In Response to Popular Demand, More on the 5-Year Plan

This is a repost of an older post.  It follows sequentially from last week’s on the five-year plan.


In response to the flood of inquiries about what, exactly, a 5-Year Plan should look like, following on last week’s post, Why You Need a Five-Year Plan, I am sharing the plan produced many years ago by my first Ph.D. student, who is now an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Women’s Studies at an R1 institution. (2014 update: she just got tenure!)

This student was the rock star of 5-Year Plans.  I first encountered her as an undergraduate student.  She began working with me then on an independent study, and then proceeded on to graduate school with me as her advisor.  She finished her Ph.D. in 7 years, and this included lost time from a switch of institutions when I moved to take my second job.  From her earliest days in graduate school, she had a 5-year plan.  She updated it annually and always shared it with me.

The plan I reproduce here dates from about her 3rd year of graduate school.  2003 shows a series of deadlines for submission to the major conferences in her field—the Association of Asian Studies and the American Anthropological Association.   November of 2003 shows the multiple deadlines for dissertation fieldwork fellowships.  June and July 2004 show her preliminary exams, and August includes her proposal defense (this followed the requirements of the program).  August 2004 also shows that she is finishing a book chapter (her first publication), and moving to Japan for fieldwork.  December of 2004 shows deadlines for dissertation writing grants to take up the following year, after return from fieldwork.  I believe, although I can’t exactly recall, that JPN: Genders, which appears in Dec. ’03, then in June ’04, and again in September ’05, was a refereed journal article that she was working on.

You will note that 2006 and 2007 are mostly empty except for continuing major conference submission deadlines, and an anticipated defense date.   This was typical, and as these years drew closer they were filled in.

I’m not 100% sure what all the colored arrows refer to, but they seem to refer to time “chunks,” as in, “time in the field,” “summer,” and so on.

In sifting through the many reactions to the 5-year plan idea on facebook and twitter and in the comment stream to the post, I have gotten the  impression that for many readers, the 5-year plan feels like a large, epic, “major life goals” kind of endeavor.

But as you can see from this example, it’s really more of a “stay on top of deadlines” kind of endeavor.

And now, let me be perfectly clear.

Staying on top of deadlines is exactly what allows a person to achieve  huge life goals.

Yes, I’m quoting Thomas Edison:  “success is 10% inspiration, and 90% perspiration.”  The people who succeed in getting into the national conference are, first and foremost, the ones who actually remember to submit the proposal to the national conference, by the deadline, properly formatted.

One of the most important outcomes of the 5-year plan is that you never miss a submission deadline for a conference or a funding opportunity.  As you learn of new conferences and funding opportunities, you simply add them in, without losing track of the other deadlines. You also plan out a publication schedule, and put your own deadlines for submission to journals there in the plan.  And money racks up, and publications rack up, and networks rack up, and voila, the cumulative effect 5 years later is—an epic CV that gets you an epic job offer, or tenure.

This student obtained, in total, some $200,000 of research funding in graduate school (in cultural anthropology–a field that does not have massive grants), in addition to her basic TA funding package.  She had several publications before finishing, and secured a tenure track position at an R1 institution in her first year on the market.  She is solidly on track for tenure, and this past year she won another major research fellowship that gave her a year’s leave time for new fieldwork on a second project.

While many people certainly accomplish these things without a 5-year plan in an Excel grid, I am confident that in this student’s case, her prodigious level of organization kept her on track, productive, and out ahead of the competition at each step of the game.

Example of a 5-Year Plan

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In Response to Popular Demand, More on the 5-Year Plan — 31 Comments

  1. Ah, this makes it seem so much more achievable!

    I find I need a bit more of an active reminder than a document can provide. I’ve set up my deadlines and other reminders in Remember the Milk, a fabulous online to-do list system. I like it because I can automate all the recurring deadlines, and I can set up email and SMS reminders to myself about important upcoming dates. I also use it to manage my more detailed project work, so it’s a nice reminder of how my day-to-day activities mesh with my larger goals.

    After seeing this, though, I might use my list to make myself a visual timeline – it definitely is helpful to see the larger sweep of one’s commitments and deadlines.

    • “the larger sweep” is what we’re aiming for in this exercise. It should be printed out and taped above your computer, basically.

  2. This is a good article. Being from the UK, however, our full time PhDs are three years, so a five year plan would have to be adapted. Something certainly to think about though.

  3. This is immensely helpful- thanks for posting it! For what it’s worth, I think the colored arrows indicate semesters (they run Jan-Apr, May-Jul, & Aug-Dec).

  4. I’ve found an annual plan to be very helpful – it can be updated each year and helps to focus the mind on both those self-imposed and ‘external’ deadlines. I’ve also found it a good way to look back at what I’ve done or failed to do – the latter is just as important to think about in some ways as it provides a helpful insight into what I’m finding problematic or what I’m procrastinating about or where I made a major change in direction.

    Each year I start again and split the plan up between headings like ‘papers’, ‘grants’, ‘events’, ‘teaching’, ‘other’ and then by month. That means that I can add new headings when I need to in a new year (e.g. ‘public engagement’ or ‘knowledge exchange’ could be incorporated as well). It’s a great way to see at a glance where all my work is bunching and where I might have some slack to work on something.

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  6. Really enjoyed this two-part post and find it applicable for those at any stage of career. We make our master’s level students (regardless of whether they want to go into academia or industry) assemble these in thinking about the skills they need to acquire and how to strategically plan their careers. As a junior faculty member, I’ve chatted with senior faculty at multiple levels of the institution about formal and informal expectations for tenure and then plotted required productivity per year accordingly. I find it helpful (and motivating) for keeping myself focused and motivated – but also for knowing when it’s acceptable to draw the line and enjoy work-life balance as well. To work, I agree with you that mapping the achievement of the plan onto concrete tasks is the most critical piece. Thanks for the post!

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  8. I tried multi-year plans when I was a grad student, but I found them almost impossible to stick to–some research was much easier than expected, and other projects had to be almost completely tossed after learning after several months that the method wasn’t up to snuff. I’m in STEM. As a postdoc, such plans seem even more difficult. I never know if reviewers are going to ask for revisions that take two or six weeks. A hot topic now might be scooped by others before I get to it or deemed irrelevant by new observations (this happened twice in grad school). I do add grant and conference deadlines to my calendar as they arise, including “Think about applying for X” reminders ~8 weeks in advance, but that’s it.

    I’m curious if any STEM people find these plans very useful. My triage system for projects has a planning horizon of 3-6 months. Even the “schedule” that I had to submit for my two-year NIH fellowship was mostly bogus, and half the projects have been heavily modified just one year in.

    • I’m in STEM, and I do something like this for a five year plan. Faraway things are more vague (“go on sabbatical in fun place”), but close up ones are more specific (“meet with colleagues from fun place to see if I want to sabbatical there”). I can’t predict the results of my grant applications in advance, but I can guess that first submissions will need a resubmit, so I plan grants for about the next two years. If something is funded early or preliminary results are dismal, I revise the plan.

      Right now, for example, there are 3-4 places that sound like fun places for sabbatical. At least two of them would require brushing up on my language skills. If I do some research now about them, it will help me decide if I want to take language classes in the next few years and cultivate collaborations, or if I’d rather spend the time with other nascent collaborations.

  9. Hi,

    Very useful site, I’m very happy I found it! Thanks for the effort!

    I’m finishing my PhD and it seems like clearly defining a core life-long research goal is the best that I can do with my time – even before postDoc application. Some sort of life-long research statement. I think that would provide me with a lot of focus, and settle down key deliverables/happenings, so that tenure and professorships are not just vague (and rarely achievable) dreams.

    What’s your opinion on life-long research plans (and rough schedules)? [Obviously, more concrete towards the present day]

  10. Something we knew but needs to be reminded. I ve done it before in the last years of high school and first years of university… Now I see I should start AGAIN….

  11. Thanks for the post Karen. It makes me wonder, how does her daily schedule look? I imagine that a person who has been able to fulfill her long term goals had daily goals.

    • Well, not necessarily! I don’t know about Karen’s student, but I’ve been doing this kind of thing for years, and I very much improvise throughout the day.

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  14. Any thoughts about a 5 year plan post-phd–as in, on the job market? While we’re going on the market each year and doing sessional teaching to try to survive financially, is a 5 year plan good in this situation as well?

    And. . . when to stop going on the market and throw in the towel?

    Thanks! 🙂

    • I actually answer these questions in a couple of different Chronicle Vitae posts. I don’t have the links handy, but if you go over to my archive there (just google Kelsky Chronicle Vitae), and scroll back, you’ll see them.

  15. Any advice regarding template, style and/or content of a Five-year plan when its a required component of a job application? The position is Lecturer in history for a university in Australia, and the specific requirement is : “5 year research plan demonstrating the elaboration of a post-PhD line of research.” Thanks

  16. Hi Karen,

    You want to hear something sick? I went to a very large institution in a southern state a couple years back to visit to see if I wanted to attend there for a PhD. I think like you—get the hell out as fast as possible with no debt….well turns out almost all the students had debt. I was eating lunch with two professors and three students. One of the professors is very well known in her field- the stuck up “you better know who I am type.” I mentioned how I wanted to graduate in five years or less (I already have an MA) and she turned to me and said “don’t expect for it to take any shorter than 8 years, that is normal 5 is far too rushed.” Um no…I decided to not feed her cash cow and $13,000 a year horrid adjunct job in a hell-hole of a city…

  17. Dear Karen,

    I have a conference job interview (for a tenure track–hist department), and I was wondering if it would be all right if I hand in a 5 year plan sheet to the chair of the search committee after the interview. Many thanks in advance!

  18. Pingback: Why You Need a 5-Year Plan | The Professor Is In

  19. Hi Karen! Thanks for sharing this but I think I’m missing something. I’m in philosophy and can’t really see how to apply such a plan for a fluid process of thinking. I mean that It’s an evolving process and you can’t really know in advance what you’d have to read and how much, how much time the writing will take you and so on. You don’t have travel grants or archive hours. So how would you go about in more abstract research projects? Would you write “read this book” by June? or “get a firmer grasp of topic X which is crucial for your understanding of Y” by July?

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