Write Yourself a 10-Year Plan


What research would you be doing right now if you had your own independent group? Have you ever really thought about it? If you are anything like me, you'll have thought the prospect just too far-fetched to waste time considering. But this was before I decided, amidst all the frantic hustle and bustle of research life, to look into applying for a proper job, a permanent one. Yes, I know it's all a bit early for me, having only just finished my postgraduate long service award (or Ph.D. for the uninitiated), but I guess I can be a bit cavalier as I'm in the middle of a temporary contract--sooner or later money will run out and the need for serious job hunting will kick in.

If you're applying for a permanent job, a lectureship for example, a 10-year plan is what you need. That's a whopping great amount of research. We young scientists working on the coal face of human knowledge are often so focused on the urgency of the next paper or grant application that our minds cannot deal with such hypothetical long-term scenarios. So it was time for me to take a long walk in the open air and reflect. I had to let my mind filter out all the chaff of my day-to-day thoughts to find the kernels of insight I needed.

At first, it was most disconcerting to realise just how small-minded I had been. For all my successes, I'd never been able to free my mind enough to think beyond the next year or two. But after 2 or 3 miles, and several false starts, a stream of consciousness started, nebulous at first, then more precise. Remarkably, inside my mind was a big picture, a long-term plan of where I saw my research going. I set off for home and turned on my PC immediately: My 10-year research plan was about to be written.

I reckoned a good way to start was by writing down some background information for the nonspecialists. This was easy, just like writing the first paragraph of an introduction. I made sure I used examples that made it all sound terribly exciting. Next out of my brain came the other easy stuff: a list of my publications, the papers I have under way, my collaborations, that kind of stuff. In other words, what I have achieved so far and who's on board with me.

I was now ready to tackle the core of my plan. I think you first have to accept that these days you can't just dream up a research project without giving careful thought to where the money is. If you are to secure yourself some cash, you have to convince the funding bodies that your big idea fits neatly into one of their initiatives. So I read all the spiel on the relevant Web sites and looked at what proposals had already been funded. After checking my type of stuff against what the main funding bodies go for, I felt confident my plan was highly fundable.

I then jotted down my research goals and was quite shocked when I took a second glance at them--they sounded really ambitious and cutting-edge. You know, I still can't believe I'm right in the thick of this fast-moving science game. I set out to break my research plan into more manageable chunks--my short-term and long-term goals. Naturally it was easier to include a lot more detail for my short-term objectives than for my long-term pie-in-the-sky ones. Short-term objectives are what you could, in theory, write grant proposals about right now, so they have to be really precise statements about real experiments. The long-term objectives are there to inspire and provide the reason you're proposing to spend all this money.

Finally, the moment came when I had to put into words that stream of consciousness I had felt earlier. Having pinned down the detail, I had a clear view of where I wanted to get to, but I now had to suggest how to get there. Strategies are not about specific experiments but about tools and approaches. As such they are a good place to bring up all the suitable buzzwords. A fictitious example might be: "To achieve a better understanding of the wobble constant using a combination of spectral fuzziness telemetry and second-sight kinetics." No specific experiments, but still saying in general terms how you intend to reach your goals.

By now I had all the elements in hand to write an actual proposal for my 10-year plan; all I had to do was put them in the right order: introduction, research goals, research strategy, long-term then short-term research objectives, potential funding sources, potential grant proposals, my publications and collaborations. I purposely set out my potential grant proposals and funding sources together in a separate funding-strategy section. This repeated much of what was written in the research objectives but made it clear I intended to do something about them, i.e., to write and submit grant proposals.

Writing this plan was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my academic career to date. It makes happy reading (at least for me), and I shall refer to it many times in the future, I'm sure. It also made me realise that getting funded is all about finding the knife-edge balance between pushing the envelope and living on the edge, and convincing others that you have the ability and tools to make it happen.

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