5 tips for how to make graduate school group projects hurt just a little less

There are three weeks left in the semester, and your group project is off the rails. One person’s grandmother got sick, and all her data went back home with her. She was the only one keeping the peace between two other people in the group that can barely be in the same coffeeshop together. Your last meeting got cancelled because no one remembered that there was a football game, which means there’s no parking anywhere. Then there’s that one “leader” whose body language screams “This would be going way better if only everyone had done exactly what I’d suggested the first time around.”

Lots of graduate programs stick students in groups. They almost always go sideways, and not in the “valuable learning experience” sort of way.* Can they be better? As part of the Qualitative Research Methods class I am assistant teaching this fall, I gave our students five tips for how to make their group projects suck a little less:

  1. Play ball. It’s easy to be the team member that points out flaws in new ideas or, even worse, to paper over them with “better” ones. Instead, figure out how to move the ball forward from wherever the group is right now. Go deeper with Improv Wisdom, a book my colleagues and I deploy regularly in our work.
  2. Learn your group members’ expectations for this group–and history with previous group projects. Most people have group project baggage. Everyone will have a different goal for the group project, from “I’m just trying to get to Christmas break, man” to “I plan to work this into my next research project.” Get used to working together (robustly) despite the absence of a coherent, shared vision.
  3. Consciously treat the project as both as a means and as an end. For a group of American philosophers that call themselves the Pragmatists, the idea that means and ends are distinct is pretty silly (nerds, more here). Group projects can be means to many ends: A letter grade, knowledge in a particular field, or finally proving to your uncle how smart you are. But it can also be an end of its own. Figure out how to make doing the project more fun / interesting to you. Example: I used mine to do an expert interview with a evolutionary psychology grad student that helped me understand why men put animals in their online dating profiles.
  4. Begin with the end in mind. Start at the end! Ask the professor for examples of previously excellent work, and create drafts of your final presentations in week one. Then you’re just filling in bullet points, and (bonus!) creating built-in resistance to overthinking it, the favorite pastime of graduate students.
  5. Design conversations carefully. Consider pretending you’re a startup, and have 15m stand-up meetings. Don’t brainstorm for longer than 10 minutes at a time. Decide in advance how much time a particular question gets of your limited group time. Oh, and pick a mostly inviolable weekly group meeting time (which is usually easier if it’s shorter).

As always: What am I missing? What am I wrong about? What should I learn next? My friend Augusta has already suggested one addition:

*At least mine do. Then again, I am the common variable in every one of the group projects I’ve helped go sideways. 

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