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!

Heritage interpretation in the wild: Using medium.com to teach heritage practice

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Screenshot of some of my Master’s students’ medium.com shares on Twitter, using hashtag #yorkchm2

As some of you know, I’ve been experimenting this term with the integration of a new mode of digital engagement into my Master’s-level teaching at the University of York. The term has just ended, and the experiment has proven to be far more successful than I could have hoped. In spite of a couple of hiccups along the way, my students have authored a series of truly fascinating and thought-provoking heritage-related articles on medium.com. A background on the project is articulated here. The full range of publications (seven in total) is viewable here (or search for hashtag #yorkchm2). For those interested in pedagogy, it’s perhaps worthwhile to look at the background document first to get a sense of the rationale for applying medium.com. Among other things, I am limited to just 2 hours of in-class contact time per week with my cohort of nearly 50 Master’s students, so I have long been looking for ways to extend the classroom beyond its physical walls and logistical constraints. These publications represent one mode of learning and engagement that weave together with a series of other modes – both digital and analogue.

To briefly introduce the articles:

  • When is a museum not a museum but an experience? Read “Small Museum, Big Impact? Two kings, two gates, one city” – a lively discussion of two of The Jorvik Group’s visitor attractions by Noah Todd, Sally Toon, Celeste Flower, Natasha Anson, Katherine Anderson and Claire Boardman.
  • For an inspiring and entirely original application of the MuseumHack concept to the York Art Gallery, do not miss “Hacking the Gallery! How to Get Teenagers into Art” by Louise Calf, Katie Campbell, Meghan Dennis, Alice Green, Andrea Marcolongo, Benjamin Richards, and Inez Williams
  • For those keen on mobile apps, check out “Debates in app-cessibility: Is the use of mobile apps in heritage contexts enhancing or impeding?” by Gill Bull, Laura Saretsky, Jason Kosh, Amedeo Viccari, Veronica Smith, Aimee Hardy, and Olivia Morrill
  • If you are interested in innovations in digital exhibition and memorialisation, see Geneviève Godin, Valeria Cambule, Charlotte Jenkins, Ben Culpin, Alexander Mitchell, and Nadine Loach’s critical review of the fantastic Project Mosul: “A Digital Afterlife for Destroyed Heritage”
  • Have you heard of the estate of Park Hill? Interested in how to manage the many histories and values of contemporary urban sites? Then see the proposal “Park Hill: Past and Present” developed by Joelle-Louise Hall, Benjamin Gill, Joy Kemp, Caitlin Crosby, Hannah Page and Georgina Pike.
  • If you’re concerned about issues of access, and interested to experiment with extending the reach of already-known heritage spots, please check out the proposed project of Alison Edwards, Apoorva D. Goyle, Matthew Hargreaves, Aoife Kurta, Charlotte Roden, Helen Simmons, and Alice Trew, “Lowry’s York: Your York”.
  • And to witness amongst the most ambitious projects that I’ve ever seen developed and implemented in just a few weeks’ time, view and contribute to the exhibition #CurateMyLife – a full multi-media campaign launched by Lucie Fletcher, Emma Grange, Ana Paz, Margaret Perry, Ben Philips & Eleanor Styles. As the authors/curators describe it, #CurateMyLife aims to “help all generations of people to view heritage as a truly fluid aspect, which surrounds and encompasses every aspect of life, and, by sharing this personal heritage, it…help[s] to blur boundaries between different individuals and maybe even usher in new forms of educative liberalism and awareness of life, in addition to providing new inspiration for future exhibitions.”

I would be very keen to receive your feedback regarding this project overall, as well as regarding my students’ specific publications/responses to the project brief. If you can, please do comment either here (on this blog) or on the medium.com posts themselves. With a couple of tiny tweaks, I’d like to continue this experiment in the future, so your thoughts, recommendations, and constructive critiques will go directly towards informing its next iterations. Your input will also be combined with more formal evaluation data that I’ll be gathering with the students from next week, which I’ll then weave together alongside the official module feedback and share with you in future posts.

Thank you in advance for your help and interest!

Fulfilling my Archaeologist Dreams: An Unforgettable Autumn in Egypt at the Site of Memphis, Egypt’s Ancient Capital

Some of you might know that I’ve spent the past three months in Egypt, living literally next door to the pyramids of Giza and working about an hour’s drive away at the site of ancient Egypt’s first capital city, Memphis (now partially covered by the modern town of Mit Rahina).

Until just two days ago, we weren’t able to speak in detail to the wider public about the nature of the project owing to permissions, but I’m now so pleased to say that my collaborators, Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA), have just published our first press release:

and our generous primary funder, USAID, has used social media several times over the Autumn to hint at our activities:

There’s so much to say about the programme that we are running and the incredible history of the site of Memphis (it was the political and religious centre of pharaonic Egypt for thousands of years, the pyramids are part of its cemetery complex, it is the home of the Apis House (the only site of its kind! …where bulls were mummified as part of an elaborate ritual process), Alexander the Great sacrificed to the Apis bull and was crowned king here; it was long a tourist and pilgrimage destination for everyone from ancient Romans to Greek philosophers to antiquarian travellers, and it was ‘lost’ – no one could quite locate its remains – until just two centuries ago.

I’ll save more of the details for our collaborators to tell you about when we launch our webpages and social media in the future. In the meantime, if you’re keen for views on ancient Memphis, check out this impressive Facebook page run independently by one of AERA’s alumni. Also, make sure to learn more about AERA’s fabulous and long-standing research and teaching efforts in Egypt.

For now, I just want to briefly mention the fieldschools that we’re leading, which form one of the principal outputs of the project (and are a new addition to AERA’s portfolio). Herein, we are training Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities inspectors and related Egyptology and museums professionals in archaeological site management, heritage interpretation, tourism development and community engagement. This training is an applied programme, delivered via a combination of lectures, classroom-based production, and on-the-ground development of Memphis as a tourist destination (including construction of a walking trail/interpretative route around eight of Memphis’ principal sites). Just yesterday, at the Ministry of Antiquities headquarters in the Zamalek district of Cairo, we celebrated the graduation of our first 32 Egyptian trainees and 4 Egyptian supervisors, who work at key heritage and cultural locations around the country. I was excited to see that one student, the excellent Shaimaa Magdi, invited her journalist friend to the event, so you can catch some of the diploma ceremony on YouTube:

and if you read Arabic, you can learn more about it all here.

What’s been the most special aspect of this project for me? Definitely my contact with Shaimaa and the many other Egyptians who’ve studied with me, my small team from York, and AERA. These students are truly the most wonderful human beings that I’ve ever encountered. They have touched me in a way that I couldn’t have fathomed, and I feel like my faith in the fundamental goodness of humanity has been affirmed by my interactions with them. I can’t say enough how much happiness, laughter, kindness and warmth they’ve shared with me. I looked forward to every day of teaching them because they made me feel hopeful for the future, and they made our many challenges seem slim and even manageable because of their individual and collective good spirit and generosity. On a personal level, then, I’ve been changed by them.

MSCD_FS1 and FS2 Students Site Tour _10/11/2015
Fieldschool 1 and 2 at Memphis. Photo by Amel Eweida.

But as I teacher I’ve been changed too. This is a direct result of my students’, AERA’s, and York’s shared eagerness to learn together, to revise and edit and rethink our outputs together, to challenge common understandings of heritage management, to work six days a week, at least 9 hours a day (and, on many days, up to 12 or more hours per day!!) on panels and guidebooks and websites and more, and to create something completely new out of a very difficult archaeological site that’s been virtually forgotten. It has been inspiring, and it’s profoundly altered my professional practice.

Myself and Amina, one of the graduates of our first fieldschool, on graduation day – Tuesday, 15 December 2015. Photo by Ian Kirkpatrick.

Moreover, often on a daily basis, I’ve received the most touching feedback from the students – the kind of feedback that makes you cry with joy – that reaches right to your soul – that warms your heart and leaves you feeling empowered and capable of changing the world. I’ve asked permission from one of my students, the exceptional Sara Komy, to quote her words, because I would be lying if I said that the project wasn’t full of challenges, but it is the highs that come from these comments that instantly boost your confidence and motivate you in the face of difficulties:

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This message of Sara’s is just one of a series that have touched my heart, given me strength, and further heightened my deep love for Egypt. As you can imagine, even though I only flew home yesterday, I miss my students tremendously. Everyone should be so lucky to meet people who make you feel as if, together, you can genuinely transform the course of history and construct a better world.

I’ll leave you with a couple more images of all of the happy times that we’ve had together (and there have been many!).

Singing together and enjoying the bus trip back from site with some of fieldschool 1.
MSCD_FS2_Students Final Site Tour_13/12/2015
One of our supervisors takes an extra candy while on a break from touring Hathor Temple and Apis House at Memphis. Photo by Amel Eweida.

I look very forward to returning to work with my Egyptian collaborators again in 2016. I’m off now to catch up on everything I’ve missed here in York!