Software for project management/RA management/etc. in the Social Sciences?

Some of this post may be out of date– I started it something like 4 years ago(!)  UPDATE:  6 years ago (!)  All of the cost numbers below are at least two years out of date.

Spoiler:  What I’m currently using is Trello for project-based assignments in conjunction with Gmail for weekly assignments.  I also have one project on Github, but Github is not great for social scientists and it’s slow and clunky compared to Trello.  It has additional features, but they’re just not optimized for what we need.

When I was on leave, I thought it would be nice to figure out a program management methodology that was better than my gmail assignment method, which worked well when I had 1-2 very good RAs who could follow instructions, but not so well if I got more RAs or they were incapable of replying directly to the assignment email despite multiple reminders and a pop quiz during training (to be fair, these folks generally weren’t great at actually doing the tasks assigned either).

So I asked famous economists what they used and I asked grad students and new assistant professors what they used and just generally listened to people discussing this topic.  The idea would be to use whatever everyone else was using which would make collaboration easier going forward.  Economists tend to use dropbox instead of drive or OneDrive any other program (though some of my interdisciplinary collaborators are completely on Drive and not dropbox…) and we tend to use Stata instead of R or SPSS (though some people use R and some people use SAS), and just using those choices makes life a lot easier.

PivotalTracker?  MavenLink?  MS BaseCamp?  Jira? Trello?  Slack?  Google Tasks?

One of my colleagues likes Basecamp.  He thought Jira was too involved. He preferred TortoiseSVN to Github, which are both good at file management, but not great for project management.

I have not looked into kanbanflow.  Recently I’ve been getting a lot of ads for Asana, but haven’t looked into that either.

Pivotal tracker is free for academic use.

Github is different, it is more for storing text files and is really focused on computer programs.  You can set it up like a kanban board but it is slow and clunky.

The following is from 2+ years ago, so prices etc. may have changed:

I went through the different project management software options. Below I listed the prices, pros, and cons of them. Overall, I don’t think it would be necessary to pay for anything. The ones that require a subscription usually include a lot of features that are not necessary, like help budgeting or performance data.

Trello seems pretty easy to use, is free, and lets you organize and assign tasks fairly simply. You can also attach documents through Trello.

Another option that might be worth looking into is Dropbox Paper. It lets you use your Dropbox account to make task lists easily and is more customizable than other options. That might be a good option because it would not require a new account and would allow you to move things around and keep things in a central location. You can also obviously share documents through Dropbox and Dropbox Paper lets you link in Dropbox documents easily.

I think switching to either of those systems would not require a huge amount of setup since they both seem fairly straightforward and customizable. The advantages would be that it would be easier to keep track of tasks over time and across multiple RAs. Tasks would be stored in the same place, clearly assigned to different people, and you can check them off when they are done.


Probably free as they offer a free, sponsored version for academic institutions if you request it. Otherwise, $12.50/month gets you 5 people and up to 5 projects
Pros: It is designed to be collaborative so you can see what people are working on.
Cons: It is designed for software development. It appears harder to learn and not very flexible. Mostly it looks like a way to boost productivity, or “velocity” as PivotalTracker calls it, by tracking software developers as they complete tasks. People earn “points” when they complete “stories”, but it doesn’t look like things can be prioritized or that you can make notes for partial completion or other things. This is very much geared toward software development.


$19/mo for up to five users
Pros: This is designed specifically to be collaborative and to allow for you to assign tasks and see everything you have assigned and what has been completed.
Cons: This does a lot that is not needed. It is designed to manage tasks but also manage budgets so it can be used to record billable hours and send invoices. It likely will require a bit of a learning curve to start.

MS BaseCamp

$99/month for as many users as you want
Pros: Allows for projects to have multiple to do lists under them, fairly simple to use. It is easy to assign tasks to specific people and allows for other ways to share things such as a message board and a place to share documents.
Cons: Mainly, this is very expensive because it does way more than manage two student workers.

Pros: Straightforward for arranging tasks. Multiple people can use a board for tasks and you can assign tasks to certain people in the board. You can add due dates and change columns depending on what you want. The standard columns are To Do, In Progress, Done.
Cons: You cannot use this to send attachments, so it can only be used to arrange tasks.


Free (options to upgrade, but the free version seems sufficient)
Pros: Very customizable, you just create lists with tasks in them. You could create a list for each RA, or a list for each project, or just a to, in progress, and completed list. Tasks can be assigned to individual people. It can be used to send documents.
Cons: Likely has a small learning curve.


There is a free version that is probably enough. Otherwise, $8 per month + $6.67 per user per month
Pros: It works very similarly to email but in message format. You have the option of sending messages in a public forum or privately to team members. It is easily searchable. You can organize messages into channels based on the project or based on who you want in the conversation. You can include attachments the same way you would with email,
Cons: It seems like it is mostly just a chatroom for businesses. It seems like it has a lot of hype and users, but I am not convinced it is very different from email except it has a more “instantaneous” feel to it because it is messaging.

Google Tasks

Pros: It is synced with your existing Google account so it will be easy to set up. You can send other people a task list and people can put emails into their task list.
Cons: It is not a terribly collaborative feature. You can send people a task list and put emails into your to do list, but you cannot really have two people editing a single to do list it seems. I am not even sure if you would be able to see other people’s tasks, so once it is sent is is essentially no different from emails, although possibly easier for the receiver to keep track of each task.

Dropbox Paper

Pros: Relies on existing Dropbox accounts, so you can send links to documents that way. It is essentially a document that you can add task lists and other notes to as needed. You can assign tasks to people and rearrange them as necessary. There is a lot of flexibility in what is put in and you can do things like tasks and subtasks.
Cons: This is essentially self-organized so it is not that different from any Word Document that you wanted to make a To Do list on, except it it a little easier to set up and more collaborative.

The bottom line seems to be that any system will work if you put enough effort into it and no system will work if you don’t put effort into it.  Very few people felt that the start-up costs were worth it.

Do you use any project management software?  How do you organize your projects?

13 Responses to “Software for project management/RA management/etc. in the Social Sciences?”

  1. rose Says:

    Absolute gratitude here that I do not face this issue.
    Thank you for expanding my horizons into areas I am glad not do not involve me.
    Looking forward to comments and learning more.

  2. yetanotherpfblog Says:

    I use Trello. It works.

  3. cfroning Says:

    I used a product called Glip, which was like Slack but with built-in to-do lists and file sharing. It was quite good but it was rolled into RingCentral, where you seem to have to pay now (because it includes phone?), and I can’t speak to whether it is worth the monthly fee.

    I have played with KanbanFlow and I like it, though it can be a bit fiddly for R&D tasks: how do you determine a task is done? (This is a general problem with PM software. I am currently managing a $10M build in Project and it is terrible for tracking projects where you are doing something that has never been done before, with people who are don’t actually work for you and have other responsibilities–e.g., academia.)

  4. cfroning Says:

    I will say I think Slack is better than email because you can organize channels for sub-topics (without worrying that you forgot to cc: the right people), have private conversations, support add-ons like Google docs, etc. It quickly gets out of hand if used for everything all the time, but for small to medium groups it has a lot of utility. It is not a good archive, unless you pay, because you will eventually exceed your post limit in the free version and old information will begin to go away.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I did use Slack on a project once and it was like an entire forum! But it did run into the post limit problem. DH uses it at work, but they also use like 5 different project management packages (also JIRA and GitHub, and a couple more I don’t know)

  5. Alice Says:

    I suspect that I’m tempting fate by saying so, but– I’m glad that none of my clients use any of these. They just seem so involved, and I doubt every company I work with would land on using the same one. So much easier to just have them say, “we need it asap, when can you get it to us?”

  6. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    I don’t end up liking anyone’s project management software enough to keep using it longer term but the one I stuck with the longest was Trello. The set up is great, I just do not optimize it properly. My mind is a mishmash of organized and chaos and the path I’m going to prefer at any given time is unpredictable.

  7. gwinne Says:

    I’ve used Asana for my own projects. It would probably work well for project management including others. It’s streamlined, intuitive, and doesn’t feel like social media. There is a space to attach files, though I tend to forget that.

    At work I’ve been in groups that used Microsoft Teams which is okay, for a combo of instant messaging, file storage, and so on.

  8. Cloud Says:

    I can’t believe I missed this post when you first posted it! I work in scientific software not social sciences, but have used or at least tried out most of the options you listed. Sadly, I have been so heads down busy at work that I am missing all sorts of things.

    But even though I am very late to the party, I have to say… I’ve done some consulting work on project management with academics and it does seem that Trello is the tool that clicks best with most academics. I cannot explain why, but it is the one people seem to keep using.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      What do you like best?

      • Cloud Says:

        I like whatever my team will use, to be honest. I use JIRA a lot at work, but that would be overkill for most academics unless you’re doing a lot of coding. I used Trello when I was an independent contractor, but what I really use for myself is a whiteboard kanban board and a paper daily to do list. When working with a team, I do a project plan/work breakdown structure to understand dependencies among the various tasks in the project and then will use whatever task tracking system the team will use. I find kanban boards work best but the specific tool doesn’t really matter. The exception is software development projects, for which I think scrum is usually better and you need a ticket tracking system that integrates with the code base – so usually JIRA.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: