Productivity,  Research

How to chop, divide, and then eat your research elephant

3 Minute Read -

A few months ago, I attended a workshop on Project Planning in the Research Context, hosted by Dr. Rob Drennan, who works in the Wits Research Office. I then decided to work on a few blog posts, based on the workshop he designed and presented, and broke these blog posts into the five different sections he covered in his workshop.

This blog post is the fourth post in this series, and if you haven’t read the others, I would suggest you do so before getting into this post. The first blog post was about pinning down the vision and objectives of your research project. This really is the first step in designing a research project and without doing this, you will be unable to move forward with the next important steps. The second, dealt with resource constraints in the research project. Without ensuring you have all the necessary resources to complete your project, you will likely have designed a study that is not feasible or you will not be able to complete it within your limited amount of time. The third post was about managing risks in the planning process. Although we try to plan as far as we can, we are all likely to run into problems that may derail our plans. It is thus useful to anticipate these as far as possible.

In this post, we discuss breaking down your work. This is about how you break up the proverbial elephant and which parts you need to start eating first. In his workshop, Dr. Drennan uses a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), which is a project management tool that allows you to break down the various tasks and/or phases in your project and the order in which they need to happen.

It is often useful to include your structure on a timeline (to be discussed in the next post) in your research proposal, even if it is a short and high-level structure. This will also allow you to view your planned tasks in relation to your available time and make a good judgement about whether your project is feasible or not.

For a research report, some of the phases of the project may include writing the proposal, applying for ethics, collecting your data, and writing the various chapters. But these phases would need to be broken down further and be placed in the correct order. For instance, you cannot collect data without having applied for ethics first. If the order is not correct, it may mess with your plans.

Let us consider one of these phases; the ethics process. If you have a qualitative data project and you will be collecting primary data, the ethics application becomes an important part of the project. However, as you start to fill out your ethics application, you may realise that the actual application form is one of the many documents required for the application process. You will need additional documents, such as your completed research proposal, consent form(s), participant information form(s), and even permission letters in some instances. Without all the necessary documents, you may end up submitting an incomplete application and delay your approval and all the steps which are meant to follow in obtaining ethics clearance. It may thus be useful to list the creation/gathering of these documents in an order that makes sense and allows you to submit your application in a timely fashion.

Notion, which is a programme I use extensively, has various tools available to help you manage your tasks and phases in a project. A few project management templates can be viewed here. They also have a nifty tool that allows you to create tasks, sub-tasks, and dependency relationships between tasks. This is especially useful when you have tasks or phases which have prerequisites. For instance, creating your consent form before ticking it as complete on the ethics application form, which gets you one step closer to a complete (and then submitted) application form.

This may seem like an onerous task, but as I always mention to my students, your research proposal is your roadmap, and the clearer the roadmap, the easier it will be to get to your destination. It may also cut out a lot of unnecessary troubleshooting further down the line when you may be out of time and anxious to submit your final report, rather than getting bogged down by details that weren’t thought through properly.

Thinking through the work breakdown may seem unnecessary, but it is best that you do it at the proposal stage. If you already have a system in place that helps you to do this, whether it be in your research or everyday work, tell us about it in the comments below!

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