The Smart Way to Manage a Large Research Project

With 3 or 4 years to complete your PhD, you might think you will have plenty of time to explore all thoughts and ideas. But time goes fast and you need to learn to manage a large research project.

You’ve got plenty of time and good brains.

Let’s be realistic. You finished your undergrad studies. You have been chosen for this PhD. You must be smart. You can handle this.

Yes, this PhD looks like a monster, but you have 3 or 4 years to tame it. Plenty of time, you think. After all, you accomplished tough goals during your life. This is not going to be different.

Fast-forward a year and a half, the monster is not tamed and you are a year and a half closer to the end. This PhD is becoming more complex than the LHC.

You are not alone. There are a large number of students needing more time to complete their degrees. Both in natural sciences and humanities, students need contract extensions.

Delaying a PhD is not rare, but it is undesirable.

Setting up a system to manage your project, to help you keep on the path while roaming through the forest, is as critical to success as your analytical capabilities. Unless you have experience in project management, this skill is something you will learn while working as a researcher.

We don’t want you to learn only by trial and error. This is why we give you some tips on how to manage a large research project and take your research onto the fast lane.

While there are seemingly as many methods to manage a large research project, the general ideas of a solid system are the same.

How to manage a large research project

Split And Plan Like A Sir

One of the most important aspects of managing a project is splitting it up in doable tasks and managing their timing. Planning consists of the following subtasks:

    • Identifying the tasks that need to be carried out.

A large research project, like a PhD or a project that will last several years, should be split in smaller research projects. For each research project, the main tasks typically are: literature review, development of theory, experiments, analysis of results and verification of theory and then reporting the results.

    • Splitting the main tasks into their respective subtasks.

For laboratory experiments are: preparing the setup, ordering the required elements and products, preparing the measurement, setting up a system to check and process these measurements, carrying out the experiments, cleaning up and dismantling the setup and finally storing all raw data in an organized way.

    • Considering how much time each task takes.

Quantifying the amount of time you need for each subtask, is difficult in the beginning. For a first overview of the project and the main tasks, you can think in terms of weeks/months. Once you narrow down to the level of subtasks, experience and personal circumstances will determine how many hours you need for each small subtask.

    • Determining which tasks run simultaneously.

Juggling tasks is an essential part of managing a large project.

If you want to do laboratory experiments, you can’t walk into the lab on the very day your planning says you start your experiments without any previous planning, ordering of materials and negotiating your lab space and time. Similarly, reporting your results can start early on, by writing overviews, summaries and critiques of the literature you processed.

    • Assess the consequences if a task takes more time.

Which other subtasks are affected when something early in the chain is delayed? Can you move something forward in your planning while a delay occurs? How much extra time can you spend on a subtask without missing a series of deadlines?

    • Allow some air to breathe.

From an engineering point of view, safety factors are always necessary on your time and cost budgets. A rule of thumb is to consider 20% of extra time for your tasks. We are all human and we make mistakesBy the same token: make sure you plan time off for your holidays and to recharge your batteries.Keep in mind as well that minor tasks will come along the way: teaching responsibilities, supervision of students, preparing for conferences,…


Checkpoints To Evaluate Progress In Your Research Project

Continuing the ideas to manage a large research project, regular checkpoints are an important aspect of a successful planning. You need to check regularly if you are doing good progress and if you are still running on schedule. This will keep you motivated.

These checkpoints can take different shapes, depending on the characteristic of the project: for a solitary PhD project these help to keep you motivated, while for a large European research project checks help to keep the whole team on track.

A few examples of checkpoints you can build into your planning are the following:

Flowchart how to manage a large research project

Exploring Your Data Jungle

Besides the amount of time that needs to be planned and scheduled to manage a large research project, you will also have to deal with a large number of files: both on your computer and in your physical archives (unless you managed to go completely paperless).

To find your information when you need it, it is necessary you start structuring your files (digital and analog) early in the process. The worst you can do is to keep all files on your desktop, and to keep all prints on piles on your desk. Don’t pile your information, structure and file it!

Here are some ideas on how to keep your information searchable:

  • have a clear tree structure for your files and folders
  • arrange your printed papers in alphabetical order by first author
  • keep a digital archive for your papers
  • add project codes to smaller projects and keep an overview file
  • store calculations, figures and text used in a paper together for later reference
  • just dump everything in Evernote

Useful Tools To Manage a Large Research Project

As a scientist 2.0, you are a tech savvy researcher, ready to implement these ideas by using the right tools for it. These are your essential tools:

With these tools and ideas, planning, managing and moving forward in a project become easier, because you know where to find your information and what you need to work on to keep the entire project on track.

How do you manage your PhD or research project? Which tools would you recommend? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

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  1. great post! I especially like how uplifting it is! A problem I often see is that PhD students avoid deciding what exactly it is they want to do. E.g. choosing their exact academic contribution. Instead of writing one PhD they somehow try to fit several into one, which could have been avoided to some extent by making the choice of what exactly they want to do in the first instance. 

    • Thanks, Elfriede.
      I agree with what you say – in fact, it all comes down to a reality check every now and then: “Does this piece of research helps me answering my research question, yes or no?”

    • NextScientist says:

      Hi Elfriede,
      at the beginning of my PhD everything was confusing, most of the time I didn’t know what I was doing. Therefore it was difficult to decide exactly what my contribution was going to be. As time passes by, you see more clear your path. Then it is time to stick to one choice and make it work. I guess it is scary to choose for one specific project and as a consequence we juggle with many B-plans incase A fails.


  2. The article mentions many important points, but seems to be too software-loving. From my experience I need on average only 2-7 days to find out how to use such software tools and I think it is a big help. But later the traps and problems like incompatibilities, export/import trouble, lost data, etc appear often. E.g. a fellow student of mine uses google calender and at least two appointments (quite important ones) have disappeared – he swears. I use a small physical calender (smaller than my smartphone) and have never forgotten an appointment. I also observe that people using a “second brain” do not remember most of their own data even.It’s like when one always uses navigation, u are lost in a city even if u have been there 10 times. Right in the second the route is calculated, we switch off our brain and become roboters. Without training, our own orientation abilities fade away.
    For sure a hard drive can store all the things mentioned in the article, but many people erase it from their mind at the same moment the bytes reach the hard drive. I found out that I only remember written information well, if I make personal annotations on the edge, underline or otherwise mark the important parts (in colour), make quick sketches, write down by hand the things I want to remember or talk about it with someone personally or by mail. Just READ’n’SAVE is not enough!!! Unfortunately I did not yet find a good software for writing and drawing electronically e.g. with a pen on a tablet like with a pencil on paper, thus I have to print and pile in folders still. But for me it does not work otherwise and I think this is a general principe that one remembers things better the more u interact with them (like with the methods above). And to remember as much as possible is essential, I believe, because a computer can store a lot of things but only the brain can categorise, structure and connect them in an intelligent way to produce good research results. U cannot cook a cake when u forget the ingredients no matter how smart u are.

    • Thanks for your input, Betabob!

      I still use analog tools as well: I like sketching and drawing out ideas with pencil and paper, marking up on a printed out research paper, and I write my daily appointments in a Filofax…

      On the other hand, as a reseacher you are very often on the go. I’ve moved across border, and across the Atlantic, back and forth – and since shipping physical documents is too expensive, I try to have my archives as much digital as possible.

  3. This is good advice regardless of career stage or discipline. Also, “Todoist” has been helpful to me–quick and simple.

  4. Great tips. These are issues faced by one and all, while managing big research project. Your insightful and useful suggestions, would certainly help us all in becoming more planned and organized.
    Much Thanks!

  5. Alison Paprica says:

    I have recently started a new business – Research Project Management (RPM). PhD students may find some of the content on the tools and resources tab at helpful

  6. I know a good tool for project tracking.


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