The Project Management Triangle

Applying project management fundamentals to graduate school
APR 2019
Integrated Design and Management

Graduate school is a wonderful time to indulge in research, fun side projects, and coursework. This is especially true at MIT, where opportunities are plentiful, whether it be startups, teaching, courses, or working with professors. This is both a blessing and curse, especially for someone like me, for whom saying no to exciting opportunities is very difficult. However, saying yes to everything is not sustainable and can lead to burnout. Therefore, the question is: how do I say yes without burning out or taking on too much?

Through my experience, what I’ve learned is that there is a method to this madness. While not foolproof, it has helped me not to miss out on exciting opportunities and to manage my time effectively. Today, as I write this, I am working on a startup with two classmates from MIT, managing a full course load, doing research with a professor, and leading an active social life. The way I’ve been able to do this is by applying project management fundamentals to each of my current or potential commitments.

What project management fundamentals teach us is that, at a high level, any project has three constraints: scope (workload), time (deadlines), and cost or resources (people, hardware, etc). These three constraints are commonly referred to as the “project management triangle”.

The way to apply this triangle is to think about how each constraint is impacted when another changes. For example, let’s say you are working on a startup with a confirmed product release date, but you fall behind. What would you do to remain on track? Because time cannot be increased, the other two constraints must be adjusted for you to remain on track. One option would be to increase cost by adding more resources to the project to still meet your deadline; another would be to reduce the scope of the release by reducing the number of features.

Similarly, this framework can be applied to graduate school life. Before taking on fun side projects, classes, or research, I think about their time, scope, and cost (the cost is often opportunity cost, i.e. other activities I give up by selecting to do this one). If I decide the opportunity is worth the required time investment, I think about the scope I can commit to (in other words, how involved I can be in the opportunity). For example, since I am currently doing a startup of my own, I don’t commit to side projects with friends, but offer to take on an advisory role; this strategy allows me to get involved but limits my scope. Similarly, for classes, I ensure that I can give the necessary time to each. I know that there is a certain opportunity cost for each class I take, which means it is important to carefully consider which classes I ultimately register for.

Applying this framework over the three years at MIT has not only helped me manage my time, but it continuously reminds me that everything I do requires a balance. You cannot invest 100% in every single activity. Happy time management!