What’s that? It means deciding on a course of action as you go along, using your own initiative and perceptions rather than a pre-determined plan. From what I’ve been told, the description “fly by the seat of your pants” fell into popular use after Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan flew from Brooklyn to Ireland in 1938. He’d filed a flight plan to go to Long Beach, California a couple of days earlier, but took off to the east and never turned around, landing in Ireland 26 hours later.
The real story? It seems Corrigan’s original plan had been to go to Ireland, but had been refused on the grounds that his plane was not sufficiently airworthy to make the longer trans-Atlantic flight safely. So, he filed a flight plan that he was pretty sure would be approved. His goal hadn’t changed, but his plan had.
So what’s the message? It pays to have a plan – a career map if you will. It also pays to be flexible. If “Plan A” doesn’t work, go to “Plan B.” I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t have a plan outside of the traditional path–graduate school to postdoc to academic tenure–and it was no more a sure thing then than now. It took me about 6 years as an Assistant Prof (which I liked very much) to see that it just wouldn’t happen on any terms I was willing to accept, and then maybe not. By then the Animals’ hit song, “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” was well on its way to being recognized as one of the best guitar licks of all time. I took it to heart.
Hindsight is always better than foresight, but I ought to have begun looking at the alternatives during my postdoc year, which I still view as a high point of my (varied) career. Building your own flight plan, or career path, will help you identify career objectives, professional development needs, and pinpoint milestones along the way to your goal. You might even find the journey to be as interesting and rewarding as reaching the destination.
Career planning is best done interactively. Brainstorm with mentors, colleagues, and friends who know you well and have seen you in various roles. See what your university’s career planning office can offer. Research scientific professional associations in both general and specialized disciplines. Do some “web surfing” on career possibilities for PhDs. Trust me, something exciting will “suggest itself.”
When you decide on a professional goal (destination) that you like, find some role models. Maybe someone you already know. It helps to contact someone in a position or field that you might be interested in. Tell them what you’re aiming for and ask them about themselves and their work. The worst they can do is say “no,” but people usually enjoy talking about what they do. I used to recruit people to give talks about their research and various medical topics, but if they weren’t willing or able, they almost always recommended a colleague who was.
Now that you’ve identified your skills and interests, researched the possibilities, and made at least a tentative decision on your destination, you can do some real planning. Identify some specific activities to help you along the way. Decide on some intermediate milestones–with target dates if possible. You might want to take time during graduate and postdoc training to take some courses to develop business or communication skills or join groups like AMWA (American Medical Writers Association).
Look at your career as a progression. Your first stop will undoubtedly not be the last. I’m reminded of a grad school professor I had, and who’s still a role model. He’d reply when asked why he had done something that “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” So right now the details aren’t important. The most important thing is to start planning! Here’s a good starting point with some good ideas and examples. Check it out. “It Pays To Plan: Why You Need A Career Map:”
Clem Weinberger, PhD
The Stylus Medical Communications