Grad Pathologies I: Lack of Midrange Planning

Some of you may have noticed my absence from ALPS for the last few months. I’ve been busily building my own business doing dissertation and academic coaching and freelance editing. At the invitation of the blog owner, Chad, I’m back for a two-part series on common problems that I’ve seen working with grad students on their dissertations. (Later there will be a two-part series on common faculty issues.)

The biggest, most frequent problem I observe in graduate students (and to be honest, in faculty too) is a lack of midrange planning. The military, into which I married, captures it best with the concepts of strategic, operational, and tactical planning. Strategic planning is overall goals and big picture thinking. We academics are pretty good at this: finish this paper by the conference, collect this data so we can write the next paper, complete the dissertation. We’re also pretty good at the hands-on tactical planning: the daily to-do list is a good example of tactical planning.

Where we fail badly is in connecting the two steps: the operational level. Operational planning makes our daily task lists meaningful towards achieving our strategic goals. It’s about planning ahead and thinking ahead so that our strategic goals are realized on the timeline we want. Operational planning allows you to finish the conference paper before the night before it’s due by getting you started on it well in advance of the deadline, in reasonable amounts.

The tool for doing this is the Semester-At-A-Glance calendar. It’s a simple one-page calendar that shows four months at a time, allowing you to see everything that’s going on and budget your time to larger projects accordingly.

Briefly, the steps to using the Semester-At-A-Glance calendar are to identify your priority goals for the term – no more than two or three key things that you want to accomplish. Then, you begin breaking down those goals into weekly tasks or goals and assigning those to weeks on the calendar. (USE PENCIL!!) You can have more than one goal for each week, but the boxes are deliberately small for a reason. If you can’t get all of your semester goals on to the calendar at once, you need to rethink the reasonableness of your semester goals.

I will host a webinar on using the Semester-At-A-Glance calendar on Friday, April 20, at noon Central time (1 PM Eastern). You can find the URL for the webinar on my website, . I use for my webcasting, which will require you to download and install a small browser plugin to view the webinar. And of course, you can always download the most current Semester-At-A-Glance calendar from my website.

If you’re interested in dissertation or academic coaching, the summer is a great time to start. It gives you a chance to develop and solidify new or better habits before the chaos of term time arrives. Feel free to take a look around my website and if you’re interested, drop me an email at . The initial consultation is free. You can also follow me on Facebook at or Twitter @LeanneCPowner for free daily writing tips.