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Successful Research Project Management: Hands-on Tools

Benoît Rihoux
benoit.rihoux@uclouvain.be

Université catholique de Louvain

Benoît Rihoux is a full professor of political science whose research interests include political parties, new social movements, organisational studies, political change, and policy processes.

He is manager of the COMPASSS international research group on comparative methods, in the development and refinement of which he plays a leading role, bringing together scholars from Europe, North America and Japan in particular.

Benoît is a convenor of international methods initiatives more generally, and has published Innovative Comparative Methods for Policy Analysis: Beyond the Quantitative-Qualitative Divide (Springer/Kluwer, ed. with Heike Grimm 2006) and Configurational Comparative Methods: Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) and Related Techniques (Sage, ed. with Charles Ragin 2009).

He has published extensively on systematic comparative methods (QCA in particular) and their applications in diverse fields – especially policy- and management-related – with interdisciplinary teams.


Course Dates and Times

Course Dates and Times

Friday 3 March: 13:00-15:00 and 15:30-17:00
Saturday 4 March: 09:30-12:00 and 13:00-14:30
7.5 hours over two days

Prerequisite Knowledge

No particular prerequisite knowledge is needed.


Short Outline

This course covers a diverse set of tools that enable a researcher to better manage his/her project, and in particular to better achieve his/her research goals, to deliver his/her project in due time, and to better achieve his/her personal goal(s). The course follows a sequence of bottlenecks or challenges, i.e. particularly difficult phases to handle in a research project in political science/social sciences: clarifying your personal goal(s), negotiating with your research environment – and your supervisor, managing bibliographical sources and information, managing time, managing risk, crises or unexpected problems, and publishing (producing articles while conducting the research, and producing the final report/dissertation).

The pedagogy for this short course will be interactive. Prior to the course, I will consult the registered participants (short online survey) and ask each one of them to rank the relative importance or problematic nature of the 6 challenges (listed above) from his/her personal perspective. Based on this, I’ll spend more time on some topics than on some others. Each topic will lead to the identification and demonstration of “tricks of the trade” (frequently there is more than one solution to a given challenge).


Long Course Outline

Many junior researchers – in particular Ph.D. researchers – have a very hard time managing their research project. Or, at least, they go through more difficult periods, with ups and downs, and begin to doubt about the feasibility of their project within a given time span. Unfortunately, for some, this eventually leads to failure: not delivering the Ph.D., interrupting the research, having to continue to work on the Ph.D. well after the funding has been terminated, or finalizing the research in far from optimal conditions.

This course covers a diverse set of project management tools – i.e. concrete tools that enable a researcher to better manage his/her project, which means in practical terms: (1) better achieve his/her research goal(s); (2) deliver his/her project in due time; (3) better achieve his/her personal goal(s).

As a researcher, as a research manager and as supervisor of more junior researchers, I have a long hands-on experience of these tools. Many of these are usually not taught in formalized courses, and it’s possible to find some information on these tools through scattered web resources. However it’s possible to learn much more quickly and to select the most appropriate resources through a seminar in which ‘tricks of the trade’ are discussed through practical examples.

This short course follows a sequence of bottlenecks or challenges, i.e. particularly difficult phases to handle in a research project in political science/social sciences. To meet these challenges, different tools can be used to ‘muddle through’. Some of these tools are software-related (e.g. bibliographic management), and some other of these tools are related to ‘soft skills’ – but soft skills can also resort to ‘hard’ tools (e.g. maintaining a time management matrix). These challenges do not necessarily follow the same sequence for each given researcher.

 

Challenge 1: clarifying your personal goal(s)

Besides the stated research goals (written down in the research project or first draft of the research), it is often difficult to clarify one’s deeper personal goal(s) behind the research itself. Is my research ‘career-driven’, or am I more interested in personal fulfilment, or …? How do I personally define ‘success’ of my project? Is it about producing the expected output (e.g. a solid dissertation), or about gaining skills along the way, or…?

Challenge 2: negotiating with your research environment – and your supervisor

Your research environment comprises, among others, persons. Some of these persons can be an asset for you/your project; some others can be a constraint or even a nuisance. How to make sure that your research environment will be conducive to the success of your project? One key aspect is: how to find the ‘right formula’ in your relationship with your supervisor(s)? There are different possible ‘virtuous models’ in that relationship.

Challenge 3: managing bibliographical sources and information

Besides data management (this is covered by several ECPR Methods School courses): how to manage the multiple bibliographical sources? How to keep a clear view on sources that need to be consulted/read in priority? How to produce bibliographical lists? The key tool is: using a bibliographic management software – with some attached ‘tricks of the trade’. The pro’s and con’s of the main software options (freeware and payware) will be examined, as well as some ‘tricks of the trade’ (e.g. keywords systems).

Challenge 4: managing time

This is probably the most difficult challenge for all researchers (junior and more senior, too). How to set realistic deadlines, and how to organize so as to meet these deadlines? How to manage constant ‘multitasking’? How to, simultaneously, work on the main project and make sure that the ‘sub-projects’ (and/or some side projects?) deliver useful outputs (in particular: publications)? There is one particular, very useful tool to help out: a time management matrix (or “Covey quadrant”) to maintain an updated list of relatively urgent and/or relatively important tasks to perform. How to manage such a matrix in a successful way? Some other time planning tools will be examined as well (GANTT and PERT charts).

Challenge 5: managing risk, crises, unexpected problems

Most projects bump into unexpected difficulties. This is certainly the case for many Ph.D. research projects, as they are expected to be innovative at least to some extent, and as the more junior researcher is in a learning curve. How to strategically manage such difficulties and avoid a full-blown crisis that could endanger the whole project? How to anticipate (to the extent possible) potential, future risks? Some tools for risk anticipation, risk avoidance and risk management will be examined.

Challenge 6: publishing: producing articles while conducting the research; producing the final report/dissertation

There are in fact two bottlenecks here: producing intermediate ‘by-products’ and getting them published (“publish or perish”, even if you will not pursue work in academia after the Ph.D.), and producing a strong final report (e.g. Ph.D. dissertation). This is also very much linked with successful time management. Tricks of the trade for writing up three types of outputs (and getting them published!) will be examined: peer-reviewed journal articles, full dissertation, and monograph based on the dissertation.

The pedagogy for this short course will be interactive. Prior to the course, I will consult the registered participants (short online survey) and ask each one of them to rank the relative importance or problematic nature of the 6 challenges (listed above) from his/her personal perspective. Based on this, I’ll spend more time on some topics than on some others. Each topic will lead to the identification and demonstration of “tricks of the trade” (frequently there is more than one solution to a given challenge).

The course is open to a variety of profiles. Obviously it should be particularly useful for early-stage Ph.D. researchers, but other more junior or more senior researchers could learn from the course as well.

NB: this course is not a ‘methods’ courses strictly speaking, as it’s not about empirical social scientific methods. Its focus is placed on a series of more generic tools and strategies, so as to create a more secure frame to conduct one’s research on a daily basis – regardless of the method(s) used – and to bring it to a successful end.

 

Day Topic Details
Friday afternoon 1. clarifying your personal goal(s) 2. negotiating with your research environment – and your supervisor

NB relative duration for each topic: based on prior consultation of participants

Saturday morning 3. managing bibliographical sources and information 4. managing time

NB relative duration for each topic: based on prior consultation of participants

Saturday afternoon 5. managing risk, crises, unexpected problems 6. publishing: producing articles while conducting the research; producing the final report/dissertation

NB relative duration for each topic: based on prior consultation of participants

Day Readings

No specific readings for this course; a portfolio with various resources will be made accessible, prior to each course session, in connection with each one of the 6 sections of the course

Software Requirements

Some ‘tricks of the trade’ will exploit regular MS Office software programmes (e.g. Excel).

Regarding bibliographical management software programmes, the following main options will be examined (and demonstrated in short, time allowing): EndNote (payware), Zotero (freeware) and JabRef (freeware). It is of course handy if participants have at least some of these software programmes installed on their laptop.

Hardware Requirements

Participants should bring their own laptops.

Literature

BECKER, H. S. (ed.) 1998. Tricks of the trade: how to think about your research while you're doing it, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

POLONSKY, M. J. & WALLER, D. S. 2010. Designing and Managing a Research Project: A Business Student's Guide, SAGE Publications.

THOMAS, D. R. & HODGES, I. D. 2010. Designing and Managing Your Research Project: Core Skills for Social and Health Research, SAGE Publications.

WALLIMAN, N. 2011. Your Research Project: Designing and Planning Your Work, SAGE.

Other background readings will be suggested during the course, based on the participants’ specific needs.

Recommended Courses to Cover After this One

<p>&nbsp;</p> <p><strong>Summer and Winter School</strong></p> <p>&ldquo;Any course&rdquo; this course is generic, not method-specific.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p>


Additional Information

Disclaimer

This course description may be subject to subsequent adaptations (e.g. taking into account new developments in the field, participant demands, group size, etc). Registered participants will be informed in due time.

Note from the Academic Convenors

By registering for this course, you confirm that you possess the knowledge required to follow it. The instructor will not teach these prerequisite items. If in doubt, contact the instructor before registering.