Screen shot 2013-04-10 at 8.22.37 PMI’m really bad at chess. My little brother was always amazing at the game, and was somehow always a few steps in front of me. I’d snag one of his knights, and this would cause him to capture my queen and put me in check. I had always thought that the reason he was so good was because he cheated or knew some trick to the game that I didn’t. It was the same way with Risk. While I focused on conquering countries with funny names, he conquered everything else… and eventually me. The real reason he was good was that he was strategic. He came up with a plan, thought a few moves in advance, and followed through. Every move he made was part of a larger goal.

I’m not that kind of thinker. I tend to act more creatively, dealing with things as they come. When I play adventure  games, I usually pick things up along the way, discard something I don’t need at the moment, and continue on my way. I don’t think about how those magic arrows from the first level may help me defeat a monster in the fourth level. I’m more concerned with exploring around the world I’m involved in, and sometimes I get caught up in side adventures (I mean, let’s all admit that fishing game in Zelda: Ocarina of Time is totally addicting).

After a chat with one of my advisors, I’m realizing that I need to start being more strategic. Hard work and creativity got me into grad school, but strategic planning is going to make me succeed and help me get out. Grad school is like an adventure game, and its time for me to try playing in a more strategic manner.

Being strategic involves a number of things, but most importantly it’s about defining a direction and making decisions that aid in the accomplishment of a goal. It involves addressing the current situation and the final goal, then determining what avenues can be taken to achieve this goal. Businesses and organizations create strategic plans that clearly lay out minor and major steps that need to be taken to achieve their goals.  As grad students, we too should be thinking in this way. There are five primary steps involved in this process which can help you achieve your goals in a strategic manner. It is just like playing an adventure game, only you are the main character. So how do we play the game of grad school and beat our final boss?

1. Assess the current situation: If you were a character in a video game you would be assessed by the items you had on you, the skills you have, and the current level you are at. What stage of grad school are you in, what skills do you have, what can you use to your advantage, and what allies do you have?

2. Determine the goal: Usually in a game this means defeating the final boss- for you it’s probably a thesis or dissertation. However, you can’t just focus on the end- there are so many other monsters to beat and mazes to adventure through. Think about the smaller goals on the way, the papers you could write, the conferences to attend, or perhaps the grants you will need to fund your adventure.

3. Form a plan: If you’re going to reach your final goal you need a strategic plan on how to get there. Think about how you will be able to achieve these short and long term goals. Consider different paths and routes, find the best way to reach your goals. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. In adventure games you often get a fairy or wizard who will lead you on your quest. Think of this as your advisor or committee- they are there to help with the plan.

4. Execute the plan: Time to head out on the adventure and tackle it head on! As you tackle the short terms goals, break down the long term ones to make them easier to handle. Continue to focus on your goal!

5. Evaluate the process: Were you able to get funding? Did you rescue the villagers from the evil swamp monsters? If you did, then that’s great! The strategy worked, and you can use it again. If it didn’t work, try something different, or ask for help trying again.

The number one rule for being strategic- don’t get sidetracked.

What is your advice for being strategic? Let us know in the comments by clicking here.

[Photo via Flickr user Brett Jordan and used under Creative Commons License]

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