The challenges of research project leadership: Think ahead, be prepared


Project leadership is a complex, tricky beast.

My first experience of leading a funded research project took place in 1989, in the UK. Since that time, I have been principal investigator (PI) on four projects funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and co-investigator on two others, as well as carrying out a number of institutionally funded or unfunded studies.

I would like to share what I have learned between 1989 and 2021 about what to do and what not to do as a project leader. My field is higher education, and my preference is for in-depth interview methods. My remarks apply mainly to the social sciences and to small or middle-sized projects and teams. The science model, with research groups and laboratories and multiple simultaneous grants, will present different dilemmas for PIs.

This post’s insights come not only from my own experiences but from those of participants in my current research, ‘Academic researchers in challenging times’ (ARICT). My colleagues and I interviewed 24 academics, mostly women, in education, social work, geography and sociology with strong research records and social justice themes in their work. In what follows, I will bypass the (important) issue of obtaining funding and go to the lesser-known challenges encountered by new PIs and others moving to more complex projects.


Think of your research design as set against resources, travel, time, and your teaching and administrative responsibilities. It is all too tempting to devise a complex, even beautiful, project design. You may believe that an ambitious project might be more likely to be funded; even if this assumption is true, will you be able to carry it out? Participants in the ARICT study lamented that their universities helped them get the award but provided little support once it was underway.


‘Teamwork’ is an apt combination of ‘team’ and ‘work’. SSHRC strongly encourages working with master’s or doctoral student research assistants as a form of training and  collaboration. Typically, in these fields, students work part-time and come and go according to their programs and degree progress, and their ‘own research’ may be unrelated to their research employment. Some ARICT interviewees worked around this problem by setting up science-like labs and adding more students to the mix, but strategies depended on budgets and student availability: those in less research-intensive institutions had fewer choices.

ARICT participants also noted the lesser investment of co-investigators compared to PIs in projects where only one person is allowed to be the formal leader. Co-investigators, who are usually other academics, get relatively little credit, have other commitments, and do not feel the weight of responsibility that is vested in the PI. Giving ample opportunities for presentations and publications can help sustain co-investigators’ involvement. As well, senior PIs can provide coaching and support for junior colleagues to move towards leadership roles in subsequent grant applications.

Different disciplinary backgrounds within a team sometimes lead to tensions. In one of my early projects, which featured a five-person interdisciplinary team with feminist commitments, we worked together enjoyably and conducted almost 200 qualitative interviews across Canada. But we had not really talked about what to do with all that data and were unable to come to a consensus before we ran out of time (see ‘Complexity’ and ‘Clocks and calendars’). In retrospect, I could have taken a stronger leadership role, initiating earlier negotiations around data analysis. Interestingly, we have found that many PIs interviewed for the ARICT project were hesitant about identifying themselves as ‘leaders’, given the term’s masculinist and authoritarian associations.

Coordination and communication.

In the past, influenced by feminism and my personal inclinations, I remained too much in the background, while encouraging collective decisions and emergent processes. Sadly, that stance conflicts with making clear decisions, setting targets and keeping track of details. I like Sarah R. Davies and Maja Horst’s concept of caring craftwork as the task of the PI. Find a good balance that works for you and your team and be prepared to adjust your approach as necessary. It helps to have a project manager or research coordinator, even on a part-time basis, to assist with organizational matters.

Clocks and calendars.

Oili-Helena Ylijoki has distinguished between project time and process time. The former is the design on paper that moves along without complications and the latter the messy reality of the actual work. For example, obstacles in the ethical review process may cost you time and alter your plans. In the ARICT project, we needed to complete protocols in six different universities, each with their individual procedures, and then update all of them annually (on different dates), in order to be allowed to interview academics and administrators in those locations. Even without delays, it is all too easy to become so invested in collecting data that there is no time left for analysis and writing. Resist the temptation to start a new project even as the old one is incomplete.


In former American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s words, there are known knowns and known unknowns. Known knowns might include the ethics protocol issues described above. Known unknowns refer to things we know about in a general way, but we do not know whether they will occur or their specific features. Examples can be drawn from my first and last projects. Funded for two years by the UK Economic and Social Research Council, my first project involved interviews with doctoral students and supervisors in two subject fields and three universities. Multiple ‘unknowns’ surfaced:

  1. the research assistant went on long-term sick leave and I was required to keep paying her;
  2. the transcriptionist was finishing up the typing around the time the project was due to end;
  3. a qualitative analysis software program, new at the time, was in the plan but it turned out that the transcripts should have been typed in a special format; and
  4. my departure from the university in mid-project required a new PI be appointed.

While these events were ‘unknowns’, they also reflected my inexperience, lack of mentorship and a too-short timeline.

Years later, I have taken a more thoughtful and disciplined approach to the ARICT project. Still, I cannot avoid multiple known unknowns. One co-investigator dropped out after taking on a new administrative responsibility at her university, leaving three co-investigators and two doctoral student assistants on the team with me. We have weathered the closure of a branch campus where one co-investigator worked; a promotion to a time-consuming academic administrative position for another; a move to another job and country for a third. One student graduated while the other moved to a new province and new job. Colleagues have dealt with migraines and concussions. While it could be anticipated that ‘things will happen’, their specificities are unknown. Nor could we prepare for another Rumsfeld category, the ‘unknown unknowns’: in this case the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic. Although we had completed the data collection, our travel and conference plans and our ability to meet and work face-to-face were seriously disrupted.


Despite the implication that a PI can control their project progress by thoughtful practice, it is important to acknowledge structural impediments such as limited budgets, funders’ rules and competing responsibilities, as well as the contingencies that arise. While I believe that PIs’ leadership should be acknowledged and often strengthened, circumstances do not always permit clear solutions. Thus imperfection is both predictable and forgivable. The ARICT participants complained about many things, but they also expressed considerable satisfaction embedded in the project work. With some foresight and reflexivity, being a PI can be less risky and more rewarding.

Author Bio:Sandra Acker is Professor Emerita in the Department of Social Justice Education, University of Toronto, Canada.