Time for a plan?

I was a bit surprised recently to realise how many of my young colleagues have well thought out strategies for their careers.

One early career colleague has a long-term career goal and an uncompromising plan to get there. He has thought about his skills and interests and how he can differentiate himself in a tight job market. He has a series of steps planned to reach the long-term objective.

I have another friend whose career plans is tightly coupled to a personal plan. Each year is divided into career objectives and personal goals, including allocations of time for travel, renovations, weddings etc. The 5-year plan features kids and high impact publications.

I’ve also been more of a “do what I want, when I want” kind of person. I started my research fellowship recently and for the most part have been relishing the autonomy.  However, I was a little surprised that starting on my own grant money was accompanied by a stratospheric spike in stress and activity levels.

This seems to be a common experience. Young academics are intimately aware of the capricious nature of employment in the industry. A stable career is commonly desired, but   rarely obtained. Typically, young academics work hard but are also realistic about outcomes and try to keep a range of doors open for as long as possible.

For many, starting a research fellowship is the first tangible signal that an academic career might actually be possible. Instead of settling in to three years of undivided attention on research, many new grantees make a concerted effort to fragment their time in different directions in the aim of looking like an attractive hire.

I have several young friends who have simultaneously started a grant and recognised significant gaps in experience that they then scramble to fill before their grant money evaporates. Research is then balanced with trying to get some teaching experience, or contribute to a department through service. A successful postdoc application or grant proposal goes hand-in-hand with a “what next?”.

I’m very grateful for the opportunity afforded to me through my fellowship, but have also been following this long-trodden route of scrambling to work out what’s next and where I’m heading. And it seems like it’s finally time to think strategically.

It’s a tight balance to work out how much I should invest in the present in order both to nurture career satisfaction and happiness, and to meet the expectations for my current grant funders. And then how can I balance these demands with working towards future goals?

How much teaching is enough to show that you have the potential to be a good lecturer? How much time spent in service your own department is enough to show you are collegial person who contributes positively? How much do you have to do to show that you are leader in your discipline who doesn’t shy away for service and hard work? How many publications are enough?

It’s risky to invest all your energy in a long-term outcome that is unlikely to eventuate while forgoing short-term enjoyment. But it’s equally thoughtless to invest only in short-term career gains and satisfactions, only to find you have neglected something important.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be a 5-year life and work plan type of person, but it seems like it is about time I thought more deliberately about what I’m doing and why.

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