The Professional Plan

By Michele H. Jackson. Nuevo Día 2004 Presentation

The Professional Plan

“Professional planning” is a phrase I settled upon as representing the process of setting out the professional activities for the intentionally-vague period between now and a number of years into the future. For many of you, “now” means either the last years of your graduate program, or the first years of your first position. And the only distinct landmark in “the future” is contract review, promotion, and/or tenure. Talking about a “professional plan” is a way of turning that planning into something explicit and concrete.

Faculty at many universities actually must submit some version of a professional plan. This is especially true for tenured faculty, who are now often required to undergo formal periodic “post-tenure evaluation.” But even non-tenured faculty may be required to state their professional goals. These can be quite general, such as “My goal is to submit 1-2 manuscripts yearly for publication, to present at 1-2 professional conferences in my field yearly, to supervise 1-2 graduate students per year, and to develop 1 new undergraduate course over the next two years.”

My conception is consistent with this, but much more explicit and fine-grained. A professional plan has long term goals, mid-range objectives, and short-term commitments and activities. A good analog is to a financial plan. When I was in graduate school, making less than $12,000 a year, I was offered a free session with a financial planner. Much to his credit, the planner offered sound advice: commit every month to saving a fixed amount of your income. It was difficult enough to save a measly $50 a month, but the result of that commitment ended up completely paying for moving expenses to my first academic job 3 years later. Over time, small, programmatic decisions add up.

Why should you bother with a professional plan?

a. The most compelling reason you should have a professional plan is that the academic profession presents an unbelievable number of choices. The life of a graduate student is marked by the number of courses taken, by academic term length, or perhaps by conference deadlines. While some of these markers continue to exist (grades still need to be turned in on time, conferences still have deadlines), others do not. For example, there are no rules for the number of research projects to be undertaken, or the number of hours to spend preparing a lecture. Unlike many professional positions in industry, you do not need to request permission for how to spend your time, or to work on projects that interest you. And while some departments often limit their expectations for new faculty in terms of teaching or service (this is called “protecting” new faculty), others do not. The guidelines, policies, and advisors that were operating on your behalf to protect you as a graduate might not be present when you become a faculty member.

b. The academic job is unstructured and also filled with many, many opportunities. This is another way of saying that there will be many pressures and demands on your time. One piece of advice we often hear is “say no,” which we resolutely commit to in the abstract, but which melts away when faced with the colleague or student at our door insisting that our involvement is crucial. Also, saying “no” indiscriminately seems little help either, for certainly we are supposed to say “yes” to some things? A professional plan helps you decide which answer to give; it provides some logic for your decision making. Is the request for something that fits with your objectives and goals? Or will it take you too far off course? A professional plan allows you to be proactive rather than reactive.

c. If there is one cliché I hope you remember from this essay, it is that “the immediate crowds out the important.” This is a problem, of course. I’m not saying that the immediate isn’t always unimportant. If it were, this would be only a trivial problem. But the real difficulty with this problem is that the immediate is, well, immediate. It is here, in front of us, embodied or otherwise felt, and we say “fine, I’ll just take care of this and then I’ll get to that other thing that I need to spend time on.” You look up a week, a month, even a year later, and you find you still haven’t spent time on that thing…and worse, you might have been away so long that you aren’t sure how to start it again. When faced with two equally important things, the one that is more immediate is likely to win your time.
The solution to this problem, I suggest, is to make the Important immediate. A professional plan helps you do this by requiring you breaking down those important medium- or long-term projects into activities that can be made immediate. If you have determined that, in order to get a manuscript out for review six months from now, your literature review must be done this Friday, then that is as immediate as the student who insists that they have to talk with you before Monday’s exam. Both are important, but you’ve already committed your time to your research.

d. Another reason you should consider a professional plan is that “working hard” is not enough. My first two years in the profession, I worked long hours, but because my work wasn’t guided by a logic or a set of clear principles, a lot of that time was spent spinning my wheels. The bottom line isn’t about how hard you work, but about how much you get done. It’s about being productive, or working smart. A professional plan can actually free time for the other important parts of life.

e. An emphasis on professional planning is preferable to what we tend to emphasize: achieving tenure. The goal or objective of tenure is not enough. First, because, paradoxically, it is not enough to get tenure. Why? Because, unlike the process of writing and defending a dissertation to earn a Ph.D., there is no one culminating, defining project that makes the granting of tenure a matter of course. Second, tenure itself may not be the best professional goal or objective you could have. To newly hired professors, it is hard to believe, but tenure is an official acknowledgement or even certification of professional accomplishment, it is not your accomplishment itself. So, in setting goals and objectives, don’t ask yourself, “what will it take for me to get tenure?” Ask yourself “what will it take for me to become accomplished?”

f. Leaving graduate school means facing new responsibilities for establishing your identity in your field. This relates to the general issue of having to manage choices and make decisions in an unstructured situation. This is a question of your external positionality: Who do you want to be? How do you want others to perceive you? This becomes an issue for professional planning because your identity doesn’t need to be constructed overnight. In fact, you shouldn’t expect it to be. Graduate school seems like the time that we become scholars. When we earn our degree and look back, we cannot believe how far we have come. Yet for many of our senior colleagues, that’s the time when we’re just getting interesting as scholars. It makes sense to remember that our scholarly careers could be several decades long. As an issue for professional planning, you can see your identity as dynamic and unfolding, while at the same time being reflective and purposeful about how that identity develops.

g. Finally, there are many different models for being a successful academic. Some of these models emphasize competition and achievement. Some emphasize balance. Some emphasize entrepreneurialism and risk. Don’t assume that there is only one kind of professional life. To find different models, look around at senior scholars you admire and look back over their careers. You may be surprised at the way their paths vary. A professional plan will help you build your model for success.

Constructing a Professional Plan

Professional plans are, basically, explicit statements of expectations and a breakdown or specification of how those expectations will be achieved. You should expect to periodically review and revise your plan. It is more of a reminder than a map. At a minimum, a plan assumes that you are moving forward “with all deliberate speed” in three areas: research, teaching, and service. The precise speed will differ by person, but being deliberate means doing something in each of these areas continuously. For example, it is typical that we teach courses every year, and sit on committees every year. Because research is more individualized, and because there are no standard or routine markers for research accomplishment, assessing “deliberate speed” of research is trickier. Part of your professional plan should be to develop “rules of thumb” that you can use to be sure you are moving forward (yes, it is possible to not only come to a standstill, but to move backward in terms of research productivity). For example, I use a rule of thumb of having always 3-5 manuscripts under review for publication, and having at least one funded project. These rules have implications for my time, such as sometimes foregoing conference submissions, or taking on higher risk (because there are no revise-and-resubmits in research proposals).

A first question in putting together your plan is, how do you set expectations? There are a number of sources for expectations, and you should consult each as you construct your plan. The first source is your department or institution. Your department may expect that you teach a certain number of courses each year. They may also expect you to conduct some level of research, although they may be less exact about what that looks like. And they will also expect a certain amount of service. Departments differ in how they weigh each of these. Try to get your department to be as explicit as possible about their expectations in each of these areas. (Often, these will be formally stated in terms of the assignment of your time. For example, “40-40-20” represents an assignment of 16 hours of a 40 hour work week spent in both teaching and research, and 8 hours spend in service. These are useful tools for the process of allocating your time).

But then also be attuned to the informal expectations of the department, or of your colleagues. Are you expected to attend social functions? To be an active campus citizen (attending campus events)? To mentor graduate students? To mentor other faculty? To be engaged in community outreach? These are all expectations that come from the culture of the department, and might never be stated in formal terms, but they are just as important to consider.

The second source of expectations is a mentor. This might be your advisor, but not necessarily. This is a person who you see as being important, even instrumental, to your advancement in the profession. They can be a good source for understanding, for example, how to assess “accomplishment.” A mentor will also be able to point things out that aren’t obvious to the newcomer, such as whether or not a textbook ‘counts’ toward research accomplishment (despite the great amount of effort required to write textbooks, they typically are not valued as research). Mentors can also help you at those times you need to choose between two or more options that seem equally relevant and important in the short term, but that may have significantly different long term implications.

A third source of expectations is your own personal motivations and desire for professional and intellectual growth. Although I’ve been positioning the high level of choice as a difficulty to be faced, it’s really also the source of great freedom and possibility that is distinctive of our profession. Recognize that part of your plan should include opportunities for you to develop as a scholar, teacher, and member of the academic community.

A plan consists of at least three elements: long-term goals, mid-term objectives, and short-term commitments and activities. Once you get the idea of what I’m suggesting, you might want to tailor your plan to include other elements, such as your personal vision and mission statement, milestones, assessment and evaluation metrics, or even rewards you promise yourself for certain accomplishments. If you’ve got a planning element that works well for you, I invite you to share it with me and I’ll include it here.

a. Long-term goals. Think of goals as being accomplished no earlier than 5-7 years from now. I suggest wording these so that they are specific but broad. “Specific” means that anyone can tell if the goal has been accomplished. “Broad” means that there are many ways of accomplishing that goal. For example, a businessperson might have a goal to be “a top executive in the automobile industry.” The goal is specific because it is possible to assess if it has been achieved. The goal is broad because there are many ways to achieve it. An academic goal might be “to have an international reputation as a scholar in the area of professional identity,” or “to be a central contributor to nonprofit organizations in my community”, or “to have advanced in the field a new theory of organizing and materiality,” or “to be recognized as an outstanding teacher in my institution.”

b. Mid-term objectives. For objectives, think in 6 month increments from 6 months to 2 years. Take your goals, and ask, “What are the concrete accomplishments I will need to achieve my goals?” Concrete means that you can observe whether or not you have achieved what you set out. Examples of objectives include: “2 manuscripts under review for publication,” “prepare new graduate seminar,” “complete self-study in knowledge management systems,” and “meet 10 people in my area of study,” “contribute service at the expected level to my department.”

Work backward from your goals to set your objectives. If you find yourself wanting to accomplish an objective, but you can’t tie that objective to a goal, that is an important sign! Either revise your goals or eliminate that objective. It is important to recognize that there many be several things at this level that are beyond your control. While you need to be sensitive to these, and change your objectives as needed, be very careful of “slippage.” If you find yourself pushing objectives back more than 6 months, this is another warning sign. Ask yourself: “Am I being too ambitious?” If yes, then revise your goals accordingly – remember, you’ve already identified your objectives as what is required to achieve your goals. If you can’t accomplish your objectives, you can’t accomplish your goals. Remembering this logic will go a long way toward developing a realistic sense of your professional life. If you are not being too ambitious, then that is a sign that there are distractions and activities not related to your professional goals that you need to cut back on.

c. Short-term activities and commitments. These are the things that structure our days. They are measured out in hours. For planning purposes, I recommend thinking no more than 1 month in advance. To determine your activities, work backward from your objectives and your commitments. If you have committed to completing a manuscript in 6 months, then that means perhaps that the data analysis must be done in 2 weeks. This is then a deadline that you must honor, which means perhaps not agreeing to a meeting or not returning student papers as quickly as they would like.

At this level, your personal work preferences become important: perhaps you work better when you concentrate on only one task at a time, or when you work no more than 2-3 hours per task. Regardless, I recommend keeping a weekly calendar that has 40 hours on it. Certainly all of us go over 40 hours, but my experience is that we tend to think of time as a limitless resource (even though of course it is not). If we are not conscious and reflective about our use of time, we easily fall prey to the trap of giving away “just a few minutes” or “just an hour” here and there. These add up. Our first 40 hours should be for activities and commitments that relate to our objectives. I should say that these aren’t always task related – some may include social elements of our work, such as building stronger relationships with our colleagues.

An advantage of starting with a 40 hour calendar is that you can quickly assess how your division of efforts corresponds to your official assignment. As I mentioned above, most institutions will assign a percentage of your time to each of the three main activities of an academic: research, teaching, service. At my institution, for example, the typical distribution for a faculty member is 40/40/20: 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service. This corresponds to weekly hours spent: 16 on research, 16 on teaching, 8 on service. Many of us overspend on teaching, and perhaps on service, shorting the time we are expected to give to research. We might say “I’ll make it up in the summer,” although this can be a trap because (1) most academic contracts do not include the summer, and (2) it is better practically and perhaps intellectually better in the long run to have our work spread out more evenly than bunched in a 2-3 month period. I think closer reflection and inspection of our weekly use of time would help.

Each activity should be put on your calendar. Some people mark out the actual hours they will spend on a task. I prefer a daily list of “to do” items. If you keep a todo list, again beware of “slippage.” I conscientiously work on making my todo list realistic for the time I have available. If more than 2 items carry over to the next day, this is a warning sign for me. Activities specify how you will spend your time. Making activities explicit makes the important immediate.

Finally, regularly review your activities and objectives. Make a running list of what you have accomplished. Too often, we simply don’t know where we spend our time. We know we’ve accomplished something, because we’ve been working hard. A list of what you’ve actually done can be a great benefit in assessing your productivity, and in revising your objectives and goals.

Choices that will affect your plan

So far, I haven’t said much about how the different kinds of decisions you could make. But indeed there are a number of decisions that reflect different values and interests and that affect the contours of every plan. As a result of these decisions, professional plans become individualized. This list is not exhaustive, and if you have suggestions for additions, please let me know and I’ll include them here.

1. Which of the three main areas of academic life do you want to excel in? I use “excel” purposefully: for many institutions, promotion and tenure evaluations require “excellence” in one of these categories, and “merit” in the other two. Now, this is not quite accurate, because it is a well-known fact that one does not get tenure based on service, so if you want to excel in service, you must also excel in either teaching or research. However, if, professionally, you want to pursue an administrative career, then you can build that into your plan early on.

2. What kind of scholarly community do you need to succeed? Not every type of research needs the same level of connection to others. Some research is best done in a relatively cloistered environment, isolated from others for much of the time, to allow reflection and independent thought. Other research programs are most successful embedded in a well-known community. A group of scholars researching a similar subject may find incredible support and synergies by knowing and learning about each others’ work. You should plan to spend time reading manuscripts shared among members of this community, and networking at conferences and elsewhere. Still other research programs require an entrepreneurial approach to community. If you are conducting research in an area relatively new to Communication, if you are conducting research that is embedded within another field (such as health communication or engineering communication), or if you are interested in multidisciplinary research questions, you may need to spend time building connections to scholars in other disciplines. An entrepreneurial can be “high risk,” so I suggest having at least one secondary line of research in which you can progress while building these connections. This will allow you to continue to have manuscripts under review.

3. What other kinds of support do you need? Take some time to reflect on what you need to be successful. Do you need colleagues who are interested and engaged in what you are studying? If so, you will need to plan for developing relationships with colleagues. Do you need graduate students, either for intellectual stimulation or to form research teams? If so, you will need to plan to identifying, recruiting, developing, and advising graduate students. Is your research expensive? You will need to plan time to write funding proposals. Do you need to travel to conduct your research? Plan for travel time, and perhaps also for time to write funding proposals to pay for travel.

4. What interests you as a scholar? Some people will be satisfied pursuing one area of research for many years. Others may need to investigate more areas in order to remain motivated as a scholar. Adding more areas of research is a “riskier” strategy for the non-tenured, but it is feasible if it is planned for. A plan will also allow you to better judge how the different areas of your research tie together. It is important to your promotion and tenure evaluation that you have a coherent research program (although coherent doesn’t necessarily mean narrow).

5. What kind of contribution do you want to make and to whom? This is a very important question that can really help to give you purpose as a scholar. It is possible to decide that you will not think about contribution. It may be very efficient to simply worry about productivity (i.e., getting published). Yet, you may plan to try to make a difference in a particular community. At a minimum, identify a research community or a learning community for whom your work will be important (depending if you wish to emphasize research or teaching). After that, you might choose a practitioner’s community, or a service community who will benefit from the work you do.

6. Where do you need to publish? This is an important question for a number of reasons. First, the places you publish may be important for promotion and tenure review. Your department and your research community (who will probably serve as your external reviewers) will expect to see a certain level of productivity and will expect that your work is known within the field of Communication. Research productivity may include not only the number of publications you have, but also where they appear, and how they are spread out across your career. Second, the places you publish are important for the visibility of your work. If you work on interdisciplinary issues, for example, it may be important to have some of your work in non-Communication fields. This is an extra publication burden you will need to plan for. Third, your area of research might not yet be established in the field. You might find it more difficult to “break in” to publication, and will need to spend more time sending the same manuscript out for review until you get a “hit.” Finally, journals vay in their turnaround time. If your department expects a certain number of articles in the top journals in our field, you may need to plan for 2-3 years between submission of a manuscript and its publication.

7. How do you want to think about tenure? The obvious answer might be “I want it.” But this is not enough. Do you see tenure as a competitive challenge? If so, you may want to plan to be a highly efficient researcher, maximizing publications quickly, perhaps even to gain tenure early. Do you see tenure as an important professional benchmark, providing a level of security that will allow you to pursue new projects. Then your plan might be fairly conservative, to keep you focused and on track. Or do you perhaps see tenure as something that happens along the way, while pursuing goals that interest or inspire you? Then you might plan more long term goals, taking steps to build in publishing in your midterm objectives. You might even plan to change institutions along the way, which nearly always “sets your clock back” for tenure review.

Benefits of a professional plan

It should be obvious by now that I believe that a professional plan offers a number of benefits to your career. But in conclusion, let me pull out a few. First, a plan improves your workflow because it guides what makes it on your calendar and what does not. Decision-making becomes a matter of time available, and not just decisions of “yes” or “no.” Second, a plan allows you to be proactive with regard to your career, rather than reactive. Third, a plan can be invaluable in helping you think about generating your support infrastructure, including needed resources and networks. Fourth, a plan makes you more reflective and conscious about your work. Continually assessing yourself as a professional makes it easier to develop your identity, and to state that identity to others, either in an “elevator pitch” at a conference, or in your personal statements of research, teaching, and service that are a critical part of any promotion and tenure dossier.


Well, I have now spent one week’s allotment of service time writing this essay. Which I have enjoyed, and which I hope you find useful. And although I could tinker with it for a few more hours, my calendar is calling me away to my next task, which I think is to review dissertation chapters for one of my students. Regardless, I know that I will neither begrudge the task, nor wonder what good it is doing me, because I trust that I’ve planned for it.

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