This is a guest post from frequent Hook and Eye commenter, prolific scholar, and all round awesome person Julie Rak, Professor, Dept. of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta. Thanks so much to Julie for sharing her insight with us, and also (urp) for her tremendous patience as I dilly-dallied getting this posted. This post really resonated with me, and while it’s pitched to the professoriate, there’s something useful in thinking through a graduate degree as a five year plan, too.
And so on to Julie …
As a reader of Hook and Eye, I am interested in how people newer to the profession than I am think about their work lives. A quick scan of the keywords for different Hook and Eye entries recently showed me something interesting in this regard. There are no keywords for “research planning.” There’s a post about “planners” and quite a few about work-life balance (see “best-laid plans” and the popular “saving my sanity”). There’s a few more about conference papers and writing. But there’s not so much about research life or about planning it for the long term. So, I thought that I’d write something about adapting that time-honoured radical socialist approach to facilitating change, the five year plan as imagined by Trotsky, for your research.
Having a plan is a good plan
No matter whether you are a graduate student or a full professor in the postsecondary system, you should have a long-term plan for your research career. It’s a central aspect to becoming a professional, and it’s something that we should keep on doing, throughout our careers. Otherwise, we live in a state of anxiety (omiGOD how am I going to get this essay/conference paper/grant/thesis/book/ANYTHING done) and we become reactive with regards to our careers, rather than proactive. We start responding to what others want (or what we imagine they want) and not to what we actually need or can reasonably achieve. I would say that this is particularly true for female academics, who often are asked to take up tasks for the good of a group or community. In short, we are asked to give to others because we are women, and because we are women, it can be hard to say no to the requests or demands of others. Planning is essential as you move through each stage of your research career arc so that you are not just reacting to what others want.
Since many of us came into the academy because we love research, planning for what we love can give us a measure of power and autonomy in our lives. It can help us make informed decisions about our careers. When you’re a student, other people make plans for you, and you respond to them. But when you stop being a student and start being a scholar, you’re in the driver’s seat of your research life and the course you set is your own. This can be intimidating, particularly as you move from one stage of your career to another.
I am a bit of a magpie as a scholar. I get interested in a lot of shiny objects (or ideas) and I want to pursue all of them. But realistically, I can’t. It also turns out that as you become more senior in academic life, you are asked to do more. It’s hard not to say “yes” just because you are asked. This past year, I did say “yes” to too much, and I ran out of steam. So in March 2014, I sat down and did a five year research plan to see where I was at and what I should do.
A five year plan
Here’s what I did for my recent plan. I listed these areas:
- Research Goals
- Current Projects
- Results (Books, Edited Books, Conferences, essays, conference papers, grants, public talks)
- Timeline, by year (2014-2019)
My research goals are all the things I want to do by 2019. They range from the immediate (finish a conference paper), to the extended (write an article per year) to the long-term (run a kickass international research project). Then I listed all my current projects, whether they are large or small. That was an eye-opener. Some projects have nothing to do with my goals. What the heck am I doing them for? No wonder I am overwhelmed! I assigned priorities for my projects in light of what my goals are.
Then I made a Results list and keyed it to my Projects. That was interesting too: I could see that my work tends to cluster at certain times, probably because I say “yes” to too much. I could see too that I am prone to agreeing to do some things which, given my larger goals, maybe I shouldn’t. If I do agree to something, I should make sure that it’s in line with my goals and current projects.
I keyed that projects list to my timeline. I have a lot of things wrapping up in 2014, as it turns out. By 2017, I don’t have a lot there. I could tell from the timeline that I tend to react to opportunities and not plan for them. And I am very optimistic about how long it takes to do a project.
As I moved things around to make my life look less hectic, I thought about the latter years of the plan. What long-term things do I really want to do? What do I need to have in place in order to realize my goals? When I started listing what my desires really were and keying in how to plan for them, I learned a lot about what kind of research I want to do at this stage in my career. And, for the first time in awhile, I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I could see what I should prioritize, and what I should just let go. I realized that I don’t have to do everything all at once. For a type-A person like me, that’s a big relief.
Doing a plan like this shouldn’t be another occasion for guilt. We are all going to be surprised by opportunities in our work lives, so it’s a good idea to go back and review goals, shuffle priorities and revise the plan from time to time. In a few months, I’ll look at my plan again and see where I’m at with it.
Control what you can control
Whether we have permanent academic jobs or want them, one of the features of academic life is that we have a lot of control over what we decide to do as researchers and how we’re going to do it (this is what we really learn to do in graduate school). But one of the trickiest things about working in the postsecondary system is that aspects of that control are in fact given to others. We can propose a research goal, create a plan and apply to SSHRC, NEH or NSERC for the money, but we don’t have control over whether we get the funding or not. We can submit a paper to the best journal in our field, but we can’t control how long it takes to receive a decision, or what the decision will be.
Having a research plan means that we do get control over what it is possible to control. When we are successful, it feels great. When we’re not, at least planning means that we can choose another path and learn from what happened. Our sense of self-worth does not have to be keyed to how successful we are, but to how we are working to realize our goals. And no matter what, the decisions we make can be in line with what our values are, and what kind of people we want to be, at work and in the other parts of our lives.