PhD – plan B


Before I came into higher education I had a brief stint as a civil service strategic planner. I got pretty interested in the process of scenario planning – that’s where you develop a narrative about something that could happen in the future. Or better still multiple narratives. The point of scenario planning is to identify ways in which you might maximise the chance of your preferred scenario happening. But scenarios can also help you think about less welcome scenarios and how they might be dealt with if they actually occur.

The poster child for scenario planning is the Dutch Shell oil company. Shell’s planners researched events, places, people that might affect their business, even unlikely ones – and then asked What if?  Using scenarios, Shell anticipated what were almost unthinkable events – the 1973 energy crisis, the collapse of the oil market in 1986, the end of the Soviet Union, political conflicts in oil-rich territories. When the apparently impossible did happen, they had a Plan B. And a C and a D.

Now, something akin to scenario planning might be useful at the start of the PhD.

Most universities do periodically ask PhDers to develop a timetable to thesis submission. And most people make a plan that is their preferred outcome. So they finish in the shortest possible time. Nothing happens in their lives to disrupt the research or the writing. The research goes swimmingly, experiments all work out, people and places are all accessible and helpful. They can quickly make sense of the mountain of data they have amassed. They have no problems sorting out how to write a text and do the multiple revisions required. There are no issues in supervision. There are no issues in their lives for that matter – everyone around them stays well, and flourishes.

You can see where I’m going with this.

It’s sadly the case that there are some PhD scenarios that are relatively common. Unpleasant to contemplate I know.  But maybe there are benefits in thinking about the less-than-good.

Just imagine… What if?… The research doesn’t go swimmingly, experiments don’t work out, people and places are inaccessible and downright unhelpful. It takes far longer than anticipated to get the field work done. The mountain of data is hard to sort out. The transcripts take three times longer to transcribe than you thought.  Writing a big text turns out to be much harder than it looked. Those multiple revisions take forever. Lots of time is taken up with mandatory training. There are problems in supervision.

It’s research right? It’s not always straightforward.

Or… The landlord puts your house on the market. There are unexpected caring responsibilities for children or for elderly family members. Your partner is made redundant. Your own job is under threat. An already rocky  relationship is put under too much strain. You get sick. And in the UK context, the doctorate takes more than three years and you run out of money.

It’s life, right? Life happens during the PhD. Now of course your institution will have some processes that can help if any of these things happen – emergency funding, counselling, leave from the PhD for instance. But they can’t decide for you what to do when your best scenario plans go out the window.

Mmm. While nobody wants to think that things might go wrong, there may well be some benefit in being a little bit prepared. Shell weathered its first anticipated storm simply by being more frugal in preceding years. When the price of oil soared they had enough in reserve to manage the high price bubble.

Having a Plan B and maybe a Plan C might be a sensible thing for PhDers to do and to update throughout their doctorate. Of course you can’t anticipate everything and I’m not suggesting you can. Not everything is in your control. Lots of things aren’t predictable. Some things are unacceptable and need change, not you adapting.

But that’s the point really. Foresight comes from thinking in part about how decisions that are out of our control might affect what we want to do. And then remedial action follows.

Take that holiday now so you’re not exhausted when you have to write. Don’t agree to extra paid work next year when you’re analysing data. Do take on extra paid work now and squirrel away the money in case you take longer than you want. Plan to replace the laptop. Address that difficulty in a key relationship,  including supervision, before it goes on too long. Join that action group.

Preparing a PhD Plan B which anticipates disruptions to your preferred Plan A may well help you to better deal with something less than ideal if it happens. It might also help you to think about any possible preventative behaviours which make actually using Plan B less likely. It isn’t a guarantee of smooth sailing but it just might make bad stuff a bit more manageable.