This post condenses a talk by Mark Denison, MD, at the February 2019 Vanderbilt Translational Bridge meeting.

For many trainees, and occasionally even the senior faculty who mentor them, career development is a black box: You put in papers, grants, teaching, research, and other career-helping things, and out comes a postdoc, a faculty position, research independence, a deanship, or whatever you’re aiming for.  You’re not quite sure which conferences you should plan to attend, or when you want to have that paper submitted, but it’ll probably all work out somehow.  Right?

Wrong.  A bunch of random experiments do not a Nature paper make (unless you’re really lucky).  Similarly, a bunch of loosely related posters, papers, and grant proposals do not equal a career development plan.  Much as you start an experiment or grant proposal with what you want to test, you should start your career plan with where you want to end up.

Knowing your desired goal (a great fellowship? faculty position? R01?) lets you decide what you need to achieve that goal.  If most K awardees in your field have X publications when they submit their grant, you know how many papers you need to get out.  If you know you need to submit your first R01 no later than the third year of your K to avoid a gap in funding, you realize which application cycles you have to target.

Plotting all the steps on a career timeline, ideally about nine years out, makes them concrete and demonstrates exactly how much time each is going to take.  (Rather like another timeline process…)  Dr. Denison calls this “positive disillusionment,” as timelines often put into vivid relief exactly how long it takes to write a paper, dissertation, or grant.

Timelines benefit you also as a tool for mentor committee meetings.  Once mentors know your career goal and what you think will get you there, they can reel optimistic timelines back to reality or suggest specific conferences to attend or colleagues to meet to advance your career.

Finally, if you’re at that stage, timelines make a great addition to a career development award.

Example timelines:

A possible postdoctoral career timeline. Make full size.

Another potential career timeline for a postdoc. Make full size.

Download the template to make your own, and share it with your mentors.

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