Tales of the lab 38 : planning

How often of you make plans, how  long in advance do you plan, and did you know where you would be in 5 years ?

This question was asked at a panel discussion with graduate students in which I had the  chance to participate as the academic representative, along with a company representative (Chibichakaravarthy Chinnaiyan, a senior quality representative from Boeing) and a start-up representative, Mohammed Nadirsha, co-founder of several innovative technological and educational enterprises worldwide.

Although we came from different professional bodies, our answers were similar:

  • Yes, we plan a lot: long-term, middle-term, short-term.
  • We plan,  but  we are flexible about those  plans:  ready to take opportunities
  • We  have a big plan, and we also have a plan B.

Although it is too early to determine how good is planning, here are some details from my side:

  • As a PhD student, I was planning on a weekly basis. Having  several projects in parallel, related or not, it was useful to take ca. 1 hour before Mondays to organize the week to avoid overlapping events and make the best use of my time. Regular events, such as group meetings or lectures were also part of the planning. As more long-term events occurred, such as conference presentations or reports, those were also planned earlier in advance. Usually, I plan to have everything ready at least 10 days before the deadline, but this because I cannot work well under stress. Also, to prepare for big events, eg a defence, I usually plan to be stressed, freaked out, and totally useless at least the week before (yes, I plan  when to stress!). I also plan longer time than needed. If preparing slides should take 2 hours, I plan for  an afternoon: then again, no stress. As a result, finishing earlier enables me to get in advance on the plan!
  • On a  middle-term basis, monthly or semesterly, it is also helpful to have a list of key deliveries to get organised on the best way and steps to achieve them. For example,  in view of a PhD defence, it might be useful to attend a few defences from other students a few months before… As a PhD student, middle-term planning was directed by monthly or bi-monthly  meetings with supervisor or collaborators. Today, it is more to ensure not getting stuck in quick stand but that research, career development, teaching, networking and preparing for tenure, etc. are going forward.
  • Long-term  goals are yearly goals, 5-years goal and 10-years goals. These goals are at the same time specific and general. For example, planning to apply for faculty position but without specifying the location; planning to research on one topic, without specifying the job position; etc.  Having long-term goals, or ideas of goals is incredibly useful to make opportunities happen and to recognize opportunities: being able to articulate a goal means ability to share, communicate with and motivate others. Wording out ideas and plans is like planting seeds of ideas into potential employer, colleagues, collaborators, partners, who will think how you can help them achieve their own goals or simply help you if an occasion materialize. Getting a job, a project is generally falling from the sky in 1 day but rather a long and tedious meandering process. Starting applying and organizing months in advance helps: in academia, for example, an application for a fellowship can take 1 year from the day of application to the start of the project or the letter of award. As a young faculty, it is necessary to have a 5 and 10 years research and career plan to apply for large grants, to hire relevant staff, to  prepare for tenure (will see in time if my planning is efficient enough!).
  • Finally, having a plan B is good to (1) stay busy and stay motivated whatever the turn of the events in the main plan, (2) reduce stress level if plan A sinks. Personally, my plan B being related to writing, it also relevant to plan A!

As it resulted from our panel discussion, jobs in industry or start up require similar planning strategies: to get things done, to move in the right direction, to shift direction  if necessary, to not get too dispersed, to catch opportunities, to trigger opportunities, to find confidence, to learn and grow as a professional. That being said, planning should be flexible: things might go quicker, or slower, or new things happening. It is thus important to reflect on the short, middle and long-term plans regularly: this is not wasted time!