How to make yourself think strategically

I’m a fickle person. My research strategy is based on the “shiny things” concept.  I see something shiny I like and I collect it. I exaggerate my attention span, but only slightly and I now have a long track record of giving very little long-term thought to my research strategy.

I started my PhD without a thesis or supervisor in mind, and tumbled into an existing, externally funded research project. When my PhD situation soured, I changed the direction of my research, both for convenience and interest. When I finished my PhD, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, or even whether I wanted to stay in academia. I eventually accepted a postdoc, thinking it was work I’d be interested in doing, the people seemed super nice and the location was ideal.

It’s only in the last year or two that I’ve been able to force myself to think a little more strategically about what I’m doing and why, instead of just leapfrogging around. When the end date of my first postdoc was looming, I had a chance to think a little more clearly about what skills and experiences I wanted in my next postdoc. Shortly after I started my second postdoc, I wrote my first major grant proposal. This was another chance to stop, breathe and think. Instead of jumping around to what was fun or easy or shiny, I made myself take the time to think through which research questions really interested me, what would be a good niche for my skills and how I could learn new things that built on my existing experiences.

I still have a strong tendency to lurch around. After I’ve submitted a paper, or finished a major set of analysis, I usually have to stop myself chasing something new and different.  Here are a few things I’m learning about strategic thinking.

Big changes are big opportunities

It’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day monotony and pressures of research. Changing jobs, writing a proposal, moving interstate or coming back from extended leave are all chances to stop and think. I still find it astounding that in the business of thinking, we have so little time for thinking. These periodic and seismic changes in our work arrangements give us a rare chance to think.

When I changed jobs between my first and second postdocs mid last year, I gave myself some time to think. I read papers. I talked to people. I jotted down random notes that made little sense afterwards. I spent a couple of months floating along and eventually my interests revealed themselves to me. Around this time, I was preparing to write my first proposal for a major grant. These mental wandering were invaluable for deciding what I was interested in, unclouded by all the well-meaning but unasked-for advice I had received. I had to actively convince myself that this wasn’t wasted time of poor productivity and rather that it was setting me up on a good direction.

Don’t just make a weekly plan

I love to make lists! I have lists of daily tasks, lists of weekly tasks, lists of priority tasks, lists of deadlines, lists of groceries, lists of imminent bills and of course, lists of key lists. Towards the end of week, I’ll begin to write a list of tasks for the next week, which will fill out as the days tick by. Weekly lists are great for time management, but you also need to look up and keep sight of where you are headed.

At the end of each year, I like to think about my goals for the following year. I’ll write down my research, teaching and service priorities. Which papers am I keen to write? What service opportunities am I missing? What type of skills am I most interested in filling out?  My 2015 plan had four key foci. I wanted to prioritise grant writing, paper writing, a particular aspect of service and writing a book. I then filled out each of these and wrote a map for 2015. This is particularly important, not just for focusing on particular tasks but also for avoiding distractions. It’s easy to get distracted by the fun stuff that fills up an inbox – guest lectures, interviews or opportunities for co-authorship, but time spent on distractions might be taking you away from the skills and experiences you really want to build.

Make the most of performance reviews

In addition to loving lists, I also love performance reviews. They are another great opportunity to think more explicitly about how you are going and where. Most of my meetings with my supervisors are focused on the nitty-gritty. Is this the best statistical analysis? Should we submit this to Journal A or Journal B? Can I have some extra time off around Christmas?  We rarely make the time to step back and talk about longer-term plans. Your annual performance review is a good chance to step back and look at where you’ve come from and where you are heading. Put some thought into it before you go in and try to enjoy the longer-term perspective.

Fickleness isn’t all bad

I’ve problematised my fickle research approach, but there’s certainly a place for it. Of course it’s exciting to pursue what interests you! Passionate research is useful and exciting. I’m not suggesting that anyone forces himself or herself to research into a particular niche because it’s strategic. Rather, fickle and strategic approaches should go together. By all means, jump around and enjoy getting distracted in fun. But occasionally step back and see if you’ve swerved somewhere you didn’t quite intend to.

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