Using your C.V. to make a 5 year career plan

Welcome to Part III of my series on academic CVs. In Part I, we discussed writing your first academic CV; in Part II, we looked at how to format your document. Now that you have a current, updated CV, let’s think about how you can use it as a long term planning and time management tool.

The 5 year window is a useful chunk of time to consider when planning. For example, many graduate school programs claim to be around 5 years long. Also, 5 years is about how long you get before going up for tenure in many academic departments. So if you are working towards a major long term goal – like say, oh, getting that Ph.D. – it makes sense to do some backwards planning within a 5 year frame.

There are a few tools out there for 5 year plans. For example, Karen Kelsky at The Professor Is In has a couple posts on 5 year plans. In this post, I’m going to walk through my process for developing and updating my 5 year career plan as a graduate student.

1. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

First, I think about what I call my “blue sky dream” and how I can align my goals to support this long-term vision. Basically, try to answer the question: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? What are your overarching career goals? Are you striving for an academic career, and if so, what kind of institution (e.g. high research activity or R1-style universities, teaching-oriented or liberal arts universities, community colleges) constitutes your dream job? Are you are interested in non-academic or alternative academic jobs?

Additional questions to consider: What are you passionate about? What is non-negotiable for you, and where are you more flexible? What kind of work-life balance do you want to have? These are all considerations to keep in mind as you develop your five year plan.

2. Brainstorm gaps in CV

Second, I look at my CV and ask myself A) what I want it to look like in 5 years, and B) what gaps I need to address to reach my 5 year vision from Step 1.

For me, I have always been interested in pursuing a tenure-track academic career, preferably at a research-oriented university with very high (R1) or high (R2) research activity. For this kind of a career track, I knew I needed to show a successful track record with publications, conference activity, and research funding. I also knew I needed some teaching experience.

My first academic CV, like most people just starting a Ph.D. program, was pretty sparse in almost every area. When making a list of what I would want when I finished my doctorate, it would look something like this:

  1. More publications
  2. Successful funding
  3. More conference presentations
  4. Teaching experience
  5. Service

These goals are a good start – but they are fairly vague. How would I know if I have achieved them? Next, I must make sure that they are actionable, measurable, and concrete. In other words, when I look back at this list in five years, I need to be able to know without any doubts whether or not I accomplished these goals. Here’s what a revised list might look like:

  1. At least 2 publications in respected, peer-reviewed journals
  2. Evidence of successful external funding (e.g. grants, fellowships) for my dissertation
  3. Sustained activity (meaning at least 1-2 presentations per year) at relevant conferences in my discipline
  4. Instructor-of-record for at least one course
  5. At least one example of disciplinary-level service activity

3. Make/find a 5 year plan calendar template

For this step, you need some kind of calendar showing years and months for five years. In the template I use, I have a basic table with twelve columns for months, and five rows for years. It is essentially a Word doc version of Karen Kelsky’s five year plan template.

You can also make your own (by hand, in an Excel spreadsheet, Google calendar, etc; check out this Grad Hacker article for some ideas). Or, you can use the Microsoft Word template I’ve uploaded here:

4. Identify major deadlines, bottle-necks, and requirements

For this next step, sit down and think about all the steps and deadlines you need to meet to finish your degree. First, check with your department – information about your degree requirements should be available through the graduate coordinator or via their website, if you don’t already have it. For bottleneck tasks, consider tasks that you have to complete before you can move on to something else – e.g. collecting data before you can write your dissertation.

For me, these tasks included:

  1. Complete coursework
  2. Write & defend dissertation proposal
  3. Complete written and oral comprehensive exams (and become ABD – All But Dissertation!)
  4. Do field research
  5. Write & defend dissertation

Eventually, each of these steps can (and should) be broken up into smaller pieces – but that is a post for another day. Your 5 year plan is all about considering the big picture.

5. Brain dump!

Next, go back to the list of goals you made in Step 2, and brainstorm a list of any relevant deadlines or key dates you can think of. These can include grant and fellowship deadlines, abstract due dates for conferences, submission cut offs for publications or awards, dates for relevant workshops or classes, etc.

For me, some of these key dates included:

  1. Conferences: AAG (abstracts due September/October, held in April); DOPE (abstracts due October/November, held in February); EPG for prelim dissertation results (abstract due November/December, held in June)
  2. Funding: National Science Foundation DDRI (can submit 2x – due February 15 and August 15); IIRG (due January 20); Dissertation completion fellowships (deadlines vary)

6. Start importing brain dump items into your calendar

Starting with your list of non-negotiable deadlines and bottleneck tasks from Step 4, begin filling in your calendar with key dates. If you, like me, are a fan of color coding, you can start with a color that sticks out – for example, red:

Beginning with these non-negotiable and/or must-have dates helps illustrate the shape of your schedule, and what time you have available for other tasks and goals. For example, I knew I’d be doing coursework all of 2015, working on my dissertation proposal in Spring 2016, and preparing for comprehensive exams for much of Winter 2017. I also assumed that I’d be spending most of the 2018-2019 academic year writing my dissertation. In terms of blocks of time that leaves open for other pursuits, that left me Summer 2015, Summer 2016, Summer/Fall 2017, and most of 2018.

I also knew I needed to block out time when I would be “in the field,” collecting/producing data:

Next, populate your calendar with the dates you brainstormed in Step 5. I listed key conferences in blue and funding application deadlines in green below:

Also, I knew that if I planned to graduate by the end of Year 5, I’d need to go on the job market in Fall 2018. So that means adding in notes (in orange) about when I should expect to prepare job application materials:

Finally, go back to the list of actionable, measurable, and concrete goals you created in Step 2. For me, those were:

  1. At least 2 publications in respected, peer-reviewed journals
  2. Evidence of successful external funding (e.g. grants, fellowships) for my dissertation
  3. Sustained activity (meaning at least 1-2 presentations per year) at relevant conferences in my discipline
  4. Instructor-of-record for at least one course
  5. At least one example of disciplinary-level service activity

Check these goals against what you have in your current calendar draft. What have you covered, and what is still missing? In mine, at this point I had added dates for Items 2 (external dissertation funding) and 3 (conference activity), but still needed to fill in Items 1, 4 and 5.

For publications (Item 1, yellow), I knew I would be most likely to draft and submit manuscripts at times when I didn’t have other major goals in play (e.g. completing comprehensive exams), so I set goals of completing paper drafts at points where I had relatively few other responsibilities.

Similarly, I set myself the goal of teaching courses (Item 4, dark blue) in semesters when, for example, I knew I wouldn’t be in the field or working on my dissertation.

Determining service opportunities (Item 5, light blue) was a bit harder, because I didn’t yet have enough knowledge of my field to know what my best options would be. However, I did know that some of my colleagues had served as student representatives for specialty groups (organized around research interests) in our major professional organization, and thought that would be a good way to meet other academics and learn a bit about professional development along the way. I picked a time when I would be ABD, thinking that after that point I’d have a bit more open space in my schedule for non-school-related responsibilities:

My finished 5 year plan for graduate school!

And there you have it! A finished 5 year plan for completing my PhD!

I do want to emphasize: this is a road map and not set in stone. It gives me a sense of, if I wanted to finish my degree in five years, and meet all my goals along the way, when I should expect to complete certain milestones. However, if you compare this calendar to how I actually finished my PhD, they don’t look exactly the same – and that’s fine!

I find it helpful to revisit this calendar at the start of every semester, for a few reasons:

  1. To revise the calendar based on what happened in the previous semester / year (sometimes life happens and you can’t do everything – and that’s okay! Or, maybe you finished tasks sooner than you thought.)
  2. As a timeline to list and plan what I want to accomplish for the upcoming months, and start making plan for the semester.
  3. As an aid for revising my C.V.

Was this post helpful for you? Do you want other posts showing what kinds of approaches I take for time management and planning? Let me know by email ( or on Twitter (@GretchenSneegas). Looking forward to hearing from you!

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