Saturday, April 20, 2013

Advance planning: the benefits of the 0, 18 or 60 month plans

As I start the lab I am trying to figure out where things are going to go in the future and come up with a career development plan. The information on career planning out there is varied and I picked a few suggestions I like.

A 60-month plan. I have been reading a great blog called The Professor Is In, which is run by a former college professor turned career advisor for younger academics. Even if you do not hire her for her services, the blog is great and it covers everything from career planning to what to wear for an interview to how to network. The Professor firmly supports a need for a 5-year plan, nicely structured month by month in an Excel spreadsheet where you identify all the deadlines you are planning to meet. This is not your run of the mill 5-year plan where you daydream about where you want to be in 5 years, this is a place where you can write down grant deadlines, conference deadlines, paper deadlines for years in advance and foresee what you are going to do March 15th two years from now. I am a compulsive planner and list maker, so the 5-year plan spreadsheet was very appealing to me. Grant deadlines are similar from year to year and conferences are planned years in advance, so after a few Google searches I had a nice detailed plan for the first 5 years of the lab. While I think this is great, since it forced me to look for a lot of grant sources and integrate my current plan for publications with grant deadlines, none of this may ever happen, as the plan keeps changing on me, so in the framework of a 5-year plan shorter plans may be in order.

An 18-month plan. I just finished reading Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In. I have been a long-term Sandberg's fan and followed some of her advice, but this is another story for another post. In Lean In she proposes an 18-month plan, which is not as short as 1 year, but not as daunting as 2 years. The goal is to set an 18-month deadline for improvement or career development: you can either want to develop a skill, enter a new field, set a deadline for funding or publication of a particular project, develop a course. In her formulation, this is not as detailed as having a monthly spreadsheet, but it could also be used as a shorter version of the 5-year plan by planning actual deadlines for only one and a half year at a time, while keeping in mind longer terms obligations, such as when you are supposed to teach for a semester or when you are going up for tenure.

A 0 to 6-month plan. Finally there is who says that planning is futile, that your research will change completely and that your deadlines will fluctuate. I have heard from a few friends that within a year of starting your lab, your goals may have changes completely because the science took unexpected turns, and all the detailed experiment you had planned are not happening. Writing a particular grant may be postponed and other interesting deadlined may come up randomly following a friend's suggestion. Maybe a shorter 3-6 month plan is more realistic and you need to just think in the shorter term to hit specific deadlines without feeling the overwhelming weight of the future. Somewhat like being on a diet where losing 5 lbs in the short term is much less daunting than setting out to lose 30 lbs.

All three options have their pros and cons. I respond well to detailed long-term planning, but at the same time, I am very flexible when the plans do not go the way I planned. Someone who gets discouraged if plans are not kept, may find detailed long-term planning depressing and may prefer the 3-6 month timeline. Overall, I think a combination of the three may be possible with a detailed 6-month plan, a looser but definitive 18-month plan and general broad stroke plan between month 19 and 60. Maybe it's time to revise my 5-year plan spreadsheet and see how it goes.

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