Lessons learned from being a Principal Investigator and Co-Investigator

Here are my 15 hard-won tips for the management of complex, multifaceted projects…

York EMOTIVE family
Some of our University of York-based team members in Athens for a meeting of the EMOTIVE Project (http://emotiveproject.eu/) in May 2017. From left to right: Laia Pujol, Angeliki Tzouganatou, Sophia Mirashrafi, and me. Photo by NOHO (http://noho.ie/).
I started to write this blog post a long time ago (December 2015) at the close of our first field season in Egypt on the Memphis Site and Community Development Project. That project is soon to wrap up (and, fingers crossed, we will be able to publicise the results shortly!), and in the meanwhile, we got the great news that we won €2.6 million in funding from the European Union for the EMOTIVE Project. EMOTIVE launched in November 2016, and we now have a series of active case studies under development, several being spearheaded by my amazing students at York:

  • Sophia Mirashrafi who’s crafting an interactive experience for groups of individuals on the dynamics of egalitarianism,
  • Angeliki Tzouganatou who’s creating a chatbot for Facebook users who are keen on the archaeological site of Çatalhöyük,
  • Camille Boulais-Pretty who’s exploring the possibilities of virtual environments for telling short stories around human emotions,
  • Emmeline Batchelor who’s writing semi-fictional audio narratives about Neolithic Çatalhöyükians *

While all of this has been happening, I have also been lucky enough to win priming funds from both MUPI (an incredible initiative!) and the Centre for Digital Heritage to pursue other collaborative research, including a partnership with JORVIK we’ve called Viking Hack @ JORVIK (inspired by the fabulous Museum Hack), and a spectacularly cool digital diorama project with Colleen Morgan and Stu Eve.

As one can imagine, with so many things happening simultaneously, I’ve been busy and exhausted. So, I never got around to writing this blog post on a topic that I was desperate to know more about – and that I’ve searched in vain for relevant information about over the past few years…

What I wanted to know was:

What does it mean to be a project lead – a principal or co-investigator?
What must you know before you take on such a role?
What problems or issues should you anticipate in applying for and running or co-running a project – problems that are not akin to anything you would have experienced in doing smaller or independent work (e.g., your PhD)?
How do you successfully navigate these problems?
How does project leadership abroad differ from project leadership done in one’s own home country/region?

Perhaps for obvious reasons, most of the advice available online in relation to these questions seems unhelpfully generic. Some has certainly resonated with me (e.g., see articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education). However, after applying for countless grants (only a handful of which, of course, were funded), after working with teams ranging from small (5 people or less) to large (80 or more), after doing projects both locally and in various foreign countries where English is not a key or important language, I feel there’s actually much that can be spoken about with specificity.

I have experienced many challenges on these projects, and I feel incredibly lucky that my teams have supported me through these challenges (thank you to all my #heritagefamily) – helping me to build what I see as a running list of things to remind future-me about as new ventures emerge and previous ventures are extended. One of the ultimate failings of the education that I received, I think, is a lack of attention to these specificities, which can easily lead you down a path where you find yourself unprepared, overworked, confused, frustrated and supremely disillusioned. Yet there are relatively basic means to help curb some problems, and to thereby enable one’s work to flourish.

So, here are my 15 lessons learned so far in my capacity as a PI/Co-I on complex, multifaceted projects like Memphis and Çatalhöyük, and smaller (although still complex) projects like our annual Heritage Practice fieldschool. I have split this list into parts, and I’d love for you to add to it or edit it or otherwise share your own experiences with me, if you’d be willing.

This is the kind of list that I wish I’d known about before launching into my career. I suppose, for me, in the flurry to (1) prepare funding bids, (2) predict what will be needed in the (often unlikely) chance that you’ll win these bids, and then (3) deliver the project, I’ve sometimes overlooked simple things. This list may come across, then, as exactly that – simple – but for me it’s become incredibly important for my professional development.

15 Hard-Won Tips on Being a PI or Co-I

In the lead-up to a project:

  1. Apply for small pots of pilot funding to explore opportunities before venturing to bid for large grants. All of my successful projects have grown from smaller collaborative endeavours, often funded through little grants of £1000-3000 (enough to cover a portion of travel, some technology and related expenses). These funds have come from my own department, my university or other organisations (e.g., the British Institute at Ankara, the World University Network, MUPI). They have enabled us to network with others, build teams, collect data and prepare conference presentations and journal publications, which have then fed into the case for support for larger bids for funds.
  1. Allow sufficient time (as much as possible!) to develop rigorous proposed case studies to accompany grant applications. All of the major grants that my teams have won have included within them very specific outlines – including illustrations and clear graphical representations – of the types of work we intend to do, and how it responds to the research questions and grant specifications. These case studies are usually denoted via boxed text – singled out – and provide significant detail that one otherwise might be inclined to gloss over in favour of expressing the project’s larger vision. They add a tangible quality to applications, making them, I believe, more likely to resonate with reviewers.
  1. Be thorough in reading and responding to funding application documents. Every funding bid has a long descriptive text outlining all the variations and possibilities of the grant. Go through this text line-by-line and make sure you physically chart out (and make obvious to your reviewers) how your project attends to every single point. 
  1. Partner with colleagues who have previously won major grants. The applications that I’ve submitted with successful colleagues are, in the end, far more robust and convincing in their articulation, and it has only been through such partnerships that I have been able to move from small grants to large grants. **
  1. Budget sufficient money to pay trained research fellows and assistants to work with you. I am fortunate to have incredible student volunteers who’ve collaborated with me for short periods of time on all of my research and engagement endeavours. But for reasons of stability, rigour, accountability – not to mention ethics and fair pay – this volunteerism (which I consider important and essential for skill-building) needs to be buttressed with expert paid staff.
  1. Always budget for a professional translator if working in multiple languages. This is a point that I’m reminded of every time I’m part of a project abroad, and yet, in my experience, it is a form of labour that is often unaccounted for – or that is assumed as something that will be done by team members who are fluent in the language (regardless of whether or not they have the time or training to manage such translation). This temptation to translate documents using any member of one’s project team is very high. Yet it can be highly problematic, for reasons that range from exploitation to gender bias. (As one commentator pointed out to me, women are seemingly most often targeted for such work.) Professional translators may come with their own issues (e.g., the tone or intent may, literally, be lost in their translation), but on the Memphis Project a professional translator has been complemented with our own translation committee (a handful of team members who help to oversee the process).
  1. Always budget for a professional graphic designer and a photographer. I cannot express with enough emphasis just how important and impactful it is to have a compelling visual presence for your project. Please do not rely on volunteers or enthusiasts alone to do such work. The skill, the knowledge, the understanding of audience and mood, the capacity to create attachment and investment that come with hiring professional visual practitioners should not be underestimated. Moreover, they can coordinate with printers and manufacturers, providing exact specifications regarding formats, colours, quality, etc. – and overseeing the process of production – which is essential for professional-level final outputs.
  1. Have a contingency fund. It is a truism that any community or engagement project will have unforeseen and unpredictable dimensions. Make sure you have a pot of money/resources set aside to negotiate these dimensions.

Once you’ve launched your project:

  1. If running field-based projects, schedule very short daily meetings with your team and do not compromise on them. We always do this at Çatalhöyük, but here my team is smaller (c. 10 people total). At Memphis, it was only when one of my great friends from AERA began to convene such daily meetings for our supervisory team that we actually all (10-15 supervisor-level staff who together oversaw dozens of students + affiliated project members) sat down to plan/reflect. This meant we were far more efficient in dealing with complex issues. Given the size of the supervisory team and the size of our student cohorts, such meetings were particularly critical in keeping us all on the same page.
  1. Reflect on your progress and give praise both at formalised points in the process and informally with all members of your team. Work hard to give positive reinforcement, and try always to use an individual’s strengths as the reference point when discussing areas of necessary improvement. Being candid but still complimentary has proven necessary in my teams for quickly addressing problems when they arise. And sharing compliments and positive energy with everyone – students, colleagues, supervisors – the whole team – is crucial, especially in order to buffer against future problems and to build camaraderie that can keep a team solid in more tumultuous times. I feel this practice – of giving regular praise, and also of encouraging your team members to be generous in giving their own praise to their peers, colleagues, supervisors, and others – is the ultimate confidence booster, an obvious sign of compassion, understanding and care, and hence a major determinant of project success.
  1. Prepare (and, if you deem it necessary, then sign) contracts with volunteers who accompany you on fieldwork. We do this with dissertation students in our degree programmes at York, and I’ve increasingly come to see the import of such contracts. They specify both what you expect (in terms of day-to-day work, comportment and courtesy, previous experience, preparation, commitment and ethics) and what your volunteers can expect of you. They create the foundations for your relationship, and most importantly, if anything goes wrong, they offer something tangible to refer back to for guidance in resolving matters.
  1. Don’t expect to get anything else done while working on a major project. I don’t think this point needs to be elaborated beyond saying: be realistic about your time and manage your expectations around what can reasonably be achieved in the hours allocated to you.
  1. Be prepared for bafflingly high levels of administration and paperwork. I can honestly say that one of the most shocking things for me about becoming an academic has been grappling with the amount of time and energy that needs to be invested in writing and replying to emails, report-writing (unpublished), participating in many administrative meetings, filling out project management checklists and spreadsheets and Doodle polls, negotiating incredibly complex and lengthy insurance and risk assessment documents and regulations, filing for permits and visas, budgeting and reconciling receipts, and attending to related accounting systems. I had no previous experience of any of this before I started my lectureship, and I am compelled to resist the onslaught of such demands, which are ever-increasing and continuously and unnecessarily more bespoke and invasive. Having the time to actually do research on one’s own research project is elusive, and I feel incredibly fortunate that I have so many great students and colleagues who are willing to collaborate with me and empathise with my circumstances to enable the research to happen. I hope real resistance to such bureaucratic demands takes more obvious shape soon, as these demands (as testified to by many scholars – Bregman, Graeber, etc.) are a genuine threat to innovation, constructive change and revolutionary scholarship.
  1. Take people management seriously and invest time in developing your public leadership skills. I feel this is a point that should be compulsorily taught in all PhD, undergrad and Masters programmes. If you work in archaeology or heritage or the cultural sector in general, to succeed you must be proficient at collaborating with very many people, many of whom have different interests, some of whom work at obvious cross-purposes. This is a fact. That this fact is not nurtured and engrained in every student from the moment they begin their studies seems a tremendous weakness of the profession. When you start to lead your own projects, you quickly become aware of just how important it is to be good at caring for others, resolving tensions between others, enabling productive communication and sharing between others.
  1. Have fun with the people you work with. Especially on intensive, field-based projects – but, really, in any circumstance – build in significant time for fun, games, laughing, play, dancing, singing, music and creativity. The benefits are many and obvious. I can genuinely say that I’ve made most of my greatest friendships and (what are sure to be) lifelong human bonds through my projects.

FS3 Graduation
Celebrating the graduation of our 3rd cohort of Memphis Site and Community Development Project trainees in Autumn 2016. Photo by Amel Eweida.
I’m certain there’s more that could be added to this list & I welcome your additions, revisions, and constructive comments!

I’ll conclude by sharing with you the great news that I was promoted to Senior Lecturer last week, and from the end of September I’ll also be modifying my contract at York slightly to enable some exciting new professional developments. More on that to come!

* I’ll elaborate on some of these EMOTIVE projects in forthcoming blog posts. In the meantime, please join our mailing list, follow us on Twitter or Facebook, and see what my brilliant colleagues at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow are doing in terms of their own boundary-pushing emotive work.

** There’s a lot more to be said on this point, but it goes beyond the brief of this post!

One thought on “Lessons learned from being a Principal Investigator and Co-Investigator

  1. I am 64 years old now—and have seen a lot in my life. I have worked as a professional archaeologist and as an environmental protection expert—in both management and as a worker bee. Throughout my work life, I used to fret a lot about people on projects and in workplaces not getting along with each other. On my last enormously large environmental project, I was lucky enough to work for a woman manager who was, quite honestly, the best overall manager I have ever had—and our project was enormously successful because of her—one of the most successful I have ever seen. I learned a lot from her.

    One of the chief things I learned was that she detested being a social/psychological counselor on her projects to help people get along with each other—and for that reason she simply did not do it. She made it clear that she did not tolerate whiners. In addition, she made it clear that she would not tolerate team members with abrasive personalities, big-head ego problems, sociopathic problems, psychopathic problems, or other anti-social qualities—or people she just plain did not like. If a person became a social problem for some reason, she simply fired them. Problem today—gone tomorrow!!! You would be amazed—absolutely amazed at how well everyone got along with each other on her projects. It was not fear either—people actually got along with true interpersonal chemistry because there were no bad apples spoiling the barrel.

    Never let a bad apple, or two, or three spoil your barrel. So, here at the end of my long career, as an old guy, I have adopted her mantra. I will no longer fret about personnel problems, bite my fingernails in nervous frustration, and try desperately to counsel abrasive employees into being nice. I shall avoid hiring people with a reputation for being hard to get along with. If an abrasive A-hole does show up on one of my projects and gives people a hard time for even one day—or if I do not like them for some reason—their hind end gets sacked immediately—no questions asked, no discussion—just “get your sorry butt out of here now and never come back—your paycheck for hours worked will be mailed to you.”

    That might be impossible to do in the UK because of laws that protect workers. Here in the United States, many of the states have laws that give business owners and their managers enormous legal powers in hiring and sacking. For example, if you prefer navy blue men’s dress socks rather than black men’s dress socks, you can sack an employee simply for wearing black dress socks. You do not even have to warn him beforehand that you do not like black dress socks. You can just sack him the moment you see them on his feet, and under state law, the sacked man has zero legal recourse against you or the corporation. You have no doubt heard of the “red states.” In my opinion, those are the states most likely to have such draconian labor laws. My state is a red state, and it has those laws.

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