Career planning: your future is now


Before you read any further, find a piece of paper or a notebook and a pen, set a timer, and give yourself ten minutes to write down what your current career plan is. Make sure to include some thoughts on the question, “Why this?” 

It’s easy to treat career thinking as a distraction from the important work of analysing data or writing theses, books, or papers. But zooming out to make a career plan provides essential perspective which helps with the everyday and the longer term. For one thing, thinking about research as a means to an end, not as an end in itself, often has a grounding effect. A recurrent theme in conversations I’ve been having lately is the problematic ways in which deep research – and especially intensive writing – on any subject can feel like being thrust into a vacuum with nothing but one’s own existential questions for company. Why this? What am I doing it for?

A particular hazard for many of us in academia is that when our minds drift towards such Big Questions, we are operating with higher education and university life as our normative, default frame of thinking. People whose only intellectual and professional experiences have been in schools and universities can tend to think that intellectual stimulation and hence personal fulfilment are possible only within universities. Clearly, this is not true. 

But if you’ve only ever studied/worked in academia – and particularly if you are doing well – it’s understandable that you might think it is the best or only place for you. In other words, we can all too easily default to “I guess I’ll try and stay in academia” or, worse, “I have to get an academic job because I have no idea what else I could do.” In reality, this is a form of powerlessness. And in the face of a very competitive and uncertain job market, it can lead to all sorts of anxiety, acknowledged or not.

To become empowered, then, we need to do better than the anxious defaults. Making career exploration and planning a part of your life is a great way to do this.

Where this takes you may or may not be cutting your losses and leaving academia. But if you proceed as if the condition for your happiness were staying in academia, you risk setting yourself up for disappointment and potentially for misery; certainly you are courting fragility. Academic research and/or teaching may genuinely be the things you love to do most, and you may have a solid plan for continuing to do them, yet it will still be good for you to explore other possibilities, just to know that you have options. 

Coming up with more plans makes all of them better. If you rule out the other options, fine. If you keep them open as alternatives for a number of years, fine. But embracing that knowledge of many things being open to you is really important.

So this isn’t about academia or not. In fact, that distinction may not be as meaningful as it might at first appear. For example, I have an unpaid research affiliation at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) and I’m paid a variable-hours salary by the investment management firm Baillie Gifford via the Humanities Division. I also coach people, and write in a number of platforms and genres. Academic vs. non-academic is not “all or nothing”. “Portfolio” styles of working are going to become more common as the structures of our world keep shifting and growing more permeable. You can design for yourself professional portfolios that are intellectually and emotionally fulfilling, as well as suited to your everyday lifestyle – perhaps with one or more strands involving some activity inside a university. 

The point is partly that all kinds of things are possible when you let yourself be creative. The point is also that I think it’d have done me, like so many others, a lot of good to let myself be creative a lot sooner: to switch the default mode for something more proactive before 5 years of postdoc life; to think more carefully about what and where and whether and why in academia; and to open up to the wider professional world and its opportunities.

Researching what you might do with the rest of your life, or at least the next bit of it, is the most important research you’ll ever do. And it can be really fun – the process as well as the outcomes. Change (contemplating it and doing it) is often frightening, but it is also how we find out about ourselves as well as the world, and how we discover that the beliefs we used to have—about how this was the only way we could possibly live—were wrong, every single one of them. 

In previous posts on this blog, we have emphasised the importance of doing as well as thinking—because it’s often scarier but also usually more revealing. I like this quote from Annie Dillard on the importance of sewing together the micro and the macro levels of our lives:
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. (Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, 1989) 
So, make career-related activity low-cost, low-stress, high-reward. Read the final part of our resilience post for suggestions. Check out the Stanford Life Design Lab for inspiration, including their Odyssey Planning templates: how to start from your current “Plan A” (the thing you just wrote down) and generate several imaginative alternatives to it. Do something zoomed-out and future-opened every week, whether some financial planning or a conversation with someone who does something cool or an update to your CV of failures. There is no conflict here with your “proper work”. Lift your head up and enjoy the view before diving back into whatever you’re currently immersed in.

You’ve already done the first task. If you did the career planning exercise at the start, then you’ve articulated not only a plan, but also why. Articulate another version soon (for example, what would you do if all the jobs in your preferred sector stopped existing?), and you’ll be well on your way to appreciating that what you’re doing tomorrow morning could lead you all kinds of places, not just one.






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