Researchers are Project Managers (even if they don’t know it)

I was at a Project Management Institute (PMI) conference last week. Why? To maintain my Project Management Professional (PMP) certification I need to earn credits every year. I can do that by attending events. But also, I learn tons and am inspired (in weird and wonderful ways) when I attend events.

When I tell people at such an event that I’m affiliated with a post-secondary institution, they often make the assumption that I’m an instructor, a professor.


I’m one of those people who help run the place – we help keep the lights on, help pay those who teach and research, and ensure that the institution runs as it should.

If someone I met hasn’t completely lost interest in me because I’m only support staff, then I explain that researchers are project managers … even if they don’t know it or don’t agree with this statement. In my day job, I use my project management knowledge and help researchers learn about their role as project managers. (And often I use coaching and mediation skills to help them to actually step into a PM role!)

To be fair, I am a non-academic looking at academic researchers and saying they are project managers. However, I am also an independent researcher and the reason I am qualified hold PMP certification is because of the experience I earned as an archaeological consultant. As a consultant, I performed projects everyday and I followed the processes outlined by the Project Management Institute (PMI), a worldwide organization with globally recognized standards.

To review the criteria of a project, a project, as defined by the PMI in the PMPBok 7th edition (2021), is: “a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result. The temporary nature of projects indicates a beginning and an end to the project work or a phase of the project work. Projects can stand alone or be part of a program or portfolio.”

Academic research projects fit this definition. As such, academic researchers who manage research projects (like Principal Investigators) are project managers.

However, the majority of academic researchers I’ve met either reject project management or find ways to make exceptions to these definitions. This then causes researchers to reject or deny any help regarding project management. This leads to research projects going over-budget, over-time, sometimes with risk and liability and reputation issues to the institution. And this is often while using tax payers’ dollars.

Not good.

When I was an archaeological consultant, I had no idea of the PMI. I had no idea there was help, standardized, tried-and-true help. Because of my workload, I would have taken any assistance regarding managing my projects. I had tight-fisted clients who didn’t want to dish out any extra money and they had extremely tight timelines. I had to make a compelling case when I submitted a scope change. They needed shit done now, done on budget, and they wanted my deliverables in an easy to understand format. If we didn’t appease our clients, they went elsewhere and I could lose my job.

How is this different than academic research?

Funding agencies won’t give any more money than was originally awarded. Who covers overages if the researcher spends more than what was given? The post-secondary institution.

Funders want to know that what was promised was actually achieved. They want to see financial and scientific reports, otherwise known as deliverables. The post-secondary institution usually provides the financial reports, but the scientific reports are prepared by the researcher.

An academic researcher usually won’t lose their job because they finished a research project over-budget, over-time, or without the deliverables (although there may be repercussions).

A research grant application serves many purposes from the perspective of project management: it is a business plan, which includes market research, a budget, the deliverables, outcomes, a plan for stakeholder engagement, and a timeline of the project, which includes task assignments and milestones. A research grant application also outlines the research design, from theoretical approach / framework, recruitment and data collection through to knowledge dissemination. The research design is what most researchers focus on, because this is where their expertise lies. However, a grant application can fail because it isn’t just about the research design; it’s about how that research design will be carried out, by whom, and why. This is where having a project management perspective helps. A project management perspective sees the research design as just one part of the entire package that delivers what is required.

In archaeology consulting, our projects were essentially original research projects. However, we didn’t just go out and do the research according to our research design. First, we needed to get funding — we needed to submit a proposal with a cost estimate, timeline, market research, and deliverables. Once, we obtained funding, then we needed to submit a similar proposal to the government to obtain our permits. The client was usually more concerned about the economics; the government was concerned about the research design. Once we had approval from both the client and the government, then the research phase began — the coordination of resources, stakeholder engagement, data collection, data analysis, and knowledge dissemination. Reports had to be written and submitted to both the client and the government for both the financial and scientific parts of the project. Personnel had to be paid. Expenses had to be submitted. But, we also needed to submit recommendations based on our expert opinions to the government. These recommendations let the government decide whether or not the client got the clearance they needed to proceed in their development.

This last part — making recommendations upon which future decisions could be based — is something that a lot of researchers neglect in their project processes. Researchers are creating new knowledge. Because of this brand new knowledge, they now have a unique perspective on the status quo. Therefore, they are in a privileged position of being able to provide recommendations to those who make policy.

Project management was something I did without realizing I was doing it. I did a pretty good job too. However, once I became a PMP, I did it even better. And I can see that researchers could too.

But that would require researchers to shift their perspective, shift their culture, and learn a new way of doing things.

Until then, I can only continue to gently attempt to herd the researching cats, to teach them of project management, and use my coaching and mediation skills to help them see that assistance and training is available. They don’t need to be stressed. They are not alone. There are resources out there.

They just need to ask.

Further Reading

The Project Management Institute (PMI)

Vitae – Managing a Research Project

American Society for Microbiology – Project Management Tips for Researchers

PMI – Project management in academia: friend or foe? An exploratory study of the social sciences and humanities


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