2016 was an eventful year for me and my wife, and 2017 promises to be no less so. Over the course of the next year I will be finishing up my archival research in Jinan, moving on to Beijing for a few months, and then heading back to Chicago (tentatively at the end of July). Along the way, I’ll be traveling to Taiwan in March for a mid-year Fulbright conference, and I’ll be back in Jinan for a weekend in May for a workshop at Shandong University. Despite all this busy-ness on the immediate horizon, I’m looking a bit further ahead too.
Last (2015) summer, inspired by Karen Kelsky’s book The Professor is In, I came up with a professional five-year plan for myself. I found the exercise really useful, both for reflecting on what was coming ahead in my career and the value of what I had already accomplished. I think it’s useful to think about graduate school as framed by two five-year plans that overlap around the fourth year. Even in the first year, I think it’s important to think about where you want to be by years four and five – ideally doing archival research and getting into writing (for students in history) – and what you need to do to get there – fulfilling basic requirements, preliminary research, language study, funding proposals, etc.
Obviously, there’s a lot that happens over the course of getting a PhD. While it’s best to update your career plan year-by-year, I think there’s a kind of watershed in planning around the fourth or fifth year that coincides with archival research. At least that’s the case for me. In part, that’s a reflection of what I’ve already accomplished and am accomplishing now. It sounds obvious as I write it, but the archival research I’m doing now is laying out the parameters for the dissertation I am/going to write in ways that my preliminary research didn’t. I’ve fulfilled the majority of my program’s requirements, except for that big one – the dissertation (hence ABD) and some teaching credits.
However, it also reflects the increasing vagueness of the back end of my five year plan. I can make (more or less) realistic goals for myself for the next couple years. After that, though, it’s hard to set meaningful objectives because there’s so much that’s TBD. Beyond the uncertainties of how writing my dissertation will progress, there is no way to know how entering the job market will pan out. I could get a job my first year on the market, or I could go two (or more) years without any luck. In a few years’ time I could be navigating the tenure track, or I could be wrapping my head around a career outside academia. Or, I could be in a post-doc or short-term position, still just as unsure about what could be coming a few years down the line.
On the whole, I find working on a five year plan to be helpful for managing anxiety about getting a PhD. Identifying the specific tasks I need to accomplish and putting them within a realistic time frame makes this distant goal seem a bit more achievable. This has its limits, though. Working through this kind of plan also forces me to confront the genuine unknowns involved in the process and the decisions that will be out of my hands. And so in that sense, a plan for the future is by no means an immunization against all the uncertainties grad school can chuck your way.
So, I’m entering 2017 thinking not just about the things I want to accomplish and how many steps closer to a dream job I want to be by the end of this year (and years after that). I’m also meditating on what kind of person I want to be in 2017 just as much as in 2021, as ABD just as much as PhD. If you’re entering a PhD program in 2017, then by all means talk to peers, mentors, and advisers and come up with a plan that will help you understand the path ahead. But also spend some time identifying the things you value more than getting a PhD and figuring out how those priorities will shape what kind of graduate student you will be in the year and years ahead.