Careers & The 3 Year Plan

Recently on Twitter a thread by L. Maren Wood asked hiring managers to provide some tips for newly minted PhDs applying for “non-academic” jobs. I responded a couple times throughput the thread, but one thing I wanted to expand on was the notion of having A Plan and knowing ahead of time What you Are Working For. Although this was not directly related to applying for a job per se, it was still IMHO important and often overlooked aspect of being successful in interviewing and finding the job you want.

All the other comments (not just mine) are also worth reading – especially if your a “newly minted PhD” 😉.

Make a Plan

I used to call it “my 5 year career plan”, but things often move faster than we want them too – so now I call it My 3-year Plan. Why 3 years? Well… becuase it’s long enough to get really good at something, long enough to know if you like or love what you do, and long enough to know if you will (eventually) be able to master something or not (and whether that’s even important to you or not).

A couple people responded both publicly and via private/DM me on Twitter essentially asking “What is a “3 Year Career Plan and how can you possibly make one as a scientist?”, which is what prompted this post. Take this with a grain of salt – but here goes.

First – Answer the Why?

Answering The Why means that you should ask yourself: Why am I in this field? Why am I’m working as hard as I do? What is it all for? Whatever you answer – the answers to this should be what fuels the next step.

Set Goals and Prioritize Some, Throw Out the Rest

You know why you are doing what you do. You have at least some idea about what is important to you and your career. Next, set some goals. Brainstorm. Prioritize. If you had to pick three – which would make the cut? Throw out the rest.

Write It Down

Yes. This is important. It may feel silly at first, or even cliché, but it does indeed help you crystalize what you want to do with your career. Write down your goals and draft a plan for how to achieve them. Be realistic, but give yourself a challenge.

Create a Google Doc or put a plain text document on DropBox, whatever. Someplace where the document can live on and you won’t need to worry about misplacing it. Also, if you write it down it also creates a kind of self-accountability. Set a reminder on your phone to prompt you to review it in 1 Year. Update the plan, track changes, and then repeat.

Share It

That’s right, but maybe not with everyone, but definitely with someone important to you. Double down on the accountability by sharing it with someone who your trust – a mentor, a close colleague or coworker, your SO. Someone who you will still know in 3 years and who would care about your success.

Ask them to provide you with feedback. Is this realistic? Are you being too ambitious? Not ambitious enough? Did you forget something?

Set SMART Goals

A lot of people know about “SMART” goals, and they have been shown to be effective. Furthermore, by writing them down and sharing them with a trusted person, you create a clear picture of what it is you want to achieve and can begin to develop a plan around those goals.

Be Specific, but Not a Fortune Teller

IMHO it’s important to not have your goals be tied to the outcome of your research or a development project, or closely tied to the success of others.


Because you hopefully value your sanity.

For example – consider Jane the Scientist, who is a biochemist, and her goals:

BAD: I will join a team that discovers a new therapeutic for Disease X.

GOOD: Within 1 year, I will find a research scientist position at a startup company focused on new therapeutics for DiseaseX. I will be directly involved in the pre-screening of at least one compound for pre-clinical trials within 3 years.

Both goals are Relevant, but the first goal is BAD because it doesn’t have any timelines (not Time-Bound) or specifics of the type of job, company or reasons for working there (not Specific enough, no Measurable metrics). The first goal might be Achievable, but it highly depends on existing work, the development pipeline, and the success of the entire team. The second goal fulfills all of the SMART criteria.

Keeping accountable and writing down your plans and goals is an important part of “Self Management” of your career and – more importantly – your TIME.

Time is the one resource we all have, but we all choose to spend our time differently. By creating an acheivable and measurable 3-year plan for your career – you can choose to build a plan that includes time for the things that are most important. Those things that answer “The Why”.

For me, The Why is why having A Plan is so important…

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