This is why you should have a plan
Part I: plotting your course and following the GPS
*Note: before you start reading, be aware that you can substitute Ph.D. by any sizable project you are starting.
Did you know what you were getting into when you started your Ph.D.? I certainly didn’t. But the bigger problem was that I didn’t even know how to listen to understand what academia was like. I had developed a sort of tunnel vision focusing on the idea I had about how it would be like: a continuation of my bachelor’s and my master’s (spoiler alert: it’s very different). I’m not sure this was being naive or a mere protective mechanism. You know how parents think their kids are the best in the world? That’s the only way they endure all the sacrifices they have to make to raise them. It could be just that, in order to finish a Ph.D., you have to believe it’s going to be the best thing ever.
I remember a professor from my master’s tried to warn me about what I would find on the other side of the tunnel: slim chances of getting a job as a professor, high pressure to publish, and isolation, spending days and days alone writing articles. I didn’t understand what she was talking about. But thinking about it now, I wasn’t even capable of grasping her point. I now get her intention. She wasn’t trying to dissuade me from continuing the academic track —she actually encouraged me to go to a conference to meet some professors of the programs where I was applying (and where I eventually got in). What she was trying to do was simply giving me a complete picture of academia. She noticed I was a good student who enjoyed going to class and discussing the readings. But she knew I was only seeing that “cool” part of academia. So she tried to opened the door for me to see the not “shiny” corners.
Looking back, I’m really happy with the path I chose. I love the diversity and flexibility being a professor gives you. I have plenty of room to do whatever I want in my courses, to discuss things I find fascinating, and to see how my students' get those aha moments (my favorite part). I’m free to research whatever I want. I can adapt my schedule to buy groceries when the supermarket is not packed (although this is dangerous, see this wise tweet).
In academia you sometimes have to work 7 days a week, but the freedom to choose which 7 days is unparalleled— Greg Bodwin (@GregBodwin) June 26, 2021
However, most people (even with a good CV) don’t get this type of job and end up living in a precarious situation. Other problems we face include low salaries, lack of resources, lack of clarity on your path, and isolation. So my master’s professor was right to tell me all about that. You need to be aware of the difficulties you are going to face further down the line.
The takeaway here is that you need a plan before you start (your Ph.D. or whatever project you are taking on). A plan gives you the intentionality to reach your destination. Not having a plan, is like getting on a bus without knowing where it is going. You might get somewhere you like, but you might end up in a shady place. Nonetheless, a plan doesn’t mean we have to stick to it no matter what. Think about it as a sailing trip, you have an idea of the route based on the wind predictions you have as of today. In a few days, when the wind changes, you can readjust your course to make the sailing smoother. What matters is that you are taking control and being intentional about where you want to go.
What I’ve noticed in the last months is that writing down your plan helps. You might think: yeah, it’s all in my head, I know what I want. But putting it down in writing forces you to structure the plan and, especially, it forces you to see it. Have it close by, check it often to remind yourself where you want to go.
If you start your project with an idea of how it will look like and the wind changes, recalculate the route. Just like your GPS (this is Rebecca Schuman’s idea, check her article). Google maps doesn’t start screaming at you “hey, you looser, why did you make that turn?” So just be like Google and recalculate as many times as necessary. Sometimes it will be because the wind changed, and other times it will be because you made the wrong turn.
How does this concept apply to your Ph.D.? You might begin your studies thinking that you are going to become a professor. Midway, you see that you will be forced to live in the middle of nowhere in the US and that idea is less than appealing to you. You apply the GPS approach and start looking (aka, planning) how to apply your Ph.D. magic to other jobs. Most people I know who have left academia started with an internship or volunteering. If you can to do this while still in your Ph.D. program, you will be ahead of the game. Now think about the alternative, you don’t know whether you want to be a professor or look for another job. You see everyone goes to the academic job market and you go too. You don’t get an offer for a full-time position and…you end up as an adjunct instructor (no benefits, low salary, no stability). It will be very hard for you to leave that situation without a clear plan. I wanna be clear here, I do think it is possible to get out of that place and I know some people that went from adjunct to assistant professor, but you need to be intentional and have a plan.
If you made it this far reading and are panicking because you don’t have a plan, I have good news for you. Just start now. Like the Chinese proverb: “When is the best moment to plant a tree? Twenty years go. When is the second-best moment? Now.” During my last year of the Ph.D., I attended a talk by Leonard Cassuto and he mentioned an idea that stuck with me: “You are the CEO of your Ph.D. Your advisor is a very important member of the board of trustees, but you are the CEO.” And this is probably the difficult part, especially for women. The entire world is designed for us to listen and follow, so most of us have zero experience being a CEO. So remember, only you know what will work best for you, and this might mean going against the crowd. In closing, I feel like this topic calls for a trilogy. You just reached the end of part I. Part II will be about how to make the plan and part III about getting CEO experience. Enjoy the trip! ⛵