Saturday, May 5, 2012

Project Job Hunt: Risk Assessments

Risk Assessment is the part of Project Management that I'd like to learn more about.  It seems very relevant for research.  The Project, as defined, relies on the success of all the outcomes.  In science we are more likely to take on projects that aren't guaranteed to succeed compared to other fields (cure for cancer vs. build a better tooth brush).  Risk Assessment is meant to look at the various components of the project, consider how they might negatively impact the success of the project and make choices about how to deal with those eventualities during planning.  What if you sat down at the beginning of your dissertation and your PI said, "I'd like you to cure brain cancer.  If that doesn't work, you should probably characterize the ways that curing brain cancer is different than treating other cancers.  Either way, you can publish and graduate."  Even though this is eventually what happens to most of us, this is more likely to happen in year five than year 1.

Risk should be identified in the planning stage, and decisions should be made about each risk.  These should be assessed from both quantitatively and qualitatively.  Will you spend all the remaining grants funds to solve this problem?  Will you be too beat down and burned out after tackling this to ever lay eyes on another pipette ever again?  Things that put the project off schedule or budget are more quantitative, those that negatively impact the team or the quality are quality issues.  Should these risks be mitigated, transferred, deferred, reduced, shared, accepted or avoided?  Let me present research relevant examples for each, because I am studying.

There is a risk that you might have the wrong construct from a previous student- you mitigate that risk by sequencing or otherwise verifying the identity before doing any real experiments with it.  I often struggled to grow the quantities of HeLa cells I needed for my experiments, the risk was transferred when I bought the cells I needed.  Some risks are deferred, you wait to run those expensive follow-up experiments that might derail the project until after the grant renewal.  Always running multiple samples and controls reduces the risk that you are just viewing and anomaly.  Taking on a collaborator can help share risks in a productive way- you can't do MUD-PIT, and they don't know much about growing yeast- sharing risk can decrease it as well.  In research especially, there is a high probability that whatever we are working on might not work- we accept that risk, including the consequences on time, money and talent.  The alternative is to avoid it, don't run experiments that you don't have confidence in, staying away from high risk-high reward avenues. 

What does this mean for my Job Hunt Project?  Well, I go back and look at each of those tasks, and try to think about what failure might look like.  Some of this is just more rigorous quality control- I'll be sharing the documents (CV, Resume etc) I create with peers to be sure that I am presenting myself well.  One reason it is important to do this in the planning stage is that risk assessment might create new tasks, which will need to be incorporated into the plan/schedule downstream.  Since this is such an important idea, I am going to split this into two posts- my next post will provide the actual risk assessment.

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