Friday, 20 April 2018

What do you mean you don’t have a Plan B?

Diane Caldwell

“What’s yourPlan B?’” When do you stop pursuing ‘Plan A’ and turn to identifying options for your ‘Plan B’?  Or is it too late to develop an appealing and viable ‘Plan B’?

Our everyday reference to ‘Plan A’ for academia and ‘Plan B’ for the other, often less well-known world, is so natural that we hardly notice.  But what are the implications of this binary way of thinking and conversation?  And what do these mean if you think of yourself, or consider others to view you as, having invested in the first stages of an academic career? 

There can be many and varied reasons why you might consider ‘leaving academia’.  Common rational reasons: you can’t uproot your life to meet the dictates of the job market; the intensity of the competition is too great; there are no reasonable professional development opportunities etc.  In some of these cases, you may have an accompanying disenchantment with the subject or a desire (at least perceived) to witness the effect of your work or to see that effect more quickly. In other cases, you may have a sincere anguish at letting go of the dedicated focus on a lifelong passion.   Alternatively, you may be confronting an underlying anxiety about being found out, questioning whether you’re good enough.  In these ways of thinking, ‘Plan A’ and ‘Plan B’ are parallel tracks: they never intersect, one track sets off on its course at the point when the other track starts to feel like it might be a dead end.   In most cases, when you picture yourself moving from one track to the other, there is great uncertainty of what comes next and potentially a fear of the unknown.

Related thoughts usually run deep.  When considering options, the language of turning to a ‘Plan B’ sets in a negative frame an otherwise reasoned and positive choice to leave academia or metaphorically pierces a dream if you feel you are not making an active choice.  If you have focused your world on researching pre-Socratic philosophers, letting this go to think of a place where your skills will be called upon can be an overwhelming prospect.  The further you progress from the PhD through postdoc(s), the more all-consuming the focus on academia can become, as does the weight of the uncertainty and limitations of academia.  The more personal investment in this ‘Plan A’, the more your sense of individual self-worth gets bound up with a specific academic identity, creating an intensity to this career stage that is very real.

What if you were to let go of the language of ‘Plan B’?  Could this open up space to consider options and opportunities earlier, and with less implication of second best?  The risk run by continuing to frame career directions as a binary switch from ‘Plan A’ to ‘Plan B’ is to create the false sense of a specific moment in time when academia is ‘let go’ and ‘Plan B’ is enacted.  It’s hard to imagine that any single moment could bear the weight of so consequential a decision. And imagine how annoyed you’d be if the moment did come but you were too stressed to notice it?   This need not be the reality.  Changing our language is key to changing how we think and act.  Doing so in your career-related conversations can remove some of the baggage of talking about a ‘Plan B’.  It could enable you to broaden your horizons in strategic ways, tailored to your interests, expertise, skills and values, rather than seeing options beyond academia as a broad universe of myriad largely opaque or unappealing possibilities.  Opportunities to work, consult or network in certain targeted spheres could be considered alongside existing research plans, thereby becoming part of an evolving and emerging Plan A.  Suddenly possibilities develop for having a career plan with expanded and changing boundaries – one related to potential directions that make sense for you at this point and as far ahead in the futures as you can see. 

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