high-level visualizations not merely as after-the-fact representations, but as planning tools. The implementation of CPM would require listing all the tasks that a grad student would face during the program, identifying those absolutely necessary to complete the program, estimate time for their completion, and finally, estimate how much time it would take to complete the entire series of indispensable tasks. This might sound ambitious, but the truth is that many of the tasks that a grad student will face during the program are identifiable: Grant applications, coursework completion, proposal, comprehensive exam, data collection, data analysis, writing and defending, but also conference season, pushing papers, etc. A list of these tasks and an ideal timeline would have been very useful to me as a grad student. I would definitely know what to expect from the get-go, but I could not have done it by myself because I did not know what all these tasks were. But my supervisor or a more senior student could have helped me, although ultimately, the academic department should have something like that in place. Wouldn’t that be helpful to everyone?

In the end, it would be ideal for everyone to understand that the projects that supervisors and universities are managing are not dissertations, but future professors.

In fact, once having this list and the ideal timeframes for each task, you have a Gannt chart, Project Management 101, right there. Now, I am sure many students have used basic management tools to navigate their Ph.D. program. But here’s the problem, as I mentioned before, many tasks depend on the actions of the supervisor. For these resources to work, there has to be agreement on the fact that approvals, signatures, reading the draft, providing feedback, etc., are also tasks that have to be accounted for.

In fact, the supervisor should have a timebox for all these tasks, otherwise, there is no realistic way to really plan for a project of the magnitude of a dissertation.

I acknowledge I am not an expert or even a great manager, I realize there are great managers within academia. If you are one of those, thank you. I really think we need more people like you. In the end, it would be ideal for everyone to understand that the projects that supervisors and universities are managing are not dissertations, but future professors (at least in the Social Sciences and Humanities). I have seen wonderful, smart and super talented people defeated, heart-broken and ultimately hating the entire academic system due to the very poor management and lack of accountability they were subjected to, and you know what? there is really no need for that to happen. We can do better. Academia can do better.

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