The One-Year Plan

November 02, 2001

So you're nearing the end of your doctoral training and questioning whether an academic career is right for you. How should you organize your time so that you complete your last year of graduate school with both a Ph.D. and a fulfilling new job to show for it?

Academics, especially those in the humanities and social sciences, often work under the assumption that time is plentiful. It is commonplace to push back deadlines and extend project timelines, since the academic goals of certainty and knowledge are usually more important than the time it takes to reach them. However, if you are planning to leave the academy, you will need to adapt to the essential equation of work life beyond the ivory tower: Time equals money.

Time, in other words, is almost always a significant factor in any nonacademic goal, and as an émigré from the academy, you will be questioned about your ability to work within time constraints. And you will be expected to work in ways that may be very different from how you managed your time in academe.

One step toward changing your notion of time may be to remove from your thinking the idea that you could delay your graduation date. Consider buying or creating a one-year planning poster for your workspace, and then boldly block out the deadlines you need to meet in order to graduate on time:

  • Chapter submission dates: Plan these responsibly, but not too conservatively. You may even wish to add subordinate deadlines breaking into pieces the work required to complete each chapter.

  • Revision dates: Get a clear sense from your adviser of how long she will need to review your work, as well as any fixed commitments she may have during the year that could influence your work plan.

  • Final draft dates: Again, it will be important for you to know early on from your dissertation readers how long they will need, and how much additional time you'll need to allow for scheduling an oral defense and final revisions.

  • Official university deadlines: These are usually published at least a year or two ahead of time, and may surprise you at how early you will need to submit degree application forms and your bound dissertation, relative to the graduation date.

As the year moves forward, you may find that this calendar, if you've set it up reasonably, provides an external element of enforcement for keeping you on track.

In addition to managing your dissertation work against a firm deadline, you will also want to establish a clear timeline for your job search. A successful nonacademic job search requires self-assessment, research, and networking, aside from the job applications themselves. Just like finishing your dissertation, these tasks will take time to complete properly and will work best if spread over a long period.

You may find it helpful to add to your planning calendar some key reminders regarding your job search. I've set up a sample one-year timeline for a nonacademic job search, but here are a few highlights:

  • Self-assessment: In the past, this column has offered advice on how to conduct an accurate analysis of your interests, skills, and values and then identify careers that match. A career counselor can be instrumental in this process, and you may be able to get help from your campus's career center. In general, you will want to devote at least a month or two at the beginning of your job search for this general process of self-assessment. Then, as your search progresses and you refine your career interests and goals, you may find yourself returning periodically to your self-assessment.

  • Researching careers and networking: Both are essential to a successful job search. While they require a lot of time and energy to do well, if you spread the tasks out over a long period of time -- say six months in your last year of graduate school -- you will find the time commitment less onerous. Networking is best done over as long a period of time as possible. Connections snowball into wider and wider spheres, and the chance that they will pay off in the form of tips about job openings increases when you have more time on your side.

  • Job applications and interviews: On the academic job market, most job listings appear at a specific time of year, and Ph.D.'s send out a flurry of applications at that time. But the nonacademic job search typically involves a longer span of time for the application process and requires a more active approach than merely responding to posted job announcements. If you have devoted the time and energy needed for proper self-assessment, research, and personal networking, though, the job-application process can take place over a few months at the end of your final year of graduate school.

With so many deadlines and goals on your one-year calendar, you may want to re-evaluate your daily time management to make sure that you can keep pace with your planner. It can be very helpful to post next to your planning calendar a daily or weekly work schedule that can break down these larger deadlines into specific categories of tasks and time set aside in which to accomplish them. Instead of thinking that you need to have reached out to 12 new alumni contacts over the next three months, you can give yourself the less intimidating task of calling one new alumni contact each week.

You will also want to assess honestly when you do your best work of the day -- your best thinking, your best writing, your best social interacting. If you do your best writing late at night, you probably should avoid early-morning interviews. Be honest with yourself about the external factors that influence your daily work schedule. Child care, library hours, computer availability, appropriate hours for networking phone calls, and even noisy neighbors may necessitate your altering your daily schedule to allow for the most productive use of your time.

One aspect of the job-search process that will truly challenge your ability to keep to your time schedule is networking. Each person you meet for an informational interview will provide you with additional contacts -- people who can tell you about their careers, people with job leads for you, and people who may know other people for you to meet. And few of these people will be available when it is most convenient for your schedule, so be flexible.

Closely guarding your priorities is another essential strategy for successfully following your one-year plan. Dissertation research is loaded with fascinating tangents. Yet, if your goal is to get the degree and move on to a career outside academe, you will want to carefully weigh any potential extension of your research both on its value to the central thesis of your paper and on its potential cost in extra time that had been allocated for your job search. And the same distractions can arise in your career exploration as well. To maintain some modicum of focus in the very open-ended process of career exploration, use your self-assessment results as a rudder to steer you toward careers that have the strongest potential to be a good fit with your interests, skills, and values.

It's just one year, but with any luck, by the end of it you'll have both the degree and the job in hand.

Robin B. Wagner is associate director for graduate services in the career- and placement-services office of the University of Chicago.