Managing a chemistry PhD project is chaotic. On a day-to-day scale, in a synthetic project, there are three main tasks: to work up (complete) old reactions, to analyse their products and to set up new reactions. Even without any other considerations, these three tasks alone can spin out of hand when considering the volume of reactions we work with. As a PhD student, however, your job is not only to carry out your project, but to plan and manage it as well. We need to constantly analyse the data that we get and shift our goals and focus accordingly. It is extremely common to attain a result you weren’t even remotely aiming for, but that ends up being much more promising than any other results to date — and just like that, the focus of your project has changed.
There is also a delicate, difficult balancing act that goes to doing science on a deadline. With the strict three year time limit on our scholarships (in Australia), we need to be conscious of the months that go into pursuing an evasive, yet promising result. A thesis cannot solely be filled with a thousand things that were tried and did not work — and as I’ve mentioned before, there is no hope on Earth for publishing that kind of science. Thankfully, our supervisors will usually have had at least a number of PhD students before us, and will know the project and timeline to set in order to yield results for a thesis. To benefit from this knowledge, we must be sure to communicate with our supervisors readily if we feel we are banging our heads against a brick wall instead of doing useful work — not only may they know something new to try, but they are also better versed at saying when it is simply appropriate to abandon a project.
Another project management requirement for science projects are the rigorous experimental details we are expected to record. One of the main characteristics of science is that it is reproducible. In order for chemistry experiments to be reproducible, we need to record a number of details: what chemicals you used, what quantities, how long did the reaction go for, what was its appearance and so forth. We record these details into a handwritten lab book; analyses are usually filed separately. With a constantly shifting project focus, a lab book can quickly become disorganised. My lab book in particular deals in three-page spreads dedicated to the same “topic”, which, in my case, is usually a family of very similar reactions. These topics can then repeat later in the book, but are usually spaced by unrelated spreads. We try to work on a few different things at once, for variety and also for the likelihood that something will actually yield usable results.
All of this boils down to the need for extremely good organisational skills to keep abreast of the requirements, current status and future plans of one’s project. The lab notes are a solid friend to turn to when in doubt, because there one will most easily note the experiments that have worked and that haven’t. It is not particularly helpful for the planning of one’s project, however, since the lab book is reserved for experimental details. For to-do lists, lists of samples that need analysing, ideas for new reactions and helpful advice from group members or supervisors, I use sticky notes. Sticky notes are lovely as reminders and place holders, even catalogues — and they can be stuck to any surface! They are ephemereal, and yet a little more permanent than hastily written notes on the back of your disposable glove. Planning a PhD project somehow feels much more friendly and manageable when you do it one colourful sticky note at a time.
If you have any ideas on project management, feel free to contact me in the comments, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, tweet me @Lady_Beaker.