Thursday, March 26, 2009

Planning Backwards.

Most of us assume that we know how to plan, even when we do a lousy job of it, we will make the excuse that we could have planned better, but had let things get in the way. I would like to suggest that we don't, in fact, know how to plan and, therefore, we cannot do a better job of planning. The following exchange that I had with a brand new first year PhD student is typical of the problem that we have in planning our careers.
Me: So, how do you see your plans shaping up for you?
PhD: Well, I hope to graduate by 2010 and postdoc for a couple of years and then get a teaching job.
Me: When in 2010?
PhD: Huh?
Me: Well... June? August? December? You know. When?
PhD: Oh, yeah. I suppose June.
Me: So, when will you defend your dissertation?
PhD: Huh? Well, maybe May.
Me: Is that when people usually do it? The month before they graduate?
PhD: Uh... I dunno. Is it?
Me: I'm not sure. How long will it take to write the dissertation?
PhD: I don't know.
Me: When do most people start their dissertation?
PhD: (Somewhat scared and frustrated) I don't know.
Just to let you know that I am not a complete jerk. We spent the rest of our hour talking about the fact that she was planning pretty much the way everybody else planned. That is, she had a starting point and an ending point, but none of the stuff from the middle. She was going to take things as they came and likely adjust her completion time based on unforeseen complications that were sure to arise because all she had planned was the beginning and end of her journey. What follows is a planning matrix that should be suitable for planning everything from a shopping trip to major life goals.

1. Choose beginning and ending points with no dates or time constraints.
Think about it this way. When I drive to Santa Monica from my home, I know that it is 54 miles away and on average, it takes me about 90 minutes to drive the distance, even though it is theoretically achievable in an hour. I have learned over time that there is a two-mile stretch around LAX that always takes 20 minutes to transit instead of three or four minutes. If I am traveling someplace unknown, I can only begin with my starting and ending points.

2. List all the tasks you can think of associated with your plan.
On my drive to Santa Monica, I might have to refuel my car or take an alternate route to pick up supplies or drop off passengers. With PhD students, I routinely ask how long it takes to: Defend the dissertation, write the dissertation, collect data, draft a prospectus, form a committee, prepare for qualifying exams, complete coursework, etc. Typically they conceptualize it as, "I start and I finish."

3. Determine which tasks are "anchors" and which are "collaterals". Anchor tasks are those that are necessary to complete before another can begin. (Data must be collected before the results section can be written.) Collaterals are those that may occur alongside another task. (Forming a committee should not inhibit the beginning a literature review for the proposal or prospectus... but it likely will affect the completion of the prospectus.)

4. Put the anchor tasks in chronological order. Obviously, one must write a dissertation before he/she can defend it. This should be one of the easier parts of this.

5. Assign rational time frames to each task.
Lets go back to my drive to Santa Monica. I suppose that I could drive 90MPH all the way there and arrive in 35 or 40 minutes... but it is incredibly unlikely. I always recommend that new PhD students speak with several postdocs about how long different aspects of their project took to complete. For instance, my dissertation was written quite quickly... less than a year, but that was because data collection was completed four months ahead of the time that I had anticipated. It was sorta like drive to Santa Monica at 3:00AM and knowing that all of the Highway Patrol cops were on break.

6. Set the tentative completion date for the ending point and work backwards through tasks.
  • I want to arrive in Santa Monica at 5:00pm.
  • I know that the stretch from the Santa Monica Freeway to the Promenade will take me about 15 minutes, so I need to be at the 405 and the 10 by 4:45 if I want to be on time.
  • Likewise, LAX to the 10 will take me about 20 minutes, so I should be passing LAX by 3:25.
  • The 710 to the LAX area seldom takes more than 20 minutes, so I will be at the 710 by 3:05.
  • My wife drives the 25 mile stretch from our house to the 710 everyday in all sorts of weather and traffic and it generally takes her between 35 and 40 minutes, so we'll be conservative and say that in order to be at the 710 Freeway in time to make the rest of the trip work, I will need to leave my house at 2:15.
Last things first.
Look at the goals you have set for yourself and plans that you have made. Have you inventoried the tasks and allocated reasonable time and resources for them? Do you clearly understand which tasks are requisite to others in order to establish priorities? Does your plan include periodic evaluations to correct its course? Even a well-planned trip to Santa Monica sometimes requires that you get off on Sepulveda and drive over to Venice Blvd. to avoid that sig alert on the 405.

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