I'm about to start my PhD. I feel I should try to plan my academic career; or set some general goals at least. The time line could be something like 5-15 years. The first years are easy to plan: study this, study that, publish a few papers etc. It gets more difficult to make plans beyond receiving the PhD. I think that if I don't know where I want to go with my degree, it becomes difficult to make decisions during the coming years: when to say yes, and when to say no. I know I don't want to just end up somewhere doing what other people think I should be doing.

How do you plan your career? How frequently do you update your plan and/or check have you progressed as you planned?

  • 2
    Could someone explain the downvote? Like the OP, I'm new here.
    – user7123
    Commented Jul 3, 2013 at 17:21
  • I think people were reacting to the title of the question, which was way too broad to be answered reasonably. However, the last question could stand on its own.
    – aeismail
    Commented Jul 3, 2013 at 17:26
  • Since nobody left a comment to explain why the question should be closed, I prefer to reopen it. As aeismail said, the last question is fine.
    – user102
    Commented Jul 3, 2013 at 20:21
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    @CharlesMorisset I'm bothered by this reopening of a very broad, sprawly question. There were no reopen votes other than yours, that I can see. The close reasons themselves give an explanation as to why the question should be closed. Across the whole of Stack Exchange it's accepted that close votes do not need comments to justify them, and I don't see any good reason to change that rule here.
    – 410 gone
    Commented Jul 4, 2013 at 8:06
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    @EnergyNumbers: To avoid comment-spamming the question, I posted the answer here: meta.academia.stackexchange.com/q/561/102
    – user102
    Commented Jul 4, 2013 at 9:00

3 Answers 3


What I tell my students starting out is to make sure that they have realizable goals. Saying "I want to be a postdoc in field X in five years" is realizable. Saying "I want to work for Professor X at University Y on project Z in five years" is probably not realizable. Making sure you have a plausible goal in mind, and the ability to work toward it is incredibly important.

However, it's important to realize that goals and opportunities change over time. What you think you want to do now may not be what you want to do a year from now. So that's why it's important not to have goals that are too narrowly defined—otherwise, it makes it harder to change your mind later and still be satisfied with the way things turn out.

How often do you reassess goals? As often as you feel you need to. But you should also distinguish between the different ranges of priorities—short-range, mid-range, and long-range. Short- and mid-range should be reviewed on a very regular basis (weekly to monthly); the longer-range stuff at least a few times a year. But these are guidelines that work for me; you need to find a system that works for you.


Here is an advice I give a lot lately: given the state of affairs, make sure each you take a position (start a PhD, start a postdoc, etc.) that you want it, and not that you want what you expect to get after it. For example, if you take a postdoc that you don't really want because you hope to get a tenure track afterward, you have a great chance of regretting that choice a few years later. If you follow my advice, the worst that should happen is that you have fun with research for some years and end up frustrated not to be able to continue.

This advice is probably not that good for PhD in countries where it is a valuable diploma in the employment market; in France, outside academia you do little more with a PhD than without, and the advice stands (I know a few people that ended up high school teachers after a PhD they did not enjoy, that seems quite a waste).

That said, it means you should reevaluate your plans at least at each opportunity (starting PhD, end of PhD, next postdoc, etc.)


Some universities can help you plan your career, by describing what career paths are available to you, and what steps you should take to follow the path you want. I know this is particularly true in the UK, for instance Birmingham university has the following career pathways (there is something similar at my university, but it does not seem to be publicly available).

For instance, some of the main paths are (in parentheses are only some examples are points that can be particularly useful to show):

  • research-focused (where, for instance, showing that you can get some funding can be quite important)
  • teaching-focused (where, for instance, showing that you can teach and supervise can be quite important)
  • technician-focused (where, for instance, showing that you are very skilled in using your lab equipment can be quite important)
  • admin-focused (where, for instance, showing that you can work with academics and manage them can be quite important)
  • industry-focused (where, for instance, showing that you can address "real-life" problems can be quite important)
  • others (where anything can be quite important!).

In my current university, you can have an official, annual meeting with your boss to talk about your objectives with respect to your desired path, and you can get support from a staff development unit. There is also a mentoring program, where you can discuss about your career with a senior staff member, usually not in your department, to avoid any "conflict of interest".

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