Want to Meet Your Academic Goals? Plan Backwards

Person taking steps towards goal.

In this post, I’m going to share one of the ways I met my educational goals. Many times, as students, the main advice that we follow when going through college comes from two sources: 1) our friends and 2) our advisers. Our friends usually give us advice based on their own experiences and the people that they listened to. Sometimes this advice is very helpful – “don’t take Professor X. He never gives A’s.” Other times the advice is horrible because it applies to their situation, not yours.

With advisers, most students fall into one of three categories:

a) they have the adviser who guides them through every aspect of academic life: clubs to join, internships to apply for, course sequences to take, and either jobs to search for or grad programs to look into;

b) they have the adviser who gives them the registration code and tells them to follow whatever the college catalog says (I’ve been there); or

c) they have the adviser who is non-existent. In this case, the student doesn’t even know their adviser’s name and registers each semester through another adviser at the college who takes pity on them.

Any of these scenarios ring a bell? Well, regardless of the adviser or friend you have, there’s another way to meet your graduation goals: PLAN BACKWARDS! I did this with each of my degrees, but I’ll focus on my last degree and how I made this process work.

I was getting my doctorate, taking a full course load, and working full-time. I had often heard that people complete their PhD’s in 5-7 years (sometimes longer), so I planned to complete mine in 5 years. That was my ultimate goal. I knew that if I was going to complete this degree in the timeframe I had given myself, I needed to take an approach different from the one usually recommended. You see, most people plan based on where they are currently, and they plot out steps to reach their destination. Following the advice of Stephen Covey, I chose to “begin with the end in mind.” In this case, I started with my graduation goal date and worked backwards, planning goal dates for when I’d complete the dissertation, complete the research process, apply for the IRB, finish my last course, and take my comprehensive exams all the way back to my first year in grad school. Now, I’m not gonna lie. It took me revising this plan 3 times until I made it realistic based on my other life priorities; however, I ended up with a doable 5-year grad school plan. I kept a copy on my bedroom mirror and in my planner so I’d always see it and be able to track my progress. I also kept a digital copy for when I’d need to make quick revisions.

Wedding! Took Stats exam 4 days later.

In the course of those years, life happened. I worked full-time, took a second job to help with tuition and bills, got married (husband was getting a second degree too), repeated a course ( I really hate Statistics), moved twice, and found out I was pregnant right in the middle of my dissertation research (there were also many painful moments where I just wanted to quit). Honestly, a lot of that time was a blur, but guess what? I graduated a semester earlier than my goal date and three months before my daughter was born. The key was keeping that future plan in sight and adjusting as needed. No, it wasn’t easy and I had a nice long sleep after graduation day, but planning backwards was the best thing I ever did. Since then, I plan backwards for everything: deciding when to buy a house, plotting my career path, and setting financial goals. You name it, I plan backwards for it; and with every plan, I end up meeting my goals sooner than I expected.

Officially a Ph.D. & 6 months pregnant.

Am I telling you not to listen to your friends or advisers? Absolutely not. My advisers and friends were extremely helpful in my pursuits, but it’s important to include their advice in your plan (if it fits). Having a backwards plan keeps you focused on your end goal. It allows you to track your progress and make adjustments where it’s needed. It also let’s you see whether your plan is realistic.

As you’re moving through your academic career, make a backwards plan to really meet your goals. Don’t just map out your classes, but include internships, career changes, major life events coming your way, job travel that may slow a semester, and other things common in the life of an adult student. Looking to the end is one of the best ways to get things done.

Keep moving forward,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s