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Project Management

Project management skills

Project management skills and an awareness of project management principles and methodologies are increasingly important in a wide variety of sectors and roles both within and beyond academia.  

Project management is all about managing resources (time, money, people) effectively in order to meet defined goals. There are various methodologies and approaches to doing this, but at its heart, project management is about doing something new and working within a framework which increases your chances of success. The framework typically involves key activities such as: defining your goals, effective planning, monitoring progress, managing risk and engaging stakeholders effectively.  

As you can see, many of these activities will already be familiar to you from your research career to date. It is very likely that you have developed skills relevant to project management already in your work as a postdoc. For example, many research grants require some level of project management – perhaps you have developed a project plan for a grant application or had to monitor progress against key milestones in order to report to a funder. Similarly, activities such as arranging conferences, symposia and public engagement events would benefit from a project management approach. Maybe you have learned this the hard way! 

The purpose of this section is not to give an exhaustive overview of project management skills and methodologies. If you are interested in learning more about this, the professional body Association of Project Managers (APM) is a good place to start. Their website offers freely available resources regarding the nature of projects and the key skills and competencies required to manage them effectively.  

Prosper's employer stakeholders

Throughout this section, you will find video and written content co-produced from activities with employer stakeholders. All work in project management in different contexts and their perspectives should give you an insight into the range of activities and sectors where project management is important. Our key stakeholders are:  

  • Chris Humphrey, Change Delivery Manager at Triodos Bank UK 
  • Rebecca Douglas, Group Programme Director, Talent at IPG Health Medical Communications 
  • Matina Tsalavouta, Head of Strategic Planning and Engagement at the Liverpool Cancer Research Institute 
  • Martin Squires, Senior Solutions Consultant at Merkle EMEA  

What is project management and why it matters 

‘Projects occur when an organisation wants to deliver a solution to set requirements within an agreed budget and timeframe.


A project is an endeavour that aims to deliver some value within the context of limited time and money.

Another way of thinking about projects is that they contrast with ‘business as usual’. Whereas a project is about doing something new (such as introducing a new service, designing a new product, perhaps even testing a new hypothesis), business as usual comprises the activities that form part of your everyday work and are not time limited.  

Historically, ‘business as usual’ formed the majority of an organisation’s activity and project management was a nice endeavour. It is now standard practice and approach across many sectors. 

“Previously, most of what an organisation did could be read from a handbook or from a process and there was a smaller part of the organisation that tried to do projects or prepare organisations for change.

Chris Humphrey, Triodos Bank

“Project Management is effectively business as usual. Pulling a cross functional team to deliver an output for stakeholders has become 80% of a team’s deliverables [in data science].

Martin Squires, Merkle

Projects are also important in organisations that operate as agencies, as the nature of these business is providing a set deliverable for a client, to a deadline and within a set budget.  

“Project management is really integrated into everything we do. It’s critical to ensure we are meeting the client’s requests within the budget and the timeline that we’ve got.

Rebecca Douglas, IPG Health

This is also the case within the third sector. While charities do receive ‘core’ funding grants to cover ongoing operational costs, they are much more commonly funded to deliver specific projects and outcomes.  

A key reason for the ubiquity of project management across sectors is that the rate of change today is much greater than it was several decades ago. Not only is project management used much more broadly, but the nature and methods of project management have developed too, in order to respond to this change.  

We look at this in more detail in the section on Agile Project management but more recently developed project management approaches reflect a commitment to flexibility rather than a pre-defined end point. Agile projects are more iterative in nature and in this way might be compared to experimental research. 

“You have a hypothesis, a question, you design an experiment, you do your experiment, you get your results, you look at it and then you refine your methodological approach to progress with your research question. Recognition and acknowledgement of doing this while you are doing it, naming it as part of an agile way of working helps build your skillset [when considering] a different role where project management may be the essence of the professional work.

Matina Tsalavouta, University of Liverpool

Research and project management

Research and project management

Here we compare research and project management across several different parameters. Let’s start with a quick exercise. Given your existing knowledge of research and any knowledge you have of project management, at which point along each of the following continua would you place research (R) and project management (PM)?:  

Detailed Plan <-----> Seeing how things go 

Well-defined goals <-----> Exploring the unknown 

Low risk tolerance <-----> High risk tolerance 

Hierarchical structure <-----> Matrix structure 

Delivering new knowledge <-----> Delivering impact and value 

Perfection <-----> Utility  

Now, compare this with the responses of our postdoc workshop participants, here

Postdoc participants were asked to place Research and Project Management markers on a scale between the following continua: Detailed plan to Seeing how things go, Well-defined goals to Explore the unknown and Low risk to High risk. Here most participants have placed Project Management markers closer to Detailed plan, Well-defined goals and Low risk. Research markers are spread across all scales.
Figure 1. Postdoc session participants responses to research vs project management on 3 scales.

Postdoc participants were asked to place Research and Project Management markers on a scale between the following continua: For Team Structure, Hierarchical to Collaborative. For Knowledge and Value, Deliver Knowledge to Deliver impact and value. For Measures of success, Perfection to Utility. For Team structure most participants placed Research and Project Management markers by Collaborative. For Knowledge and value, all participants placed both markers by Deliver impact and value. For Measures of success, most participants put Research and Project Management markers by Utility, 2 participants placed Research markers closer to Perfection, 1 participant placed Project Management in the middle of the scale and 2 placed Project Management closer to Utility.
Figure 2. Postdoc session participants responses to Research vs Project Management on 3 scales.

TASK: Having completed this section and reflected on the responses of fellow postdocs and project management professionals, note down what, if anything, has changed regarding your view of the relationship between research and project management.  

Risk and risk tolerance 

Risk tolerance is a key point of difference when comparing project management and research. Active management of risk is an important part of project management and is not as prevalent in research projects (though large-scale grants increasingly require it).  

Risk management typically involves: 

  • identifying and classifying all possible risks to project success in a document called a risk register 
  • rating the likelihood of each risk being realised and the potential impact should it be realised (typically from 1-5) 
  • classifying the level of risk based on this assessment, typically as high, medium and low.  
  • assigning appropriate resource to mitigate risks  
  • reviewing risk at regular intervals   

While you may have done some or even all these things within your postdoc career, you may not have done so formally or considered them in such a formalised way.  

Risk tolerance varies by project. In projects related to compliance or in heavily regulated sectors such as financial services, risk tolerance tends to be very low as the potential damage of not getting things right is high. When the stakes are lower, risk management can be lighter touch.  

Risk tolerance in research also varies by the nature of the research: in highly regulated areas such as clinical trials, risk tolerance is similarly low. Other areas tend to tolerate more risk and, the increasing recognition of the value of negative results also reduces the perceived risk of research: even if the original hypothesis in not proved, there is still a contribution to knowledge that is beneficial. 

If you’re interested in learning more about risk management, we’ve provided a short video outlining what it entails in the risk section of our Commercial Awareness resource.

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Video resources

Our employer stakeholders introduce themselves and outline their experience and background below.

Watch our employer panel share their own views on research and project management in the following video.

Watch our panel discuss the nature, importance and prevalence of project management below. 

We review the four values of the agile manifesto and their relevance and applicability to a range of sectors.   

Further resources

The Association of Project Managers (APM) is a great place to start for further information on project management. Much of the content is reserved for APM members, but there are several useful resources on popular project management topics – such as agile project management, risk management and stakeholder engagement -  that are freely available. 

It’s also possible to create a free account with APM which gives you access to additional resources, including a tool which enables you to rate your project management proficiency against several key skills parameters.  

LinkedIn Learning also have a wealth of resources on Project Management. Many Higher Education Institutions have institutional subscriptions to LinkedIn, so it’s worth checking if you have access.  

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