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Nue Lee is a PhD student in Higher Education at the University of Michigan. You can find her on Twitter @thesisthreads or on her personal blog.


My spirit animal is Leslie Knope. Though her fictional character’s show, Parks and Recreation, ended a couple of years ago, Leslie is still relevant today. I was recently moved, for example, by her spirited letter to America regarding the results of this year’s presidential elections. In her honor, please feel free to watch this 16 second clip of Leslie unveiling her master plan as I introduce my own master plan of the five-year journey that will be my doctoral degree.


Leslie’s master plan is the park department budget proposal, but I also use master plan to describe what is essentially my five-year timeline: The Roadmap from PhD Program to Degree Completion to Tenure Track Faculty Position at a R1 Institution. This plan came to fruition during a series of consultation appointments with a career specialist at the conclusion of my master’s program last year. The majority of my cohort used that time to strategize being on the job market, but I went in to talk about planning my PhD degree. I walked out with a concrete map to guide me through the entire process from orientation to candidacy to beyond the dissertation.


After some research online, I found another great resource to continue my master plan in Karen Kelsky, better known as The Professor Is In, and her Five-Year Plan. Therefore, it is quite fitting that my first GradHacker post in the first year of my doctoral program is about how to construct your own master plan.


1. Use an easily editable medium.

I find that starting with a piece of paper on the landscape orientation a great way to sketch out five rows for five years. I then create 12 columns for each month of the year. I start my first column in September to align with the academic year. With this first draft, I also add an additional column for notes, but this last column is only for drafting purposes. There may be other layouts that better suit your needs, but the idea is to be able to see everything with one sweep of the eye. This means containing your plan to one sheet of paper for now.


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2. Set aside time to do one massive brain dump.

Start by generating a list of items that need to be included in your plan and prioritize them. Collect all necessary artifacts like the PhD handbook you have yet to crack open, bookmarked fellowship websites, your CV, and exemplar CVs of more advanced students and faculty in your department. Your list may include: (1) benchmarks in your program: yearly reviews, candidacy process (qualifying exams, defense), dissertation (prospectus, defense); (2) fellowship, conference, and journal submission deadlines; and (3) an understanding of the job market process and timeline for your intended career trajectory.


When you are fully prepared and can afford the time, sit down with your list and all the necessary resources. Simply start at the top and go through each of the five years in consecutive order. Keep working until you exhaust your list. This is a good spot to take a break. I then come back and assess the plan one year at a time, starting with year one. This way, with fresh eyes and a clear head, evaluating how sound my plan is will be easy. I may make adjustments by starting activities earlier given the deadline or add in additional needed steps to meet a program benchmark. Once this assessment is done, I am ready to create an electronic version of my plan with the intentionality of a working template that is easy to update. My current plan is a simple Word document with tables that I can simply go in and adjust.




3. Include areas of individual development with strategies for reaching goals.  

What really makes my master plan is a combination of a five-year timeline (steps 1 and 2) and my version of an individual development guide or areas I want to develop with strategies for reaching goals. Here is a list of my ten point plan to get you started, but please be encouraged to develop your own areas of focus: candidacy, dissertation, professional development, publication & presentation, teaching, grants/fellowships, job search, networking, informational Interviews, and self-care/family planning.


I included self-care, because it is important for all graduate students to focus on their well-being throughout the doctoral program. I dedicate a half day that is just for my partner and I at least once a month. Additionally, once a week I also make time to partake in an enjoyable, recreational activity whether it is volunteering, a book club meeting, dinner with friends, or an art class. Another area of individual development is the job search, which also guides the areas of networking and informational interviews. For this individual development, I start with the end goal and I work backwards with a list of all the potential R1 institutions I would love to work at. This list is readily accessible on my phone and even posted on my refrigerator. I am working to memorize it for two purposes. One, every time there is a talk at the University of Michigan, I can see if the speaker is from an institution that is on my list. This will be a wonderful opportunity for me to send the individual an email and create an opportunity for me to introduce myself in person. And two, whether I am traveling for leisure or for a conference, I can consult my list for institutions close to my travel location and make plans to visit the campus and meet key individuals from the departments I am interested in.




4. Your master plan is a living document.

This means your plan must be in a format that can be continually updated. As I mentioned earlier, my current master plan is in a Word document. I print out the document, grab my pencil bag of colorful markers, and I set aside 3 hours every 3 months to update my master plan. Evaluate the past three months and use that information to propel forward the next three months and beyond. Make sure deadlines are updated accurately and goals are accounted for or modified.


Well there you have it, the two components of a five-year timeline and an individual development guide that make up the master plan.

Do you already have your own master plan? Is this a tool that you would find useful as you complete your PhD degree? What is your master plan? Please feel free to leave your comments and questions below!

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