What’s the plan?

“I am unable to assess to what extent [the researcher] is adequately prepared to achieve the highly ambitious aims of the project.”

“…unsure about the additional gains from this project compared with earlier work…”

“There is no research plan or timetable…”

Source: Assessor comments about three recent applications

In their own way, each of these assessors is saying, “I don’t understand your plan. Where are you going with this?”.

If you don’t know where you are going, no-one else will either. So, here are five types of plans that can help you visualise your research, then communicate it to those around you.

Personal goal

A personal goal is often called a ‘five-year plan’ or ‘ten-year plan’. At its heart, it states what you are trying to achieve in the foreseeable future.

Sometimes, they are expressed as aspirational goals:

“Be a professor before I am 30.”

At best, I think that they are simple, clear statements that act as touchstones for decision making:

“Keep the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons.”

That was actually the ten-year plan of my old boss, Peter Hayes. On a superficial level, it failed. The US moved their nukes out, but the North Koreans built their own. On a personal level, however, it was a superb success. It gave Peter a clarity of vision that helped him keep working through all kinds of setbacks.

Aspirational goals and vision statements like these need to be backed up with a sense of where you have come from, where you are going, and what you need to achieve to reach your goal.

The advantage of knowing those things is that you will be able to articulate them more clearly when you are applying for funding, writing position papers, and talking to other people within and outside the field.

What is your personal goal?

Research plan

I find that some people are excellent at describing what they want to do, but terrible at expressing how they will do it.

The clearest way to express a research plan is to draw a simplified Gantt chart.

Example of a Gantt chart
Example of a Gantt chart

This process will help you to break the project down into stages, estimate how long each of those stages should be, what you actually need to do, and how they relate to one another. Often, in drawing up the Gantt chart, you’ll realise that there are whole areas of the project that just are not clear. Just how long will it take to appoint a post-doc, install a thingatron, or conduct a nationwide survey?

The secret with Gantt charts is to make them simple enough to be understood ‘at a glance’. To test if yours is clear enough, show it to the next five people who walk through your door. It doesn’t matter if they are the head of school, the cleaner, or a random student; they should be able to tell you something sensible about the plan from a quick glance.

[Addendum: Here is a simple guide to making one.]

Institutional vision

Your university or research centre will have an overall vision for research. Ours is called a Research Management Plan. It sets out which areas the university wants to concentrate on and the mechanisms that will be used to encourage research in those areas.

Most of these documents are written by committee and end up as a sea of compromise. That’s OK – they are what they are. You should still understand them and have a knowledge of their contents. For all their flaws, they do generally provide a picture of the research strengths of the organisation (or what the organisation would like their research strengths to be).

If you align with those strengths, you should mine the document for material you can use when applying for funding. If you don’t align with those strengths, you might want to think about possibilities for cross-disciplinary work with those areas, or even that other places might suit you better.

National priority areas

In the same way that your organisation will have a research plan, your nation will have priority areas where the government will want to encourage research. You may find that different departments within the national government have different priorities. The Department of Agriculture, for example, will probably value different research to the Department of Commerce.

The government provides considerable funding for research, so it pays to keep an eye on what they think is important. You don’t need to fit into the areas that they nominate, and you shouldn’t bend your research to match their preferences, but you need to understand what possibilities exist for your research to fill some of the niches in the broad areas nominated.

Discipline roadmap

The Human Genome Project is probably the best known research discipline roadmap. It was a clear statement of a long-term plan that cut across institutional boundaries.

A good roadmap should reach beyond the working span of any one researcher, research group, or organisation. One way to do that is to mark out the way ahead for fifty years or more. That might seem overly ambitious, but there are techniques – such as scenario workshops – that can help to imagine long-term possibilities.

This sort of long-term, big-sky thinking is particularly useful for new and emerging areas of research. It can help to bring together ideas in a coherent way. There are boundary issues to be considered, but coming together to create a plan is better than not having a plan at all.

As with all the other plans, you should understand where your own research fits within the overall picture.

So, what’s your plan?

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