10 October 2011

Planning is essential; plans are useless

People are often advised that it’s important to have a plan, particularly in scientific careers. In my career, though, I have been more impressed at how much it has been shaped by events that I never could have predicted.

As an undergraduate, I got started in research because I walked through a door, was having a discussion with Jennifer Mather (who I was talking a class with), she mentioned a research project she wanted to do, and I said, “That sounds interesting.” I was recruited practically on the spot to work on the project! So my research career got kickstarted by walking through Jennifer’s door.

Meeting with my doctoral and post-doctoral supervisors had a similar feel. I never could have planned to have worked with the people I did. I didn’t plan to work with crustaceans for my Ph.D., or crickets for a post-doc. I didn’t know the people I worked with extremely well before traipsing off to their lab; I took a bit of a leap of faith in deciding to work in someone’s lab.

I published two papers on tunicates entirely because I met Virginia Scofield in the hallway outside my office, and we got on well.

More recently, I talked about how I ended up co-authoring an ecological modeling paper and a parasite paper. Neither of those papers would ever have happened if there wasn’t the right person down the hall whose door I could walk into.

My career is not completely wu wei. I sought out opportunities like scholarships and awards, and made plans, too. I did have a plan for my post-docs: I wanted to a post-doc outside of Canada, then a second one in Canada. I got the Canadian and international experience, but in the reverse order. But I had to be open and flexible enough to read the signs and follow them where they led.

You never know who’s going to walk through your door next. They might change everything.

(“Planning is essential; plans are useless” is a paraphrase of a U.S. army saying, popularized by Dwight Eisenhower. A variation of it is, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”)

Photo by Jeff_Werner on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.


27 and a PhD said...

Oh so true. I was just writing a short entry to a tweep who asked how I decided what to study for my PhD. Had I planned things, it wouldn't have turned out as it did. Basically I met my PhD mentor while on a departmental recruiting session and noticed that in the poster there was a critter and technique I'd learned about years before. I thought it was cool, but never in a million years would I have thought to search those two and see if they could be studied together. And they were (are)! And it was staring right in my face during my first few weeks in school. I never planned on doing a postdoc in Canada, and poof! that happened too. It's interesting to see how these things come about.

Daniel Bassett said...

So true for me also. I was originally interested in bird behaviour but decided to do a MSc on fish because I could probably go to Antarctica (which I did). Then I liked my supervisor so I stayed for my Phd. At a conference in the USA I met someone working in a related field and the next thing I know I am living in the USA for a year doing a postdoc. Then I email people randomly and all of a sudden I have a postdoc offer in Canada. The one part that was planned was I applied for a three year grant from NZ (where Im from) and got it and so at least my current postdoc in Canada is planned. Who knows if I will get a lecturing position. That is the BIG question and fear and anxiety and sleepless night and.........

ജീവബിന്ദു said...

A simple question addressed to all doctors. Have you ever felt that the liberty to choose has assisted in the furtherance of your scientific enquiry?