Module one: how to not panic manage your first assignment

5 minute read

Life on the MSc in Major Programme Management is about balance, with a full-time job and family duties locked in a tug-of-war with academic responsibilities without respite. Hardly breaking news. Nevertheless, how does a battle-tested project manager and major programme management aspirer fall victim to dipping into the trappings of resorting to panic management principles?

A little misbalancing here, a dab of faulty forecasting there, an overreliance on ‘what worked before’ everywhere… is it any surprise megaprojects fail so often? Thankfully, the scale is tuned way down on your first assignment, despite what pressure, hope, and aspiration might suggest.

Let’s look at a few aspects of my assignment writing process to maximise the odds of success and make your life easier throughout. Hopefully, some of my smart (and not-so-smart) decisions can help you along your way.

Schedule: Follow Guy’s advice!

All-nighters as an undergrad? Par for the course.

All-nighters during an MBA? Badge of honour.

All-nighters for the MMPM? Abject nightmare.

An all-nighter is, naturally, the most extreme form of panic management and (hopefully) not employed by any of my colleagues (I was, admittedly, getting low on sleep but not quite that low!)

Programme Director, Professor Guy Ainsley, wisely warns, from the outset, not to backload your work at any point of the module. When it comes to assignment production, he couldn’t have been more correct.

Recall all those hours spent on bibliography formatting, re-reading for typos, or figure, fact, and quote hunting that you perennially under-planned for during your bachelor’s? Amp those up with the pressure of meeting Oxford-level quality of output and the unique set of administrative hurdles to clear en route to submission. A logistical track field, it is.

Oh, did someone say ‘administrative hurdles?’ Well, well, well now…

Tech and admin: set it up. Now. Go. Do it now. I mean now

Let’s assume that disaster does not strike (ie your Wi-Fi does not conk out – a very real possibility – so have that mobile hot spot at the ready) when submission deadline looms.
Studying at Saïd Business School brings with it a wealth of resources and tools that alone are worth the price of admission. Being a School scholar also bears the highest of standards in excellence, security, and confidentiality. It’s part of what makes the School and larger University worthy of its lofty reputation.

To make use of these, however, requires a significant user-driven commitment. Citation guides, platform logins, plagiarism tools and guides, formatting rules… everything from metadata removal to idea attribution to word counts require the strictest attention to detail and can seriously contribute to panic management if not given.

Don’t risk a last-minute 2FA failure locking you out of clearing these hurdles.

Notes: digi-pen ‘em?

Skipping into the study style preference realm, leveraging past study techniques is a great starting point but be prepared to adopt new tactics despite their unfamiliarity.

I’ll be honest, I made the mistake of trying something too new, too ambitious. I jumped fully into a ‘take handwritten notes throughout the readings’ strategy. After all, it has been proven to be the most effective means of material comprehension and retention. As a bonus, it reduces screen time and enables one to work longer and more effectively.

The proof was in the pudding… at least at first taste. It worked incredibly well for class discussions when material seemed to come back more naturally than past techniques yielded.
What I hadn’t fully anticipated was the impact it would have on the writing process. With a wealth (think encyclopaedic) of material to draw upon, sifting through it to find supporting evidence or past insights turned out to be an impediment, particularly as we got to crunch time.

It’s no fun wondering ‘what if?’, especially given each assignment bears the full weight of your module grade and is a minor source of regret even weeks removed from submission.


Workstation: re(set) it up for success

My guess is, post-pandemic, your at-home workstation is probably already pretty optimised. That said, I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a supportive chair, an adequately sized desk, good lighting, and a hassle-free tech set-up.

I moved to Oxford for the programme and spent a fair amount of time resetting my workstation after the first experience of back pain in my new environment; I wasn’t risking any recurrence during the writing process and quickly found a proper external monitor, layout, and made other purchases to propel my productivity (a nod to plants: love a great desk plant).

Recognise that video calls will take a back seat to paper scattering and how the different type of work involved in assignment writing requires corresponding tweaks to your set-up. A mock run-through of how you envision working might be a worthwhile exercise. I was surprised how often I still propped up my tablet in a vertical orientation next to my 27” display.

It might be a bit more of an investment but, trust me, it undoubtedly will yield a worthwhile ROI.


Self-care: you are not in this alone

If the pandemic brought us one here-to-stay positive change, it’s the emphasis on our collective mental health. Along with proper task and time management, self-care management must be equally and regularly attended to.

Study sessions with colleagues are fantastic; they can inspire both in ideation as well as motivation. Group chats are invaluable; they can serve as a much-needed outlet as much as a source for a lightning-fast answer to a question.

Screen breaks are non-negotiable; they can double or triple your productivity for hours with just 15 minutes of investment. Earned indulgences are savoured; that chocolate, espresso, or bag of crisps tastes ever sweeter and can keep your sanity in check.

Whatever picks you up, rewards you, calms you… put aside justification and judgement. ‘Just do it.’

Onto module two: transition away!

Having completed my own post-mortem of sorts, I’ve identified a few of the low-hanging fruit and deepest pitfalls to make the necessary adjustments to avoid any repeats of history.
For those embarking on their first assignment, I implore you to use whatever means of the above can help you, similarly avoid the trappings of managing panic instead of production; your grade (and health!) will thank you after.

MSc Major Programme Management