Twists, Turns, and PhDs the Route to Nonacademic Careers
Work Smarter, Not Harder: Project Management Skills Drive Career Success
By Holly Korthas, Georgetown Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience PhD Student
Biomedical Graduate Education’s Office of Postdoctoral Development & Training Grant Support hosted a Project Management Career Symposium through its Academy for Transferable Management Skills (ATMS), moderated by Drs. Caleb McKinney and Liz Salm.
ATMS is a program that teaches graduate students and postdoctoral fellows how to apply project management frameworks to their research projects and activities. The experiences of panelists in the symposium’s Project Management in Training and Project Management in the Workforce panels show that being well-versed in project management skills can help increase efficiency and organization of projects in the lab, and can serve as a highly valued transferable skill for careers inside and outside of academia.
The Academy for Transferable Management Skills
ATMS is an online course structured as a series of modules that walk through the basic principles of project management. It is designed for trainees new to formal project management, and no prior experience is required.
The goal of these modules is to help trainees:
- designate the scope of a project at the beginning,
- provide a framework to plan out the steps of the project in detail while estimating how long each step will take to complete,
- think of potential risks at each step of their project and plan for navigating these risks when they arise,
- organize and communicate with team members involved in the project and those invested in the project’s outcome, and
- successfully end a project while adapting lessons learned to future projects.
The course uses the preparation of an NRSA application as an example project, but trainees enrolled in the course are encouraged to apply the lessons directly to a project they are working on in their lab. Each module contains assignments consisting of portfolio pieces, which are documents meant to help the trainee practice mapping out their own project management techniques, or thought exercises, which ask trainees to examine a situation or past experience through the lens of project management.
The full course is estimated to take 11 hours total, and it is recommended to spread out this workload over several weeks to practice applying these new skills. If trainees finish all modules of the course, complete the portfolio pieces and meet with Dr. Liz Salm to receive feedback, and complete the post-course survey, they will earn an ATMS Project Management Certificate of Completion.
Project Management in Training
Developing effective project management skills benefits trainees in the short term and long term of their careers. Dr. Manasa Suresh, a postdoctoral fellow in Georgetown’s Department of Microbiology, found that the project management training she received through ATMS boosted her efficiency at the bench and has enabled her to manage multiple projects more effectively.
“If we start a new project, I’m already thinking about the risk management for the project, and who are the stakeholders, even though it’s maybe like two people or three people working on the small project,” she reflects. “It’s been very helpful to give me a structure, which was there in my mind before, but now it’s really on paper.”
Amanda Schneeweis, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Pharmacology & Physiology, has found it helpful to take the time to formally think about potential risks that could arise in a project and plan for their mitigation.
“Sometimes it’s hard to take off the rose-colored glasses about your experiments and your project,” Schneeweis explains. “Being honest with yourself about what the risks are for a project and what can go wrong, that can save you a lot of time, honestly. It doesn’t feel great sometimes to write it all down and be honest about what can go wrong. But I think that in the long run can help you a lot.”
In addition, Schneeweis finds that project management really benefits the master’s and undergraduate students she mentors. In regards to her mentoring, she said she’s “much more organized, direct, and purposeful with my experiments and projects that I’m giving them. I think that they are probably thankful that I took the course as well.”
Both panelists found that one of the most difficult aspects of implementing project management frameworks into their daily lab routines was that other lab members didn’t use these same organizational strategies. Dr. Suresh’s advice to other trainees considering project management training: “Be open to this. It might seem alien in the beginning, like, ‘Some of this is not really required, I’m just doing lab work’ — but it’s totally worth it. You will definitely use it and realize how it’s so important to have these skills. The sooner you learn this, the better.”
Project Management in the Workforce
Developing project management skills is not only helpful in the short-term management of research projects; it is also a highly sought-after skill in a wide variety of career paths. Dr. Chiara Manzini, an associate professor at Rutgers University’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, was first introduced to project management strategies when she opened her own lab and took a management workshop, and wishes she had known about it sooner.
Dr. Manzini says: “I really discovered project management as I started running my lab because running a lab is a completely different experience from doing science. You suddenly become a manager, and you suddenly have to keep track of budgets, hire people, make sure that people do their job. You have to write grants. You have to teach. You go from having very specific [goals] – this is my project, I need to write this paper, or I need to write this thesis or I need to write this fellowship – to having deadlines on a weekly if not a daily basis in different things.”
These ideas are also valuable outside of academia. Dr. Danielle Minteer, who helps medical device manufacturers navigate safety certification in Europe through BSI, uses the project management training that she learned in her postdoc to manage the progress of multiple clients. Specifically, she utilizes communications and stakeholder management strategies because “managing stakeholder expectations is super important with my clients. Their devices and manufacturing depend on the results of the conversations we have. Managing their expectations is really important so that they are not too upset at the end, or they’re not expecting something that will not be able to be delivered to them. Sometimes I have to deliver bad news, so managing their expectations is really critical.”
Dr. Josh Henkin uses his project management training as a program manager at The Tauri Group, a science and technology consulting company. He recommends that STEM PhD students find their own style of leadership and management and be able to demonstrate that they can apply these skills — especially if they are seeking careers outside of academia, where the management skills required to complete a Ph.D. might not be fully understood.
Dr. Henkin’s advice for being the only person in your lab with project management skills: “Well, I would say go for one big win. Do something under project management principles where everyone else can see because you applied these principles, you actually had a success and you did something better than the rest of them did. Then you may find that they come onboard and want to work with you.”
Developing project management skills during graduate school training carries both short- and long-term rewards. These skills help foster effective and efficient time management and the organization of multiple projects in the lab, and they also are valuable transferable skills for careers both within and outside of academia. The ATMS program is an accessible way for project management beginners to jumpstart their skills and add to their resumes.
BGE trainees and GU postdocs can watch the full panels by logging into their Georgetown Box accounts using the links below.
- Introduction to ATMS (~15 minutes)
- Project Management in Training (~ 45 minutes)
- Project Management in the Workforce (~ 1 hour)
Moderators and Panelists
Caleb McKinney, Ph.D., and Liz Salm, Ph.D., Biomedical Graduate Education’s Graduate & Postdoctoral Training & Development division
Project Management in Training Panelists:
Amanda Schneeweis is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Pharmacology & Physiology.
Manasa Suresh, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.
Project Management in the Workforce Panelists:
Josh Henkin, Ph.D., is a program manager at The Tauri Group, which is a science and technology consulting company. He founded STEM Career Services, a career coaching company whose goal is to help graduates in the STEM fields forge careers outside of academia.
Chiara Manzini, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Rutgers University’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. The Manzini Lab’s goal is to understand the genetic and biological underpinnings of cognitive disorders by studying the mechanisms of extracellular interactions and intracellular signaling.
Danielle Minteer, Ph.D., is a scheme manager at BSI, where she helps medical device manufacturers navigate European safety certifications. She also co-founded Strik3, a company that helps Ph.D.s in STEM fields translate their bench skills to fulfilling careers outside of academia.