Project Management for PhD Students

Collaborations in systems research is how I’ve built some of the best tools in my research. A larger teams means an expanded vision and being able to pursue more ambitious ideas but it also incurs an overhead – team management. Effectively managing a team and keeping all team members up to date can be stressful and a daunting task. I think one way to approaching management tasks is by asking a few concrete questions:

  • What’s the primary channel of communication?
  • How often should we be meeting? What are the preparing expectations for a meeting?
  • How are we managing our code base? What are the expectations about code knowledge?
  • How are we managing our TODO items?
  • How should we resolve conflicts?

The answers to these questions should evolve with a project. For example, a project in its prototyping stage might have no restrictions on how or where the code is kept but a more mature project associated with other projects or deployments requires careful releases.

The following sections answer these questions from my experience with teams. The answers apply for a reasonably mature project with most core infrastructure decisions already made (which language to use, which toolchains, etc.)

Since I’m not the most experienced developer in the world, I would appreciate any suggestions (find my contact information at the end of the post).

Primary Communication

This is an easy one. Teams can either use email threads or one of the dozens of chat applications to have conversations about the project.

The benefit of using a emails is that the team can keep track of individual threads of conversations easily. However, with multiple projects, this might get unwieldy.

Chat apps, on the other hand, make it really quick and easy to communicate with the team but are usually bad at maintaining separate threads of conversations cleanly.

The choice of the primary communication is often already constrained by group preferences so this is usually a straightforward decision.

As a side note, team members should try to have long conversations in person. Text based mediums make it really hard to accurately convey emotions and it is easy to misread an offhand comment as being aggressive (I’ve certainly been guilty of this!)

Meetings

Meetings act as a synchronization point for the entire team and require some amount of preparation. I suggest having at least two team meetings every week, one with your advisor (main meeting) and one without them (student meeting).

Main meeting

For the main meeting, every student should be prepared with the following:

  • A short weekly update.
  • Technical challenges faced during the assigned task.
  • Questions or gotchas found during the assigned the task.

At the end of the main meeting, each student should leave with:

  • At least one assigned task for the week. This can be a paper to read and explain, feature to implement, or a theorem to prove.
  • A good sense of where to look for answers to their questions.

A lot of students (myself included) struggle with prioritizing tasks. Students involved in research have tons of unstructured time which is not utilized effectively without a good plan. Assigned tasks help me focus on a task that I need to get done every week.

Concretely, I try every week to either complete the tasks assigned to me or have technical questions that are blocking me ready for the meeting.

Student meeting

The student meetings are more informal and are meant for in depth discussions about small issues that team members are facing in completing their tasks.

Codebases

If you’re working on an applied systems project chances are you are building a software artifact. Regardless of how many people are writing code, it is useful to check in the code into source control. This makes the code publicly viewable and commentable by the team members.

The high-level principle behind these guidelines is to minimize the number of locations where critical information such as feature discussions are kept.

Since I primarily use git and Github, the following guidelines assume your project is Github-based. When working on a artifact, I have the following expectations with team members:

  • The project leaders (graduate students or senior undergrads) should have a good sense of what is going on with every aspect of the codebase. This means having a high-level understanding of all pull requests and issue discussions.
  • Use pull requests and branches. Working on big features on a separate branch allows other people to work in parallel while leaving the code in a buildable state. Pull requests are a great way to get the team’s attention on a big change and center discussions around it.
  • Keep the git history clean by using git pull -r and rebasing instead of merging.

TODO List

Since most of my projects revolve around a software artifact, most of which are on Github, I use Github issues as a tracking list. Other people I have worked with also use Trello or one of the dozens of TODO apps.

The todo list should make it easy to create tasks and have discussions around them and also allow team members to see who is working on what.

During the development phase of the project, I ask the team to use issues liberally. The term “global tracker” refers to the high level view of all todo items. On Github, this is simply the issues page.

Largely, I divide issues into three categories:

  • Trackers. Trackers are a collection of smaller issues that logically belong together but might pollute the global tracker. Use these for reading lists, benchmark status, and low priority tasks. Example.
  • Proposal. Proposal are the heart of the global tracker. Use proposals to discuss system features, implementation sketches, or big bugs.
  • Miscellaneous: These include questions or small bugs. These should be high frequency, i.e. created liberally, and answered quickly.

Conflict resolution

This is an often overlooked dimension of team dynamics. Research projects can often be stressful, especially since students tend to be ambitious and prone to overworking. Since this process so highly dependent on the team members and project leads, my guideline can only be personalized for me.

If a team member feels under too much pressure to do something or dislikes someone’s personal behavior, they can either directly contact the person or ask one of the team leads to mediate. While daunting, it is much better in the long run to have frank discussions about team expectations and stresses instead of letting things get worse.

Conclusion

While there are several industrial strength methodologies for team managements, I like having a much more lightweight team management style. A lot of research is about exploring new ideas and pursuing crazy ideas. Regardless of which guidelines you choose to follow, they should not take away the joy of programming or research!

Discussion on HackerNews.

Have comments? Email or tweet at me.

Related