I often get pegged as “the numbers guy.” Even though the words themselves seem pretty simple, I’m never really sure how to interpret that phrase. Sometimes people seem to use it to defer to my area of expertise (and that feels nice). But sometimes it seems vaguely dismissive, as if they’re a little surprised to find that I’ve escaped from my underground statistical production bunker (that doesn’t feel so nice).
With data points, it’s not the numbers by themselves that make the difference; it’s the meaning that gets assigned to them. The same is true with phrases that we all too often toss around without a second thought. I stumbled into a prime example of this issue recently while talking to several folks about the way that they think about helping students prepare for life after college. It turns out that we can run ourselves into a real buzzsaw of a problem if we don’t mean the same thing when we talk to students about developing a “Plan B.”
Essentially, a Plan B is simple – it’s a second plan if the first plan doesn’t work out. But underneath that sort of obvious definition lies the rub. For what purpose does the Plan B exist? Is it to get to a new and different goal, or is it to take an alternative path to get to the original goal?
For some, helping a student construct a Plan B means identifying a second career possibility in case the student’s first choice post-graduation plan doesn’t work out. For example, a student who intends to be a doctor may not have the grades or references to guarantee acceptance into med school. At this point, a faculty adviser might suggest that the student investigate other careers that might match some of the student’s other interests (maybe in another health field, maybe not). This definition of a Plan B assumes a career change and then begins to formulate a plan to move toward that new goal.
But for others, helping a student construct a Plan B doesn’t mean changing career goals at all. Instead, this definition of a Plan B recognizes that there are often multiple pathways to get into a particular career. For the aspiring med school student who may not have slam-dunk grades in biology or chemistry but still wants to be a doctor, one could envision a Plan B that includes taking a job at a hospital in some sort of support role, retaking specific science courses at a local university or college, then applying to medical school with stronger credentials, potentially better references, and more experience. In this case the end goal didn’t change at all. The thing that changed was the path to get there.
In no way am I suggesting that one definition of a Plan B is better than another. On the contrary, both are entirely appropriate. In fact, the student would probably be best served by laying out both possibilities and walking through the relevant implications. But the potential for a real disaster comes when two people (maybe a faculty member and a career adviser) are separately talking to the same student about the need to devise a Plan B, yet the faculty member and the adviser mean very different things when they use the same phrase.
As you can imagine, the student would probably feel as though he or she is getting conflicting advice. In addition, she might well think that the person encouraging a different career choice just doesn’t believe in her (and that the person suggesting an alternate path to her original career goal is the one who really cares about her). Moreover, the person encouraging the student to explore another career choice might feel seriously undermined by the person who has suggested to the student an alternative way to continue toward the original career goal. In the end, a student’s trust in our ability to guide them accurately and effectively is seriously eroded and a rift has likely developed between the two individuals who both genuinely care about the student in question.
Absolutely, there are times when we have to tell students that they need to explore alternative career plans. We do them no favors by placating them. At the same time, we all know students who, although they seemed to lack motivation and direction when they were at Augustana, kicked it in after graduation and eventually found a way into the career they had always wanted to pursue.
I’m certainly not suggesting that we should adopt one official definition of the phrase “Plan B.” Rather, my suspicion is that this is one of those phrases that we use often without realizing that we might not all mean the same thing. If our goal is to collectively give students the kind of guidance that they need to succeed after graduation, we probably ought to make sure that in each case we all mean the same thing when we talk to a student about a Plan B.
Make it a good day,