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How to... manage the research process

Options:     Print Version - How to... manage the research process, part 4 Print view

Running a research project with a team or partners

So far in this article, we have been making the assumption that just one person is working on the research. However, group research projects are becoming more common for undergraduate courses, whilst in post-doctoral academic research generally, collaboration with a number of partners on large-scale funded projects is almost the norm. It is not uncommon for researchers to work together across departments, institutions and even countries! We shall look at the particular features of such projects in this section.

Working in a team

When working in a team, it is important to set up a tight reporting and communication structure with regular meetings with clear agendas and minutes setting out allocated action points. Here clear objectives and responsibilities amongst task members, good communication lines and firm but friendly project management are essential, and interpersonal skills become as important as research ones!

One research project manager for an educational organization has managed a number of high profile and politically sensitive research projects. She has to deal with a number of research partners spread out in different parts of the UK, each of whom has only a limited amount of time to spend on the project. She feels that this type of project management requires excellent communication and negotiation skills: it is important to understand people's time and resource constraints, as well as how their own professional agendas interact with the project's. She likes to maintain good relationships with partners particularly as the association may be across a number of projects, both now and in the future.

How to...collaborate effectively goes into this topic in a lot more detail.

Working on a research project for a funding body

Research is rarely, these days, carried out in a vacuum: most research has an external arbiter of quality. If you are enrolled on an academic programme, that arbiter will be those who assess your research project for an award. In that case, the predominant concern will be for academic quality.

Much research however is carried out not for the purposes of gaining an award, but rather with the support of a particular funder, which may be a business, a research council or the European Union. In which case, an important goal for the researcher will be to satisfy the funding body. They are in a sense the customer, and they will need to be satisfied that:

  • their funds are being well spent
  • the original research objectives are being met, and milestones achieved
  • other agendas are satisfied – for example, the UK ESRC is concerned about the contribution of research to the wider social agenda, whilst a commercial funder might want to see the research as an answer to a particular problem rather than an attempt to add to the body of knowledge.

Keeping funders happy is important to ensure current as well as future funding. The best way to do this is by regular communication. Funders vary as to how they wish the researcher to report. Some require a report at the end of the project; others require monthly reporting. Regular reporting, whether or not it is a requirement, is a good way of keeping the funder happy. Have milestones been achieved? If not, why not? It is always important to check carefully any deviation from the original research objective with the funder, and make sure that they are happy with the proposed change.

Understanding the agenda of the funder, and particularly any policy drivers, is crucial. For this reason, good research managers should ideally have a background in, and understanding of, the research area, as opposed just to being project managers.

Managing change

We mentioned above the importance of informing the funder of any change in the research. However, many funded projects are themselves subject to change, particularly those which are likely to be influenced by policy. Thus an important skill with these projects is the ability to react to change. This change is not just due to normal research project risks, such as data not being forthcoming, but to changed milestones as a result of different funder goals (which themselves may be the result of a policy change).

Planning therefore becomes something that is done on a monthly basis to changing milestones. This reinforces the need for good relationships with partners: it is not easy to go back to someone with the news that they will have to do more work, for the same amount of money, and to a difficult deadline. Being upfront and honest helps, here, as does having alternative plans up one's sleeve, and the recognition, which must also be shared by the funder, that perfection isn't always possible, and sometimes one needs a compromise solution!