grasping at a grasp of project management

04.29.13 § 2 Comments

What is project management? What does a project manager do?

Project management is a professional grey area I’ve not previously explored with any great attention or depth, in part because it sounds like meetings and desk-jockeying and not any fun. I’m reconsidering this prejudice for various reasons, though, and have put together what aims to be a core or characteristic set of skills for such work—mostly as guidance for myself. My overall impression following this exercise is that project management is for smart, creative people who can help the smart and creative do better work. A few notes on responsibilities, challenges:

Scheduling & Time Management
Setting and meeting deadlines. This is both a no-brainer and also the most difficult part of the entire enterprise, so far as I can tell.

Again, scheduling and deadlines figure prominently in the volume of communications project managers must handle. Establishing a two-way flow of feedback—listening and responding to concerns both inside and outside of an organization—is also necessary, as is the ability to discuss the mission of an organization or the purpose of a project with various stakeholders and outsiders. I see communication within project management as mastery of everything from the elevator pitch to longform proposal writing.

Communication isn’t all about “broadcasting,” either; it underpins every other area of responsibility and is necessarily a kind of network management. Project managers seem to work best when possessed of an understanding of the project itself that’s sophisticated enough to permit longer conversations, brainstorming, and networking.

Personnel Management
Being a boss, working with/for multiple bosses… personnel issues are a major area of responsibility for the kind of project manager I have in mind. Hierarchy, reporting, and accountability aren’t cut-and-dried in collaborative, collegial relationships. This aspect of project management could almost be reframed as managing expectations, as grim as that sounds. But it really is about keeping relationships between people realistic and sane, both within and without the organization.

Grant Writing
An all-important skill, particularly for those of us in the metro D.C. area. Grant writing kind of rolls up into one big headache all of the other areas of responsibility and includes prospecting, deadline management, proposal writing, budgeting, and communication. Project managers with development responsibilities could potentially spend more of their time selling a project or organization almost as much as working on it… and I’m unsure whether this is the proper way of things.

Current Awareness
A terrible, defensive sort of term used mostly, in my experience, by those who have a legitimately difficult time with it. Cf. every librarian-oriented webinar titled, “Keeping up with…” or “Staying up-to-date with…” I believe project management requires a genuine interest in (even a love of) the discipline: participation in ongoing debates over its direction, as well as familiarity with new tools, projects, and publications/conversations.

Project managers in academic contexts have the enviable opportunity (and challenge!) of exposure to players, projects, courses, and movements across college / university communities, through which unexpected connections may emerge. For a project manager elsewhere, say at a design firm, “community” looks a little different. It might mean connecting and collaborating with other design-focused organizations of complementary size, geography, interests, talent, resources.

I like to think of project managers as engines for brainstorming, initiating potential collaborations across departments that could prove fruitful, even transformational for the participants.

One potential [major] problem with project management is the perception (as expressed in Jen Guiliano’s excellent post, “Don’t Call Me”) that it’s a service or support position; that the project manager exists to be at the beck and call of those “doing the work”; that the project manager’s intellectual interests and abilities are inferior or irrelevant. With attention distributed across multiple projects—and with a skill set and responsibilities that can be hard to define—the misunderstanding may also emerge that a manager’s time is inherently less valuable.

I see this conflict reflected in current agonizing over whether librarianship is a service position (on bad days I think, “servile”) and also in conversations / debates about evaluating digital humanities work and other nontraditional but ascendant forms of scholarship.

Guiliano raises questions of hierarchy, reporting, and accountability, observing that colleagues and professional contacts can seem to speak to her title, not her qualifications. Such questions can be additionally complicated for those (like me) who are or could be project managers but don’t hold advanced degrees. I’m reminded that project management, particularly in digital humanities centers and in some libraries, is strongly associated with the alt-ac “track.” As good an idea as alt-ac is, could it inadvertently (or deliberately?) push out people like me for whom “Plan B” is the real thing?

A loosely related example: Some librarians grumble at PhD dropouts deciding to become academic librarians as a backup plan, whether airily or out of desperate professional dissatisfaction. Library Loon has suggested this is a bit like “jump[ing] the line,” a dig at the anything-but-unserious CLIR postdoctoral fellows program. It’s a stance I understand without entirely embracing.

Growing awareness and embrace of alt-ac makes it increasingly acceptable (less eyebrow-raising) for scholars to pursue nontraditional roles in and around the academy, but the tendency to emphasize advanced degrees as proof of professionalism persists.

Many support retiring the term alt-ac; there are a few ways to look at this:

On one hand, alt-ac represents/ed a somewhat defensive stance on the part of PhDs justifying their career choices: alt-ac jobs are just as valuable and intellectually demanding as those in the traditional academy. Removing the “alt-” removes any stigma associated with pursuing a “different” path.

On the other hand, removing the “alt-” reclaims alt-ac jobs for trained academics. Could this shut out those of us with the desire and talent to do the work but not necessarily the means for long-term graduate school? Is traditional academic training still the best training for new kinds of academic work?

This is rather conservative and just… too bad. I’m not in any way suggesting that “overqualification” exists (and is anything but a bullshit term), but all of this does run counter to my belief that formal schooling isn’t the only way to success—a belief I may have mistakenly felt was matched by proponents and practitioners of alt-ac work. Project management strikes me as a role tailor-made for smart, creative, and flexible thinkers who lack traditional training but possess an autodidactic drive. It would be a shame to reserve such roles for someone’s Plan B, when a better-fit Plan A might exist.

And Now It’s Time to Come Clean
Project management of some kind is in fact likely to be my Plan B… or C, D, E, etc., depending on how you count (I don’t recommend counting). The very perceptions I criticize—project management isn’t real work, those who can’t do manage projects, etc.—are the ones I’ve been trying to shake myself. It’s important to remember that in architecture firms, for example, project managers are often a step above designers, and talented designers in their own rights. The point of this whole exercise has been to explore the possibilities of future work in project management as a way to connect with disciplines in which I’m interested and informed but lack formal training.

I sense that I’m held back by being unable to afford graduate school for the time being—since even a master’s degree opens access to more managerial roles and challenging positions with greater responsibility—but that’s not the whole story. There are always more skills to develop and more ways to prove that hiring me, hodgepodge career and all, is not taking a chance but an easy choice. A no-brainer, if you want.


Here’s a list of everything I linked to above:


Further Reading
To read more/better on project management, check out the following posts and articles:


Finally, the Project Manager job description from MITH (Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities) provided a useful framework for developing the above set of skills and responsibilities. Sounds like a fantastic job—someone really should apply for it.

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§ 2 Responses to grasping at a grasp of project management

  • emilypsouza says:

    A great post, and very thoughtful discussion of your concerns about PM and librarianship in general… will be sharing this with some people.

  • […] What the heck does a project manager do? She or he makes sure the work gets done. My personal dream is for a group to self-organize so that one person isn’t stuck nagging and herding cats and being called “bossy” or some other gendered shit born of resentment and insecurity AND so that the group isn’t stuck being nagged and herded and bossed or mansplained around by someone they never chose to do any of the above. But how often does that even happen? […]

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