Your Two Roles as a PhD Student: Researcher & Research Manager

One of the most confusing parts of any PhD project is the lack of a clear manager. For new PhD-students, the supervisor might feel like a boss, but they soon realise that most supervisors are not really interested in managing. Supervisors are supposed to provide assessment and support, but they rarely delegate. A PhD student’s employer might be the institute manager or faculty dean, but their role is essentially to facilitate the PhD project, not really manage. They provide a basic framework of finances and corporate rules, but they won’t tell PhD students what to research or what to write.

So, PhD students are left to manage their project themselves. In my experience, this can create an enormous anxiety and mental health problems with PhD students — I have felt it with myself and Ruth most of my PhD colleagues. The problem is sinister because PhD students get critique and assessment from their supervisor all the time, but the subject of critique is mostly the results of the PhD work (texts, manuscripts, articles) and seldom an assessment of the work process leading to the results (the project planning and execution). In some ways, the supervisor assessment of the PhD student’s work comes too late — the texts and manuscripts are the last step of the PhD work. In other words, many PhD lack recognition and management of the biggest part of their project: The proces leading up to manuscript drafting.

Of course, the lack of a boss also has positive sides such as freedom and flexibility of work, but I don’t want to go too far into the discussion of benefits and problems. I just want to focus on the importance of realising that you have to fill at least two roles as a PhD student. The first role is being a researcher and the second is being your own research manager at the same time. Let’s look at the responsibilities of each role in more detail.

The Researcher Role

This is the investigative part of the PhD job. I think most PhD’s identify with this role, and it might also be the idea of PhD students that society hold as the person who “do science”. The responsibility of the researcher is to gather data, analyse, write and publish results. Basically. In my experience, the role can be further subdivided into doing:

  • Detective work: This is the activity of gathering your data and discovering the “truth” in the data — that is meaningful patterns with explanatory power.
  • Creative work: Some researchers don’t like being called creatives, especially in the life and natural sciences. However, analysing results and framing them in an interesting way requires some degree of creativity.

The researcher’s role is to acquire new knowledge through data gathering, but also through collaborations with other researchers and by taking PhD courses. I won’t go too far into methodologies for investigations or creativity. Usually, PhD students are already familiar with the research and writing traditions in their field and this is a space where supervisors can be really helpful. It is a lot harder for supervisors to assist and guide the second role for PhD students, that of being your own research manager. It is also the role that most PhD students are most surprised by and least comfortable with because they didn't get into science to do project planning.

The Research Manager Role

The researcher role is great, but she must have a manager. The research manager role should provide the researcher with a support structure for doing research and also takes care of everything else. Large research projects has a P.I. (principal investigator) that is the grant holder and research leader. Many universities define the role of P.I. as “the primary individual responsible for the preparation, conduct, personnel and administration of a research grant”. We can also use these keywords to identify the responsibilities of the research manager role that PhD students most embody themselves:

  • Preparation: The research manager plans the project and facilitates goals and deadlines for the researcher. This involves looking ahead in the calendar, dividing the work into executable packages and setting up deadlines.
  • Conduct: The research manager is also responsible for the project’s compliance with laws and ethical standards. A big part of this is setting up platforms for the required “reporting” of the project, including prober dissemination and teaching.
  • Personel: The research manager facilitates personel development including the continuous development of the PhD student’s career and setting up plans for what the PhD student should do after their PhD. The manager also facilitates the development of professional relationships, for example by setting up meetings with PhD project partners and collaborators.
  • Administration: The research manager is also responsible for the day-to-day of the project, including answering emails, processing expenses, making travel plans, etc.

Similarly to the P.I., a PhD project requires taking on the role of being one’s own manager, who holds the grant and organises the work towards certain goals. When you take on the role of a research manager and assess your PhD project through this sense, you shouldn’t care much about the actual research. This is the researcher's responsibility. What you should care about is setting up a framework for the researcher to do everything required of her. How do you do this, practically?

How to Take the Manager Role: the Weekly Review

I have found that Getting Things Done is a great practical framework for the research manager role. The methodology is structured around a simple weekly review — for me every friday afternoon. The weekly review is the process of collecting all loose ends from your work and life, and organising these into the right buckets. During the weekly review, priorities and goals can also be assessed. There is a ton of management techniques out there for planning your work. During my own weekly review, I usually take some time to mindmap my project or review the project mindmaps that I’ve already constructed. In this way I make sure that my work is on track and that my researcher role does not have to be anxious about finances or ECTS points and other administrative stuff. By taking out a couple of hours every week to review your work instead of doing your work, you allow the research manager to do her job.

By taking some hours every week to take on the manager role, you can relieve the stress of doing research. There are an abundance of commitments as a PhD student, but many PhDs identify so heavily with the researcher role that they forget to act as their own support structure. The act of splitting your role into two can serve as a pressure valve, relieving the stress of identifying heavily with the subject at hand and feel that you never get anything done.

I have different software applications for the two roles. I use Ulysses for the researcher role and MindNode and OmniFocus for the research manager role. You can read more about the software that I use here.

I have also written about PhD anxiety and the possibility of doing a guilt-free PhD project here.

Malte Lebahn-Hadidi

Malte Lebahn-Hadidi