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. 


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.


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.


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.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

Book a Transition Call
Get Free Job Search Content Weekly



Isaiah Hankel, PhD is the Founder and CEO of the largest career training platform for PhDs in the world - Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, DOW Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Isaiah Hankel received his doctorate in Anatomy & Cell Biology with a focus in immunology and is an expert on biotechnology recruitment and career development.

Isaiah has published two bestselling books with Wiley and his methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah About Photo

Similar Articles

Best Of Transition: Ph.D. Jobs & Job Search Strategies January 7, 2023

Best Of Transition: Ph.D. Jobs & Job Search Strategies January 7, 2023

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Every week, we at Cheeky Scientist scour the Internet for the best articles on topics that help in the search for the Best of Transition: PhD Job Search in the industry. Our two consultants independently search for the most informative articles in the categories of networking, CVs/resumes, interviews, transferable skills, academic blues, industry positions, and business acumen. Our consultants vote on a top article for each category and a top overall article for the week – if it’s a recent article that can help readers find and acquire PhD jobs, then we want to include it in this weekly digest.…

4 Red-Hot Intellectual Property Positions For PhDs

4 Red-Hot Intellectual Property Positions For PhDs

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

I just got off the phone with an old friend of mine.  We were researchers at the same lab back in our university days. We had lost touch, but when he found me on LinkedIn I couldn’t wait to hear what he’s done since graduation.  He told me he had not wound up in chemistry, which had been his major. Biomolecular chemistry, he reminded me. Instead, he decided to pursue a career in patent law.  Here’s his transition story: I was in the process of earning my PhD in biomolecular chemistry. That’s where I learned that patents were unrecognized by…

4 Oddly Popular PhD Careers In Finance And Business

4 Oddly Popular PhD Careers In Finance And Business

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

PhDs in the sciences and humanities are not qualified to work in finance or business. At least that’s what I thought. That was until I started hearing more of my former colleagues talk about their transition into consulting and financial service roles. These were people who specialized in very niche areas of science. I was surprised to learn that their skills were needed in the financial and business sectors of industry. What can a PhD in the sciences or humanities possibly contribute to finance and business? As always, it comes down to your transferable skills. These sectors are seeking highly…

PhD Careers In Clinical, Medical, And Regulatory Affairs

PhD Careers In Clinical, Medical, And Regulatory Affairs

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

I was defending my PhD in 6 months, and I still had no idea what I wanted to do. What job did I want? Where did I see myself in 5 to 10 years? My goal was to get out of academia and into industry – and as quickly as possible. Beyond that, I hadn’t thoroughly considered my options. In fact, when I finally sat down to apply for jobs, I blindly searched for open positions using standard terms: “Researcher,” “Scientist,” “Biologist,” and so on. As a science PhD, that’s what I was qualified for, right? What I didn’t appreciate…

6 Research And Development Roles For PhDs (Not Just Research Scientist)

6 Research And Development Roles For PhDs (Not Just Research Scientist)

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

When you envision yourself in an industry role, what do you see? Like many PhDs, you might imagine yourself in a research position where you are developing and performing experiments, analyzing data, presenting the data to your research team, and so on. After all, that’s what your PhD has trained you for, right? But if the thought of spending a life-long career conducting experiments fills you with dread, start looking beyond the bench. There are plenty of fulfilling career paths within Research and Development (R&D) that keep you close to the innovation. As one Cheeky Scientist member recently shared:  …

4 Great PhD Careers In Sales And Marketing (Don’t Overlook #3)

4 Great PhD Careers In Sales And Marketing (Don’t Overlook #3)

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Like many PhDs, you may think that Research and Development is the only department in industry that hires PhDs. But the reality is, your skills are needed in every area of industry. That means that every single department within a company is seeking PhD-level candidates. In fact, there are five core industry career tracks that can provide PhDs with meaningful and rewarding work: Information and Data Management (this is a broad category that includes everything from Patent Analyst and Informatics Specialist roles to Medical Writing and Data Scientist roles), Research and Development, Clinical and Regulatory Affairs, Classical Business (e.g., Management…

Data Scientist, Patent Analyst & Medical Writing Positions For PhDs

Data Scientist, Patent Analyst & Medical Writing Positions For PhDs

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

What industry position can I apply to? That’s one of the most common questions PhDs ask once they decide to leave academia. What you probably don’t realize is that you have many options when it comes to choosing a career. So, the real question is not what industry position you can apply to, but what industry position is the right fit for you. Which position better matches your professional lifestyle and career goals?  In previous blogs we’ve discussed how to establish your desired professional lifestyle and how to use it to evaluate your target career track and companies. In the…

3 Factors PhDs Must Consider When Deciding Company Fit

3 Factors PhDs Must Consider When Deciding Company Fit

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

If you recently started your job search, you probably feel the pressure of proving that you’re a good fit for the industry roles you’re applying to.  You have to carefully craft your cover letter, resume, and LinkedIn profile, and prepare for countless interviews just to prove you’re  qualified for a position.  This pressure can make you feel that employers hold all the power, and the only thing that matters is convincing them that you’re the best candidate for the role. Don’t let this pressure make you neglect other key components of a successful career, like company fit.  You’ll likely accept…

8 Work Qualities PhDs Should Assess When Planning A Career Move

8 Work Qualities PhDs Should Assess When Planning A Career Move

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

If you have a PhD, you’re among the 2% of the population who has committed to push a field of knowledge forward.  That makes you one of the most innovative people in the world. This is something special. As such, you deserve to work in a position where your tenacity and ability to solve problems are out of good use. Where you feel satisfied and are rewarded for your job. That’s why I encourage all PhDs to look for an industry position, because academia is a dead end where dreams go to die. However, you have to be strategic when…

Top Industry Career eBooks

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel

The LinkedIn tips & strategies within have helped PhDs from every background get hired into top industry careers.

63 Best Industry Positions For PhDs

63 Best Industry Positions For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD & Arunodoy Sur, PhD

Learn about the best 63 industry careers for PhDs (regardless of your academic background). In this eBook, you will gain insight into the most popular, highest-paying jobs for PhDs – all of which will allow you to do meaningful work AND get paid well for it.

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Learn how to craft the perfect industry resume to attract employers. In this eBook for PhDs, you will get access to proven resume templates, learn how to structure your bullet points, and discover which keywords industry employers want to see most on PhD resumes.