Can a research career be planned, or is it serendipity?

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on January 19, 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

Recently on Twitter, Sarina Kilham (@sarinakilham) asked:

My answer to this very good question is the answer I give to many things: it’s complicated.

Photo from Kennedy Space Centrer (@SpaceX) | Unsplash
Photo from Kennedy Space Centrer (@SpaceX) | Unsplash

I would say yes, a research career should be planned to some extent, but you must also reconcile yourself to the fact that the plan is never set in stone. You need to be prepared for things to go off-plan or be completely derailed. In fact, in academia, a plan that works out exactly as you would have it may well be the exception rather than the rule.

All our plans for research depend on the roles we occupy and the considerable influence of whether we have a salary to sustain our lives. The most beautiful research career planning falls in a heap if that fixed-term contract isn’t renewed or sessional hours dry up. Even if you’re in a full-time, relatively secure position, life – and restructures – happen. There are some who declare that they would do their research no matter what, paying job or no job, and I’d venture to say that that is a relatively common declaration, but a rare reality.

So, make research plans – but know that they’re likely to morph into other things. You should keep making them even though you know this.


Because the value in planning your research career isn’t in the actual plan. It doesn’t lie only – or even mainly – in achieving the amazing goals you’ve set for yourself. It’s in the process of research planning itself.

Here are a couple of strategies I’d suggest for gaining value from the sometimes fraught research-planning process:

Be clear about what you want to be doing.

Research planning forces you to think carefully and realistically about where you are at with your research and career, to set goals, and know what you need to do to move towards those goals. It makes you weigh up what’s important, what values you want your career to adhere to, and which projects are the ones you’ll invest yourself in (versus what you’d do only if it happened to be convenient).

One of the best things that can come from this process is that you disentangle the rhetoric and aspiration that you’ve built around what you’re doing for your research. We all slide into this when writing our work-plans or doing academic small-talk. When bailed up at conferences or our home institution corridors, we say things like, “I’m working on this pilot project about corporate social responsibility and wombat underpasses. It’ll change national forest policy.”

Will it? Can it? Do you really want to work on that?

If you’re all about the wombats and less about the policy, then you may want to re-think the emphasis of this research. But the more we go around saying this kind of thing, the less clear we are about what we actually want to do with our precious, precious research time. This is when working out the actual doing of projects, and what stage they’re at, can clarify roles and relationships within the research team. This is essential when it comes to working together on funding applications, especially when you’re talking about the budget!

If you’re a researcher with a particularly sought-after skill be wary that you don’t end up as a part of many diverse projects. This can seem attractive (everybody loves you) but it may leave you with a lack of cohesion in your research profile. For example, if you’re the best person to have on board when there is anything red to analyse, you could end up with a scatter-gun project profile that covers everything from strawberries to fire-engines. This can leave you a bit stranded if you wanted to become known for your expertise with tomatoes. It’s great to be in demand for your skills, but make sure that you still get to work on what you want, in the direction you want.

Keep your research dreams on the radar. 

We all have research dreams, and we may slowly lose them along the way as they’re beaten out of us by one ‘performance goal’ after another. Performance goals and research dreams are not friends. Indeed, the performance goal is the hallway monitor of our research dreams.

One thing that can work is to have a research plan for your workplace that talks the talk of their Key Performance Indicators and priorities – it presents your research work in the outputs mode that academic managers like and want to track. As I’ve said before on building a publication track-record: “You may still end up ‘publishing to appease’ every so often, but don’t let it be your life.”

Sitting above this work-a-day version of your research plan, you should have a research plan that’s yours. This is the research plan that is more about the passion of why you are doing the work, the sectors you’d like to develop research with and the people (and organisations) you’d love to work with during your research life. They’re not necessarily tethered to the standard 1-, 3- or 5-year spans that work-plans demand, but they allow you to track your work-a-day alongside your dreams. Have the appeasement activities become your entire research life? Do they edge you towards your research dreams? Does the funding you’re going for lock you into work that you don’t really want to be doing?

The research dream plan is the one that you’d talk about with your career mentor (who shouldn’t be your line manager – no matter how supportive they may be about your work-a-day plan). These mentors have different priorities and will weigh things differently depending on the extent to which it may also affect them.

It can be extremely difficult to keep research dreams alive and on the radar when beset by the metrics-obsessed nature of contemporary academia. But to not have these research dreams is in itself a tragedy. As renowned author Diana Wynne Jones says,

“it is better to aim for the moon and get halfway there than just to aim for the roof and get halfway upstairs” (Reflections: On the magic of writing).


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