My adventures as a project lead have led me down some interesting rabbit holes. This is the first time I have taken on a role like this or engaged in this level of Curriculum Support, and as such I have found the task a rather daunting one. Pushing my articles and research plan back until January 2016 has been the most guilt-inducing part, but an impact activity counts for as much as a monograph in the REF, and I do have things forthcoming. I have rearranged my projected output timetable to accommodate these project deadlines.

Again, I’m going to use this space to be a little personal. On top of the usual uncertainty which comes with having nothing lined up post-PhD, there have been other major stresses and triggering events. Academia attracts a certain personality type (or so it seems to me!) so I think that a lot of people can relate to the negative reactions, including the potential to go into a depressive spiral, that these kinds of layered issues, life-changes and challenges can cause. Chances are, if you do end up managing a project, you will be doing it on top of everything else. If you are thinking of managing a project, it’s likely that no matter how beneficial it will be to your CV and improve your REF score and potential job prospects, it seems like just another mountain to climb, and perhaps, (as I felt before I said yes anyway) that it’s one mountain too many. 

One afternoon, I was massively overwhelmed by everything I had to do. Our family drama was reaching a peak, I had lectures to write, an article to edit, meetings to plan, a part time job to work which was turning into a full time job due to all the cover shifts I was picking up, a To Do list for the project I am currently working on, another one for my research plan, and a funding application to write for something else.  Just a normal Tuesday, really. My best friend rescued me with an injection of whimsy, and it stuck with me because it reminded me of a quote from Legend, which made me think about how I perceived myself and my tasks. 

She told me,  “You are a unicorn. Shake your mane and tell yourself, ‘This shit is for mere mortals, and not unicorns.'” 

It reminded me of the 1985 film, Legend, because one person’s unicorn is another’s ugly one-horned mule.  It also reminded me that I need injections of whimsy and fun from time to time, particularly as a means to de-stress, but it also helps me to regain [or gain] perspective and adjust my perception of the situation or myself.

Legend (1985)
Look! Ugly one-horned mule!

In any case, sharing experiences seems to be a good way to go, so I thought that sharing mine would be beneficial for someone starting out, or considering setting up an impact activity or other short-term project in their department. 

Stress management is key. I’m not at all ashamed to say that I have made use of the self-referral system for Student/Staff Counselling Services in the past, for a number of reasons. As a PGR, it’s free, and I think that as a contracted member of Staff you also don’t have to pay for counselling sessions. That’s certainly true for my institution. They offer face to face sessions or in minor cases Skype/telephone sessions, but for more serious cases where, for example, there are ongoing mental health issues, obviously the sessions are face to face and one to one. Coping strategies and tools are vital for managing the emotional and psychological impact of working multiple jobs and taking on several roles at once, a common feat for most ECRs at the early stages of our careers. This was the subject of the Conditionally Accepted post I reblogged the other day.

Here’s a list of stuff that I’ve learned as I’ve gone along, and advice that I’ve been given which has proven especially helpful:

Project Lead To Do List

1. Set up meetings with your finance officers and administrators of your dept, the head of your School, and contact any other relevant administrative and/or academic personnel. Introduce yourself and your project outline. Have a list of questions prepared to ask them. [Factor in a delay of 3 months at the start of the project before you get access to your budget, just in case, and make sure you set up face to face meetings right at the very beginning. It took about 6 months for me to access my funds… And counting… So.] << Also factor in annual leave especially in the summer months and over the Christmas period. When time tabling your project and factoring in funding access, think about how your project timetable aligns with your department’s administration timetable during the year: both the financial year (ending in April) and the academic year. 

Questions to bring to the initial meetings may include:

 i. How do you access your funds? E.g. which forms do you need? Do you need to invoice the finance department? Have you been allocated a code for your project account? 

 ii. Who do you speak to re: authorising payments, and what is the correct procedure for those on the University payroll vs those who are not? If you have a part/full time position in your institution, how do the project time commitments and rate of pay affect your contract, and vice versa?

 iii. What sort of timetable is realistic in terms of setting up payments, for yourself and for any project workers you are employing?

 iv. What is the correct procedure for making expenses claims from the project budget?

 v. Are there any other projects happening within the University that you should be aware of, so that you can link up with others working on similar things but in different fields?

 vi. Who else should you be speaking to, and why? >> Talking to the Head of School and other academics may help to make other connections across institutions and departments. Also find out who deals with the department’s web presence to set up a meeting with them about linking your digital content (if that’s part of your outcome) with the department’s official pages. 

This advice has been corroborated and added to by The Research Whisperer, Jonathan O’Donnell, who shared with me advice passed on to him via a New Zealand academic at a conference:

One technique that you might consider in the future is called the White Room (I’m not sure why). It works like this. When the contract comes in for a funded project, you call a meeting of everybody who will be involved in that project, right through to the finish. That might include:

+ the person who will get the contract signed.

+ someone from Ethics, if you will require ethics clearance.

+ someone from Finance.

+ someone from HR if you are going to be hiring staff.

+ someone from IT if it will involve large amounts of data management, a new Web site or any other IT requirement.

+ someone from the research office who is responsible for tracking milestones, annual reports and final reports.

+ a rep from each collaborating Department, if it is cross-university.

+ ditto other university collaborators, if they are available.

+ ditto for industry collaborators.
Send a brief description of the project to each person, along with a copy of the contract.
In the meeting, walk through the project from start to finish. Give each person time to talk about what needs to happen at each stage. You want to talk about:

+ Signing the contract. 

+ Setting up the finance account.

+ Obtaining ethics approval.

+ Hiring staff.

+ Fieldwork and travel requirements.

+ Reporting requirements.

+ Publication plans.

+ IP or commercial spinoff.

+ Closing down the project.

The aim is to help each person around the table visualise the project in enough detail to be able to say ‘That won’t work because…’. Once you get that level of discussion going across the table, you are halfway to a smoothly running project. The aim isn’t to solve all the problems during the meeting (you won’t have time for that). The aim is to identify the problems, and record them, so that you can tackle them with the appropriate people after the meeting.

The meeting will need to be tightly managed. You can use your project plan as guide to constructing the agenda. You need to step in to move any ‘You should… No, you should…’ discussions to a later date. Otherwise, you won’t get to the end of the project. And you want to get to the end of the project, so that you have a better idea of any traps for young players. Better to know about how to aquit the project now than find out in three years time that you haven’t been collecting the right data. 
It might seem like a daunting task to set up a big meeting like this. Think of it as good practice in ‘stakeholder engagement’. You will need to talk to all of these people at some point during your project. May as well do it right at the start, with them all together. The administrators who are smart will appreciate the care that you are taking in getting things right.

Not everybody will come, and not everybody will get it. At the very least, though, you will have identified all the bits of the university that have a stake in your project, and know who to call as you go forward. And, with a bit of luck, you will untangle some of the snarls that lay before you.

This isn’t my idea. One of the New Zealand universities presented it at a research management conference in 2012 (I wish I could remember who). I’ve always thought that it is a great way to set up a project.

– Jonathan O’Donnell, The Research Whisperer @Researchwhisper

Additionally, I’ve added a few other things on my list as I’ve gone along.

2. Contact the PR Communications team to get written permission to use your institution’s logo on anything related to the project. Make sure you outline clearly how the project is connected to the institution and what you will be using the institution’s logo on. 

3. Keep a logbook of issues you run into, and make sure that you keep yourself accountable to your department or School or appropriate individual. Make sure you know who this is supposed to be, and agree with them how you are going to demonstrate progress and output. 

4. Keep a detailed record of hours worked on the project, including meetings (date and length), and any travel or other expenses accrued. Keep and attach receipts, including taxis and train/bus tickets etc. Take photocopies of receipts or scans, and back up all paperwork relating to the project and funding claims. 

5. Make a database of contacts for the project, including email addresses, telephone numbers, office hours and office locations, etc. Clearly state the reasons why they are good contacts for the project, under general headings like FINANCE, ADMINISTRATION, ADVISORS, etc. Organisation is key.

6. Aim to hold project meetings at least once a month. Set out clear agendas and aims, and always leave the meetings with updates from all project workers and an agreed set of action points to be achieved by set deadlines. Set reminders for yourself as Project Lead to contact project workers before the next scheduled meeting to touch base and check on progress. 

7. Consider the output of your project and think about the possibility of bilingual resources. Especially if your resources are to be accessed across the UK – can you access grants for translation services? This is [in my own case] especially pertinent to Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government’s strategies for promoting the Welsh language, and fits with the education policy. Your institution (if in Wales) will almost certainly have something to help you with this. If your institution is not in Wales but this is applicable to your resources, think about approaching a Welsh institution as a partner, and find out about your external funding options to boost your application for project funds and widen the potential impact of your project. What about other langauges, if this applies or is necessary?

8. When under stress, I must remember: “You are a unicorn, and this shit is for mere mortals, and not unicorns.” I think that the concept of confidence and self-perception does have a place here, after the (by no means exhaustive) list of practical stuff. You also have to be able to sell the project to others, internally and externally, and as the project lead you are the first point of contact. There are strategies to boost confidence and project a stronger impression at interviews and meetings which I’ve definitely benefitted from, although somtimes the ones you develop for yourself are the best. 

If you ever see me shaking my head in front of a mirror before going into a meeting, it’s ok: I’m being a unicorn. 😉