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Why you should craft multiple plans for your future career

Twenty Ph.D. students gather for a career management seminar in the old university library. Sarah, the instructor, proceeds to tell the students about different career options—both inside and outside of academia—as well as helpful tools for figuring out what kind of career they might be interested in.

“This evening, I would like you to draw up three career plans,” she says. Sarah explains that for this homework exercise, everyone needs to pick three career options they could imagine pursuing. “Write down the steps you’ll need to take to get there. For instance, what skills will you need? How are you going to get these skills?”

Tom, a participant, drops his pencil on the table. “I just read somewhere that planning your career is rubbish. You can find out what interests you and dream about a certain career path. But, how likely is it that you can stick with such a plan?”

Lisa, sitting on the other side of the room, nods in agreement. “Tom is right. Why take the time to think of a plan and work 3 years on it, only to find that your plan becomes obsolete?”

“What could possibly happen that your plan becomes obsolete?” Sarah asks, playing dumbfounded.

“There are so many things that could happen,” Tom says. “For one, I want to stay in academia if I can. But academia is a pyramid with too many people at the bottom. Even if you are super good, your chances of getting tenure are low.”

“And it’s not only on the academic track where something can go wrong,” Lisa adds. “My mum was on a very good path to become the CEO of a company, and then my dad got sick. Suddenly she could hardly work for 2 years and had to change career paths.”

“You’re totally right,” Sarah admits. “There is no guarantee that you will ever reach your career goal. There are so many unpredictable things that might happen. You might have a child that changes your plans, or have a partner who can’t relocate, or you might decide that being a professor isn’t such a great option after all. But you still need a plan.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. It is like writing a recipe while already knowing you won’t follow it. An utter waste of time.” Tom laughs.

“You know what doesn’t make sense?” Sarah asks. Without waiting for the answer, she continues: “To try running a marathon without training for it.”

Tom nods in agreement.

“If you want to make the finishing line of the New York City Marathon you write yourself a training plan to make sure that you can, on marathon day, run 42 kilometers without having major problems. Right?”

“Of course.” Tom says.

“You start training for it, and after a few months you are either on a good track to run the marathon, or you have to conclude that your body is not allowing you to run a full marathon. When that happens, you need to adapt your plans to the situation. But will it be a waste of time? No! Because you can still use the fitness you acquired for, let’s say, a long hike or a cycling track. But if you don’t write a plan and train for it in the first place, you will certainly not make it,” Sarah says.

“You want us to see our career plan in the same way?” Lisa asks.

Sarah nods. “Yes, it might be that you will not be able to pursue the career you had in mind as your first choice, but if you did not plan it in the first place, you’ll have an even harder time making it work. You might fail to build the right network or acquire the needed skills. And if you’ve drawn up multiple plans, then you’ll have other options to pursue if one plan falls through.”

“When you plan,” Sarah concludes, “you will be much better prepared to sell yourself when the day comes to apply for your dream job.”

Career advice:

For many careers, having a plan is essential to reaching your goal. For instance, if you want to become a popular science writer, you are not very likely to be hired for such a job if you have never authored an article for the general public. If you have a plan, it will help you to see gaps in your resume and think about what you need to do to fill them.

A career plan will ensure that you focus on the things that matter most. It can help you decide whether to do a postdoc, who you should contact for informational interviews and networking opportunities, and what experiences and internships might benefit you.

Don’t focus on a single career path. Pick three! Why three? Because many plans and ideas do not work out for one reason or another. Having multiple options gives you flexibility.

Here are key steps for developing your own career plan:

1. Identify careers you’d be interested in, for instance by using an introspection tool such as myIDP.

2. For each career, learn about the skills and network you might need to succeed.

3. Set short- and long-term goals.

4. Consider possible barriers to achieving your goals and how they can be overcome.

5. Meet with a career adviser and conduct informational interviews to clarify whether your career plan is sensible.

6. Create an action plan to achieve your goals and help yourself stay organized.

Above all, keep an open mind and have fun in the process. You might even discover a career path you never considered before!

Philipp Gramlich (NaturalScience.Careers) and David Giltner (TurningScience) contributed to this article. Philipp combines industry and academic experience in his workshops and talks for scientists. David teaches scientists how to design and build rewarding careers in industry.