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TIP-Topics for Students: Project Management Strategies for Grad School and Beyond

Stefanie Gisler, Bradley Gray, Jenna-Lyn Roman, and Ethan Rothstein, Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY

In our first year as TIP-Topics columnists, our columns have offered suggestions for successfully gaining entry into I-O graduate programs, navigating I-O grad school as an international student, and grappling with the common work–life balance issues that grad students face. We now turn our attention to the underexplored yet critically important topic of project management during the graduate school years. Given that I-O grad students balance their coursework, research activities, professional endeavors (i.e., teaching assistantships, research assistantships, internships), and service, project management issues can plague students during their time in grad school and, potentially, impact their future on the job market.

To investigate this subject further we spoke to I-O professionals who work in academia as well as several applied practitioners to learn more about the project management strategies they recommend. We spoke to Stephanie Andel (postdoctoral scholar, University of South Florida Muma College of Business), Erin Eatough (assistant professor, Baruch College, & The Graduate Center, CUNY), Kimberly French (assistant professor, Georgia Institute of Technology), Nicholas Salter (associate professor, Ramapo College of New Jersey), and Logan Watts (assistant professor, Baruch College, & The Graduate Center, CUNY) for their academic perspective about project managment.  In addition, we also spoke to Michael Chetta (managing partner, Talent Metrics Consulting), Dan Cashman (director of Performance Improvement, University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center), and Alan Friedman (chief executive officer, J3PERSONICA) to gain an applied point of view on this topic. Each contributor offered salient advice about project management specifically geared towards I-O grad students.

We came to the realization that project management strategies are not one size fits all. Each person we spoke with utilized a variety of systems to manage the research projects or applied tasks on their plate. Most acknowledged that it takes students some trial and error to find the specific approach that works for them, however each offered suggestions that all I-O graduate students would find helpful in their current programs, regardless of whether they aspire to seek an academic or applied career in the future. We will share our experts’ advice about their project management techniques such as goal setting, compartmentalizing and prioritizing, choosing projects wisely, cultivating applied projects, and mentally recovering to maximize productivity in grad school and beyond.

Use Goal Setting Techniques

Drs. Nicholas Salter, Erin Eatough, and Stephanie Andel discussed the importance of effective goal setting, specifically setting SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timebound) to maximize productivity. They also emphasized the importance of breaking up projects, particularly larger projects (e.g. thesis, dissertation) into smaller, more manageable pieces. Dr. Eatough advised, “Pay attention to the scale of the goal as it relates to the next actionable step.”  When she has a large goal (e.g., to send a manuscript out for review by a certain date) she sets subgoals and even subgoals to those. Then, those goals are mapped out from week to week and day to day for achieving the overarching goal. Dr. Salter said that he also implements a structured, organized approach to managing projects for his own research and instills that framework for projects his students are working on.

One of the most important aspects of goal setting is establishing deadlines. Dr. Andel acknowledges that although setting deadlines has worked for her, some people struggle with meeting the deadlines that they impose upon themselves. Dr. Logan Watts feels that when managing your research queue it is important to realize which deadlines are real deadlines (i.e., not negotiable) and which are not. It is important to balance the projects you want to do with those projects and tasks you must do. Structured plans were at the core of most of our contributors’ project management strategies.

Compartmentalize and Prioritize

Dr. Michael Chetta suggested grad students try compartmentalizing. When he was in grad school, he was balancing a full time job, a full time PhD program, and family responsibilities. Every Saturday and Sunday he left his house to work on his dissertation at a family member’s house. By doing that, he could spend the entire day being productive on school work or his dissertation and not be distracted.  Dr. Eatough also suggests the strategies of limiting distractions or interruptions like email notifications and text messages as it is important to reduce the cognitive drain of switching tasks and switching roles back and forth all day long. In addition, she batches email at certain times of the day and closes email when she is working on other tasks. This helps her get into deep work or flow states.

Dr. Watts stated that a person can only actually work on one project at a time, which sounds deceptively simple in theory yet difficult to put into practice when students are juggling coursework, research, internships, and professional development. Dr. Andel structures her research productivity in the following way, with one project as her current research priority. Each day she starts by working on her priority project. She prefers limiting active projects to three projects at a time. She starts her work each day by working on her priority project first. After that she alternates the order in which she works on her other two projects giving equal time to each project. Dr. Eatough tries to pick one non-negotiable priority task at night and work on that first thing in the morning, before the day’s events can throw her off track. 

Choose Projects Wisely

Before taking on new projects, Dr. Eatough recommends that students consider whether a project has the potential to make a meaningful contribution to the literature and is of interest to them. Given that most projects require extensive energy and often last for many months or years, it is important that the work you have done provides theoretical insight or useful practical information and is about something you feel connected to or invested in. Dr. Andel and Dr. Watts said that they typically pass on projects that are not situated firmly within their research interests. If a potential project is outside of your research interests, they suggest taking time to carefully consider whether you want to work on the project anyway. Dr. Salter stated that students should try to avoid projects that are not a good use of their time. Dr. Eatough suggested graduate students maximize their contributions on as many research projects as possible during their training to broaden their experiences. Rather than turning down projects, students who seek out projects to their maximum capacity are best able to absorb “on the job” training from their mentors, fellow students, and collaborators to supplement formal learning in courses and seminars. 

Dr. Kimberly French suggested that before students take on a new project (even if your mentor is the one pitching it to you), think about it for a day or two before saying yes. Another consideration is “whether it is really the right time to take on an additional project,” said Dr. Andel. She also emphasized that it is important to think about if the project is in your area, consider if you have a lull in projects, and if the project is interesting to you. In addition, Andel said to beware of when projects are out of your hands with colleagues or reviewers, because you know it will be coming back at some point, and it can be overwhelming when that happens. Given that many projects take longer than anticipated, Dr. Salter advises his students to be really thoughtful about what they agree to. Dr. French states she sometimes struggles with turning down projects, so she has employed a “yes, but later” tactic for opportunities that were great but that she could not work right away. She also advised students to be cautious of projects that they cannot add much to or when their time investment is not worth the potential impact of the research. 

Cultivate Applied Projects

Especially important for those who want to go applied, both Alan Friedman and Dan Cashman stressed that students should try to gain as much practical experience as possible in organizations to complement their I-O coursework. Whether through pro bono consulting or other types of volunteer work. Friedman advised: “Don’t be so transactional,” as sometimes the experience gained from unpaid projects can pay dividends later in one’s career. Although not suggesting that students should always opt to intern or work without compensation, Friedman stated that there are circumstances in which it might be beneficial for students to consider taking an unpaid opportunity to gain valuable experience. Similarly, Cashman suggested students not to worry about the title or compensation that a particular job might have as long as they can find opportunities to start I-O relevant projects that can help them land their dream job later.

Dr. Chetta advocated that all I-O graduate students make a concerted professional development effort. He posits that a level of notoriety is achieved by being active and that professional development is a long game. He advised that grad students need to go to local I-O networking events as well as SIOP and APA conferences, if possible.  He said that students looking for an applied or academic career should consider volunteering at their local I-O professional group. Finally, Dr. Chetta advises that there are a lot of intangibles to making money down the road.

Don’t Forget About Recovery

Dr. Andel described her “funday” allotments that are an important part of her project timelines. She stated, “It’s easy to think we should spend every minute working and to be guilty when we don’t, but that approach isn’t realistic or helpful.”  She schedules “fundays” into her project timelines, in which she planfully takes days off from working on research and does not feel bad about using them.  In addition, she mentioned the importance of being involved in a hobby or activity during graduate school, preferably one that is unrelated to your program and involves people from outside the I-O community. She notes that the breaks from her research and academic work, as well as having the ability to interact with people not involved in I-O, increased her productivity.

Dr. Eatough aims to improve her recovery from work through meditation, mindfulness, and better sleep hygiene to optimize and energize her work hours. She stressed that “mental focus and energy are our biggest assets,” so cultivating environments that facilitate access to our mental resources is crucial.

Conclusion

Maintaining effective project management strategies can be a real challenge in graduate school. However, grad school is a great time to set up good work habits for the rest of your career.  It is important to pay attention to daily work behaviors, both good and bad, because of the overall well-being implications that fostering good habits while mitigating bad ones has during grad school and beyond. Although we highlighted a variety of strategies grad students can use to maximize productivity, it is best to choose the methods that work with your individual work style. Learning how to get the most out of your working hours may take some experimenting to see what works best for you. However, developing project management skills now will continue to help you in your future career.

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We would like to thank our contributors for their willingness to participate and the advice they shared with our readers.

Stefanie Gisler is a PhD student at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. She received her BA from Bucknell University and an MS in I-O Psychology from the University of Central Florida (UCF). Her research interests include occupational health psychology, diversity, and selection. After earning her PhD, Stefanie would like to pursue a career in academia.

Bradley Gray is a PhD student at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. He obtained a BA in Psychology from Wake Forest University in 2010 and an MA in Clinical Psychology from Towson University in 2012. He researches occupational health psychology, with an interest in the relationship between supervisors and their employees, and is also interested in culture change and executive development.

Jenna-Lyn Roman is completing an MS degree at Baruch College, CUNY and will begin her PhD studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology in August 2018. She is interested in work–family research with an emphasis on nontraditional workers and understudied populations (i.e., military families), as well as occupational health psychology and gender parity topics. Jenna would like to be a university professor specializing in work–family topics.

Ethan Rothstein is a PhD student at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. Ethan obtained his BA in Clinical Psychology from Tufts University in 2013. His primary area of research has been the interface between work and family, but he has also conducted research on motivation, leadership, team processes, and occupational health psychology. After he graduates, Ethan would like to pursue an applied career in both consulting and industry.

The TIP-TOPics team can be reached by email at jennalyn.roman@baruchmail.cuny.edu.

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