Saturday, May 10, 2014

Do you have a 5-year academic plan?

Karen Kelsky, of The Professor is In, shares a success story of a student who had a 5-year plan in graduate school and is now about to win tenure at an R1. She shares one of the years of the student's calendar and adds the result. It's pretty inspiring:

This student obtained, in total, some $200,000 of research funding in graduate school (in cultural anthropology–a field that does not have massive grants), in addition to her basic TA funding package.  She had several publications before finishing, and secured a tenure track position at an R1 institution in her first year on the market.  She is solidly on track for tenure, and this past year she won another major research fellowship that gave her a year’s leave time for new fieldwork on a second project.
A calendar like this is a great idea in a lot of ways, and (I'm guessing) a lot of us have internalized a calendar something like this. Deadlines for Kalamazoo or MLA or CCCC are at such and such a time each year, grant deadlines are at always at a similar time, and so on.  I try to inform my students about deadlines in the field, too, so that they can develop a similar yearly calendar if they haven't already.

And Kelsky is also right that, as they say about the lottery, you can't win if you don't play. If you do submit to a conference or put in a grant proposal, there's a chance you'll be rejected, but if you don't submit anything, there's a 100% chance you won't get to present at a conference or get funded.

The only thing I'd add to this plan is this: it helps with a good outcome, but it can't guarantee one, because the ultimate results are often not in your hands.  You have to be flexible.

  • Grants don't always happen; in fact, grants usually don't happen. The NEH funds about 6% of applications for individuals. What if, as is likely, you're among the 94% that didn't get funded? What's your Plan B? It's like being a prospective college student, in a way: what if you don't get into Stanford or your equally competitive first choice?
  • Publications don't always happen, either, or at least not on a schedule and timeline that's going to facilitate the outcome you want. Your article may get rejected more than once, or your research plans may be disrupted due to a lack of funding (see above).
  • Your writing might not take the direction you've planned, either. Maybe what you thought was a straightforward topic with a clear timeline turns out to be more complex than you thought, or you need more research than you thought, or you just plain need to think longer and harder about it than you originally planned. 
  • Opportunities can arise that aren't in your plan. Serendipity happens, but rarely on a schedule (or else it wouldn't be serendipity). Are you going to say yes, and, if so, how does that affect your plan? 
  • Sometimes life intervenes: you get the flu, or have a baby, or your family gets sick and you have to care for them. 
  • Also, money isn't a part of this plan. What if you have to teach more to make more money so that you can go to conferences, or you can't afford to go to a major conference because it's being held overseas or far away? A conference costs, on average, at least $1500 unless you can drive to it; research trips cost more; and if you're turned down for a travel grant, how will you accomplish these goals? 
As a fan of charts, I like the idea of a 5-year plan in theory, but with some flexibility built into it. Do you have a plan like this?


Flavia said...

I have a very loose plan, in the sense of "in five years, I'd like to have..." or "in five years, I'd like to be able to...", but I don't have a list of specific sub-goals written down.

For me, part of the goal of a five-year plan is to keep my eyes on the prize and not to obsess about the next six months or year or why things don't look different right now.

So generally my goals are something like, "in 3-5 years, I'd like to be able to run for chair without crippling my research agenda or working about making full," or, "in five years, I want to be in a position to be able to move to a fancier job, with tenure, if the right job opened up."

That means I keep publishing steadily and applying for grants, looking out for opportunities, and thinking strategically about whether it makes sense to go up for full early or late, or taking on this service chore or that--but it does not mean freaking out about why X hasn't happened by Y date, or despairing that a particular article didn't get placed with the first (or second) journal I sent it to, or why I applied for four fellowships and didn't get any. The goal is meant to guide and shape local decisions and keeps me on track, but not something to beat myself up about.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm a long-time fan of medium-term plans like this, but I've lately had to moderate a bit, because I find I get too attached to the outcomes (many of which, as you point out, our outside our control), and this can lead to some serious unhappiness when they don't turn out. Lately, I've been more focused on the process than the goal: What do I want to be doing this semester/summer/year? The outcomes are still there in my mind, but -- if I may use some terminology from my yoga -- they're more "intentions" than "goals," as in, "This is the direction I'm heading." I find that if I focus on the daily/weekly process, the outcomes take care of themselves in one way or another.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Everything you've said is even more true, I think, for the mid-career non-tenure-track academic (and no, that really isn't an oxymoron anymore; in addition to long-term part-time contingent/adjuncts, there are a number of us in full-time continuing positions, some even with multi-year contracts that may invite just this sort of interval-based thinking, with an extra edge of anxiety thrown in). Contingent positions involve a sort of enforced flexibility, including being able to envision answers to questions like: "what would I do if my job disappeared next year? in five years? in ten years? 15?" -- with the later periods beginning to coincide with the period when people may begin to think one is ready for retirement, but one won't be, from a financial perspective.

Throw in "at what age does it no longer make sense to factor the possibility of getting a tenure-track position into the equation?" and it's additionally anxiety-inducing (or, rather, perhaps that's how I discover that I do, in fact, want to keep doing research, and therefore need that excuse for continuing to do research, even though at this point it may just be a hobby that distracts me from paths that might be more lucrative and, therefore, wiser).

Sisyphus said...

I wonder what sort of 5 year plan faculty should make at community colleges? I have no idea.

But I love making lists! Maybe that's all you need.

undine said...

Flavia, your 5-year plan sounds a lot like mine: a general sense of where you'd like to be without the despair that could go along with having your heart set on something more exact.

Notorious--Intentions rather than specific goals sounds like a good way to put it. Focusing on the weekly rather than the yearly would probably make the large things take care of themselves, as you say.

Contingent Cassandra--Yes, even more true for NTT faculty. The "if you build it, they will come" and "if you work, they will hire you" mentality makes me uncomfortable for exactly those reasons, and maybe some of the "I quit academia" rage is due to believing that positive thinking in this regard has an effect on other people's actions.

Sisyphus--List mania! I do think that they help.

Z said...

I used to have such things as 5 year plans but am only now getting back to them.

You have to have a certain amount of power and status to have them. Otherwise a one-year plan is the only thing you can go for.