Lessons in Project Management

 “Don’t watch the clock; do what it does. Keep going.”–Sam Levenson

One of the unspoken goals for my residency year is to really get a feel for how a consultant works—or how I imagine I might work as a consultant. I am writing a long paper that is more than a mere academic exercise so I need to think like a consultant and create daily habits that is needed for that profession.

I was struck last week by an article written by Heather Lee Miller, a consultant at History Research Associates, Inc., on “The Business of History: Working as a Historical Consultant.”* She admitted that she had no idea as a graduate student what a historical consultant does for a living. I have been interested in consulting work for a while, but I find it pretty mystifying. I attended NCPH sessions on consulting and have been reading the latest on how consultants are struggling to collaborate with one another. I have also been reading #altac and #postac websites and blogs about how to use your Ph.D. to start your own business. It all seems so…uncertain. That is why I enjoyed Miller’s explanation of “billability” and understanding in order to achieve a “living wage” you need to understand how much your intellectual time is worth. It also helps that I have been binge watching “The Good Wife,” where competitive lawyers are always talking about who is getting the most billing hours.

I decided to experiment this year thanks to the relative freedom that the residency year offers. Last fall, I divided my project into smaller tasks to a) make the project as a whole seem more manageable, and b) start using a time tracker to see how much time I spend on each task. Some of the tasks include, research, travel, public outreach, project management, and writing. I then also added “non-billable” tasks to track how much time I was spending on my colloquium class, dissertation, and professional development. This blog, for example, falls under professional development. I use Harvest, a website and an app, to track my time and it works beautifully and is free for accounts with only two projects. I can even create invoices and I have a guilty fantasy of handing over the NPS a big fat invoice at the end of this residency. I am excited, though, to have a detailed dataset like this one to turn to if I ever do end up in the consulting biz. I think the idea of bidding on projects that is the hardest part about getting into this line of work. How do you know how long a project will take? How much should you charge? This knowledge comes with experience, but I see no reason to wait after I finish my Ph.D. to get an idea.

Harvest keeps track of my "billable" and "non-billable" project hours

Harvest keeps track of my “billable” and “non-billable” project hours. This shows that I have spent about 70% of my time working on the Special Resource Study and 30% on “other stuff.”

I started writing full time last month and I felt that I needed to strategize to make sure I was on target to finishing on time. I use a mix of short range and long range planning tools. First, I write up work plans by month—about three months out, or until the end of the semester. That helps me mark conference days, days that I am traveling, meetings, and personal events. Then I am able to see when I am available to write.

February work plan. I like digital calendar, because things change all the time.

February work plan. I like using a Microsoft Word calendar because things change all the time.

I also have planned my weeks out to the hour using my Google Calendar. I have a hard time sticking to it exactly, but it gives me good structure throughout the day. If I am having a hard time getting focused on writing, then I employ the “Pomodoro” technique for twenty-five or forty-five minute blocks.

One of the first weeks I planned out completely centered on writing using Google Calendar.

One of the first weeks I planned out completely centered on writing using Google Calendar.

Finally, I use Trello boards to make sure I stay on top of all my tasks. I use boards for this week, this month, and this year, which makes it both practical and aspirational. It also feels really great to move a task to the done category and watching that column grow by the end of the week. I take a moment to reflect back on the week’s accomplishments, which I feel is important motivation in long term projects. If you are a person that loves to make lists, you will love Trello!

I hope this post demonstrates to other graduate students thinking about their postac careers that it is never too early to start gaining these skills. I will definitely be applying these new tools to my dissertation as well.

*Heather Lee Miller, “The Business of History: Working as a Historical Consultant,” Journal of Women’s History 25 (Winter 2013): 342-349. Accessed on Project Muse.

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