15 Project Management Concepts That Every PhD Should Understand

PhDs know how to get a project done. 

They know how to juggle different projects, how to prioritize between different experiments, and how to achieve results while managing low budgets.

This leads them to believe that they know everything there is to know about project management. But here’s the thing, project management in academia is very different from project management in industry.

Not understanding this difference leads PhDs to stay unemployed because they don’t know how to react to project management-related questions during the interview process.

If you are thinking that this doesn’t apply to you because you are not looking to be hired as a project manager, think again. 

Questions like ‘How would you improve a given process?’ ‘What is a statement or work?’, Or ‘What is your experience with agile methodology?’ are common in industry. No matter what position you are applying to.

One of our members, who went through our Project Management program, the Project Management Consortium reflected on this after having spent some months in an industry position:

“I had no concept of project management in academia to be honest. It was all focused on publications and presentations. 

But when I started my current position as a Senior Research Scientist, I realized that project management is a big part of any industry position.

In industry, everything is about the business mindset. You need to make money, you need to respect deadlines, and you need to keep the customer satisfied.

So, understanding how you fit into a team and how things stay organized, which is what project management is all about, is pivotal, no matter your position.”

Why Every PhD Should Have Project Management Knowledge

The annual budget of a middle sized company industry is in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars. Big pharma or biotech companies generate billions of dollars worth of annual revenue and can have hundreds of thousands of employees located in dozens of countries.

If you compare those numbers with academia, where the biggest labs operate with budgets of a couple of million dollars per year and have less than 100 people working for them, it should be clear that the level of structure that is required to manage projects and industry is much greater.

Companies have to pay very specific attention to project management if they want to get things done on such a large scale. 

At the same time, there is not a single way of managing projects in industry, every company has its own project management system and specific tools that it relies on.

Of course, each project in industry has a designated project manager whose role is to ensure that the work gets done in time and within budget, but every employee that is part of the project needs to understand the methodology and tools to be successful.

At Cheeky Scientist, we talk a lot about learning the language of industry before you get hired. 

You can’t speak the language of industry if you don’t understand the language of project management. And this is true, no matter what industry position you are targeting.

Here are some project management concepts that you need to get familiar with before you start interviewing for industry positions.

The Phases Of A Project

The way a company manages projects is a huge measure of success, no matter the industry or the size of the project. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that projects in industry go through more phases and involve more steps than we are used to in academia. 

Industry project management considers four project phases – initiation, planning, execution, and closure. In contrast, academia only considers the planning and execution phase, and even those two phases are many times poorly structured

Initiation Phase

The initiation phase is very specific and structured. Its main goal is to define the project. This includes the goal, the scope, and the budget. In industry, all projects must have a monetary value or they will never move to the next phase.

The initiation phase also requires paperwork that is uncommon in academia, such as a project charter. You should be familiar with these terms before you start applying for industry positions as they might come up during the interview.

Before a project can move forward, it has to go through a phase review. During the phase review, the stakeholders assess if the plan is on track and all the documentation is in place. 

Phase reviews happen at the end of each phase, not just the initiation phase. 

Planning Phase

After the project has been justified, described, and approved, the planning part begins. The main objective of this phase is to use the project definition (developed during the initiation phase) to create a plan of action.

This plan has to be approved by all parties involved in it before moving to the next phase. All of this is recorded in the statement of work, which  is one of the most important documents in the life cycle of a project.

Execution Phase

The execution phase is when the actual work gets done. 

Typically, this is the longest phase of the project and can take more than 90% of the project’s lifespan and effort. 

This phase is completed when the defined goals have been reached successfully.

Figure 1: Phases Of Industry Project Management

Closure Phase

This final phase takes place after the final product or service has been delivered. This is the shortest phase in the project life cycle, but it is very important.

The three main goals of the closure phase are to make sure all stakeholders understand that the project is closed, review the lessons learned from the previous projects, and transition to the next one.

Project Management Methodologies

Most project management methodologies were initially developed for information technology (IT) projects. However, many of the associated concepts, practices, and jargon are now used across different industries.

Any PhD wanting to transition into industry needs to have at least some basic knowledge of the main methodologies and the concepts associated with them. 

Waterfall

This is the classic methodology of project management and is the most commonly used in academia.

Waterfall project management is a sequential, non-iterative process made of discrete phases that do not overlap. In this method, you are not allowed to return and change the previous phase.

Think of your PhD: you design an experiment, you execute the steps, you get some data, and it’s only once you have that data, you will know if the experiment worked. 

This is an example of a waterfall project. 

This methodology is very rigid, but it can be very efficient for small, straight forward, and clearly-defined projects.

Agile

The Agile family of methodologies was actually invented by a PhD who noticed that there was a deficiency with the waterfall project management used in academia.

Agile consists of a series of regular and consistent iterations called “Sprints.” At the end of each sprint, the team must deliver results and discuss how the project is advancing.

The Agile methodology aims at discovering what deliverables are needed as early as possible, monitor its progress accurately, and accelerate the learning of the development team.

This methodology works very well for small teams that can easily adapt on a short notice. 

Bigger teams tend to use a combination of Agile and Waterfall, called AgileFall.

AgileFall projects are usually broken into sequential sections, each of which is managed with Agile.

Six Sigma

Six Sigma encompasses a set of techniques and tools for process improvement that is more widely applied to process management.

This approach focuses on eliminating product or service defects. So, it uses quality management methods to improve and optimize the product. 

Lean Six Sigma

This method combines the concept of lean manufacturing with Six Sigma and relies on a collaborative team effort to improve performance by systematically removing waste and reducing variation. It is commonly used in operation management.

If a company uses Six Sigma or Lean Six Sigma, this can come up during an interview, so you will be better off knowing the fundamentals of these methods.

Scrum

This is a type of agile project management that is most commonly used in tech companies. Project iterations are also called sprints, but they are usually shorter than in Agile – around 1 week per sprint.

Scrum focuses on a clear set of goals instead of a specific project part. It’s similar to thinking about what would be the best way to do an experiment that will lead to the best results for publication. 

The goal of this methodology is to study different courses of action (known as alternative analysis in industry). This is something you do naturally as a PhD.

Project Management Tools

Besides the project phases and methodologies, you should also be familiar with specific management terminology.

I’m going to cover the most relevant terms in this blog, but be aware that there are many other terms that industry employees use on a daily basis. 

Gantt Chart

A bar chart that shows all the tasks of a given project. The vertical axis lists the tasks, and the horizontal axis marks the time. 

Some companies love working with Gantt charts, others find it old school. In any case, you should be able to discuss the utility of Gantt Charts during an interview or as part of your industry job. 

Burndown Chart 

A graph showing the relationship between the number of tasks to be completed and the amount of time left to complete these tasks.

This tool is mostly used in scrum and agile project management.

Critical Path Method (CPM)

The critical path of a project represents the longest possible path you can take to complete it. Identifying the critical path allows you to prioritize resources properly. 

The process of identifying the critical path is very similar to finding the limiting factor in an experiment. So, as a PhD, you are wired for this, you just need to understand this is what employers are talking about when you hear the term.

Project Management Blueprint

A document that delineates the goals of a project. Sometimes, it will also describe how the project will contribute to the organizational objective. 

The main difference between a blueprint and a Statement of Work is that the blueprint relates back to the overall corporate strategy.

Business Plan

A written document describing the nature of the business. It is usual to write a new business plan once you start a project. 

Although project managers can write business plans, this usually falls into the responsibilities of the business development manager, a PhD-level position that is highly valued across industries. 

Return On Investment (ROI)

A performance measure used to evaluate projects. It is usually presented as a percentage. 

ROI represents the expected financial gain of a project relative to its total investment and assesses the overall profitability.

Concluding Remarks

If you are committed to leaving academia, you need to start by speaking the language of industry and understanding how industry is structured. This is intimately related to project management. So, no matter what position you are targeting, take some time to understand the basic phases, methodologies, and terms related to projects in industry. The best way to get familiar with this terminology is to network with people working at your target companies, this will help you determine which terms and concepts are more likely to come out during the interview process.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the waitlist for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Isaiah Hankel, PhD
Isaiah Hankel, PhD Chief Executive Officer at Cheeky Scientist

Isaiah Hankel holds a PhD in Anatomy and Cell Biology. An expert in the biotechnology industry, he specializes in helping other PhDs transition into cutting-edge industry career tracks.

Isaiah believes--from personal experience--that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life, it’s a clear sign that you need to make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.

Isaiah is an internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant, CEO of Cheeky Scientist, and author of the straight-talk bestsellers Black Hole Focus and The Science of Intelligent Achievement.

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