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Why PhDs Make Great Project Managers

April 22nd, 2016 10:00 am


I pursued my PhD in chemistry for a love of solving interesting problems, being part of a club that speaks its own language and helping others through the universally challenging process of getting past the introductory material to see the elegant beauty of physics and chemistry. I spent seven years in grad school; taking classes, teaching classes and working through a single problem. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was also developing the skills to be an excellent project manager.

My favorite definition of a good project manager comes from Richard Murch’s Project Management: Best Practices for IT Professionals. There are so many overlaps, it makes you wonder if firms shouldn’t start recruiting for PMs from the ranks of over-worked grad students!

Let’s look into a few.


Personal Skills: Be Considerate

Want to work in academia (with the same coworkers for the next 40 years)? Want to use that other group’s resources? Need a letter of recommendation in the future? Understand that everyone is working under the same constraints you are; are striving for tenure, for grant money, to beat their peers to publish, be considerate and grateful for the help they offer.

Every graduate student learns a completely new tool set during the course of their graduate career, like knowing how to safely operate a femtosecond laser or how to access the digital archives of medieval literature within an Italian research library. It’s not normally the professor who leads the group that trains you on all the basic skills you need; it’s your other group members, the staff in the lab or at the library, sometimes someone you met at a conference who is willing to have you come out and intern for a bit to expand your personal toolset. Your job is to show up on time, learn it well and pass it on to the next person.

In PM life every project has time, cost and scope constraints. There is also a second set of more heuristic constraints to any project. Everyone wants to do well at their job, wants to build beautiful things and be celebrated when they do. Your job as a PM is to listen to what they need and do everything in your power to give them room to succeed. Maybe your UX team needs some time to think through a couple of possible flows or your devs may need time to refactor their code. Your role is to champion them doing great work and to help stakeholders understand why things like refactoring the code (which doesn’t result in any new software being delivered) is an incredibly good idea.


Management Skills: Project planning, initiation, and organization

Grad school in a nutshell is finding a problem you’re interested in working on, figuring out a plan of attack that will let you complete your work within the next ten years, then continuously making progress on that problem (typically while traveling to conferences, teaching classes, taking classes, grading reports, writing papers, helping to run a lab or research group, and somewhere in there sleeping, eating and showering).

While in grad school I took classes in other departments, did research, wrote code, debugged code, did analytic calculations, presented at conferences, taught classes, graded papers/tests and one memorable quarter didn’t sleep on Thursdays (which really drove home the need to develop project negotiation skills). Towards the end of my graduate career it was fairly obvious to me that academia was not a good career fit. I found a job while still in grad school and worked full time during my final year, doing days in the research lab and writing code or dissertation chapters in the evenings.

Absolutely none of this would have been possible without a good plan of attack, effective project negotiation, execution and control, consistent problem management and finally the most amazing support network that has ever existed.


Recruiting people and keeping them

To accomplish the goals outlined above you have to recruit a solid support network, both academically and emotionally, typically from a group of people you are meeting for the first time.


Effective project negotiation

Imaging you have at least 4 key stakeholders, all of whom control your entire career future and none of whom in any way report to you, this is your dissertation committee.


Project execution and control

Scope creep will keep you in graduate school ’til you’re 50, nuff said.

From the project execution and scope control standpoint every professor has a list of things that would be interesting to explore, they also have a lifetime of tenure to explore them. Negotiating dissertation milestones and being firm but respectful on “this is what we agreed to so this is what I am going to deliver” were key to this entire enterprise being successful.

Whether it’s a dissertation committee, the professor you’re teaching for and the labs you’re collaborating with or stakeholders and the team who is building your product the rules remain the same. Clear communication, clear definition of the deliverables and milestones, understanding the team you’re working with and what they are capable of delivering within a given timeframe as a PM all of these skills directly translate.

But the coping skills are by far my favorite:


Being flexible

A surprising number of graduate research project pivot midway, either because the data doesn’t support your initial hypothesis or because you got scooped and it’s time to look into something else.


Being persistent and firm when necessary

“Have you had a chance to look at that draft I sent you?”

“Hi, me again, just curious if you had any feedback on that draft I sent you?”

“Have some exciting new results to share, included them in the latest draft I sent you…”

“Deadline to submit is next week, need feedback before then, will not be able to submit without it.”


Absorbing large volumes of data from multiple sources

Everyday of a grad student’s life.


Being able to handle large amounts of continuous, often unrelenting stress

I think everything we’ve discussed thus far pretty much covers this.


My hope is that this brief manifesto helps to clearly define the path from PhD to Project Manager. I love what I do, and I think many recovering academics would as well. You get to solve problems everyday. You get to learn new things as you develop a deeper understanding of the work your team does or start new projects. There is also the beautifully defined measurement metric of progress that doesn’t typically exists in academia, i.e. profitability. Many advanced degree holders would likely find it fairly liberating that there is this clear set of rules everyone is working under.

For hiring managers, consider a PhD on your more complicated projects. Any PhD has spent years negotiating competing demands, is totally comfortable navigating multiple stakeholders and communicating complex ideas to non-experts (it’s actually a required part of the graduate curriculum at this point, since non-experts often help fund research).


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