Find the full career planning series here.
The most important sections in each article are marked with ★’s.
Goal this week
Your career plan is likely to change because careers involve a huge amount of uncertainty. You’ll learn a lot over time, both about the world and about your own preferences and skills.
You’ll also change (probably more than you expect) and learn as you go, and the world will change — new opportunities will arise, and the top options today may get worse.
All in all, you need to be prepared to adapt.
One way to deal with this, as covered in the previous article in this series, is to take next steps that let you learn and build transferable career capital, so you’re in a better position no matter what happens.
Another way to deal with the uncertainty is to make contingency plans for risks — both personal and concerning your impact — which is what we cover here.
The goal is for you to:
- Reflect on how you will keep developing your views going forward
- Develop backup plans
Stay open to change
In Parts 2 and 3 of this series you thought about which global problems were most pressing and what you might be able to do to help solve them.
But you will undoubtedly learn more about your opportunities and what the world needs as you go on. The questions are just much too big to be settled in a week or two.
It’s important to stay open to these updates, and to be willing to change tack. We talk to a lot of readers who feel like it’s too late for them to switch to focusing on a different problem, even if they’re convinced it would be higher impact in general, because they’ve already started down a path.
Although the costs involved in changing career paths are real, we think people often overestimate the costs and underestimate the benefits. E.g. we meet 21-year-old students who’ve majored in something related to a problem area and now feel like they have to stay focused on it. But they’re overestimating how much investment a couple years really is — especially compared to the rest of their 40-year career. The skills you learn in one area are also often much more transferrable than you think.
We’ve seen people change which problem area and longer-term path they focus on successfully many times — and often after a lot more investment than a couple years of study.
And because the differences in how pressing different problems are, and so how impactful different careers can be, are so very large, it can often easily be worth it.
We encourage you to keep learning, and check back in with your views on the world’s most pressing problems and your best potential longer-term paths periodically, perhaps at set review points, as we discuss in the next article.
Everyone finds it difficult to change their focus, especially if they’ve invested a lot in going in a particular direction. That’s why intending from the start to stay open-minded is essential to being able to maintain the ability to switch if you need to.
★Your backup plans
One of the most important features of your career plan is your backup plan. If you pursue a next step (or a longer-term path) and it doesn’t work out, what will you do instead?
If you picked a sufficiently ambitious longer-term path earlier, then there will be a good chance it doesn’t work out. That’s fine (and means you were being appropriately ambitious), but it’s important to figure out what you might do if that happens.
You might already have some backup options in mind, in which case you can just quickly list one or two ideas in Section 6 of your template, and then just skim or skip the rest of this article.
But if you want to think about your backup options in more detail, we find the ‘A/B/Z’ plans framework useful, which we adapted from Reid Hoffman’s book on career advice, The Start-up of You.
- Plan A — This is your best-guess next career step and the longer-term paths from your shortlist that it could help you work toward. For instance, it could be to do an economics PhD with the aim of becoming a researcher in economic history, an advisor on macro-economic policy, or working for a nonprofit. You made your Plan A at the end of Part 5 of this series.
- Plan B — These are promising alternatives to your Plan A that you can switch into if Plan A doesn’t work out. For instance, if you don’t get into a good PhD programme after a masters, you could plan to apply to roles in policy.
- Plan Z options — What you’ll do if everything goes wrong — e.g. move back in with your parents, live on your savings, go back to your old job.
Your Plan B
Use the following questions to help you work out what your Plan B should be:
- Why is your Plan A most likely not to work out? What will you do in this situation? For instance, if you’re already in a job and applying to masters programmes, one possibility is that you don’t get into the programmes you want. In that case, your Plan B might be to stay in your job another year and to assess later, or to try to apply in another discipline.
- List any promising nearby alternatives to Plan A, for example other promising longer-term paths or different entry routes to the same paths, using the shortlists you made in Parts 3 and 5 of this series, which you might be able to switch into.
- Check out the nearby alternatives and ‘exit options’ for your Plan A that we have in our career reviews and profiles on priority paths if parts of your Plan A are covered in those.
Remember again to consider how you order your next steps. For instance, if you leave academia after earning your PhD, it’s hard to return. This means that as long as you think academia might in fact be your best longer-term option, it usually makes sense to stay on the academic path as your next step during or after a PhD.
Add your Plan B options to your Section 6.1 template.
Your Plan Z
You may face setbacks greater than e.g. not getting into the programme you want, so we recommend you also specify a ‘Plan Z’. Your Plan Z is what you’ll do if you face a serious setback.
Thinking about your Plan Z can not only help you avoid unacceptable personal outcomes, but it can help you get more comfortable with taking risks — knowing you’ll ultimately be okay makes it easier to be ambitious.
Your Plan Z can be very short if you’re comfortable with the risk you’re taking, or are in a secure position.
If you want to think about your Plan Z in more depth, here are some questions to consider:
- If you pursue your Plan A, what might the worst realistic scenario be, and how might it actually pan out in the long term? Thinking this through might be unpleasant, but many people find that naming their fears makes them a little less overwhelming.
- How can you reduce the chances of one of these scenarios happening?
- If one of these scenarios does happen, what will you do to cope? Some common options include: taking a temporary job you’re confident you can get to pay the bills, moving in with your family, living off savings, or taking a job that you find relatively undemanding.
- Is your Plan Z tolerable? Even if there’s a low chance you’ll need it, if your Plan Z isn’t tolerable you might consider modifying your Plan A to build more career capital, which should improve your Plan Z in the future (e.g. taking a job that lets you save more money). If your Plan Z is tolerable, great — hopefully realizing that will make it easier to wholeheartedly pursue your Plan A.
Write out your Plan Z in Section 6.2 of your template.
In this part of the career planning process you:
- Created a Plan B and a Plan Z you’re comfortable with
- Wrote down key uncertainties about your backup plans
Next you’ll start investigating uncertainties and make an overall judgement call.
Read next: Investigate key uncertainties and make a judgement call
Or if you’re new, get an overview of the whole planning course.
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