The use of metaphor is increasingly being used in career planning. For a PhD researcher it can be a useful way of conceptualising the place of career planning amongst the range of challenges to be addressed.
I recently came across a metaphor for people’s career behaviour based on how a dog chases a tennis ball thrown for it. This can be seen in Victoria Park here in Leicester every day.
If one tennis ball is thrown then, usually, a dog will chase after it and bring it back, safe in the knowledge that this is what his/her owner/walker wants. The dog enjoys doing this, so it is meeting the needs of both the dog and the human. Now what happens if a tennis ball is thrown and as the dog chases it, another one is thrown? Well then you have a confused dog who is not quite sure which tennis ball he/she should be retrieving. (The dog may go for the first tennis ball irrespective of whether it is the best option).
Similarly, or perhaps worse, a ball is thrown and the dog chases after it. Then as the dog is about to pick it up another ball arrives; and another etc… Now what does the dog do?
Similarly, for our careers it is important to know which tennis ball we are chasing. Because there may be a lot of (career) tennis balls thrown, and if we don’t know which one we are chasing/retrieving we will most likely end up confused and dissatisfied. For some one doing a PhD the task of career planning will be much clearer, and more likely to be successful, if the person knows which career tennis ball they are chasing. Too often, when people neglect this they get to the end of their PhD, to find a bunch of career tennis balls on the ground. Unfortunately, at that point, the person may have little idea of how to discriminate between these tennis balls. Which tennis ball am I chasing?
Footnote: The same phenomenon can be seen in some workplaces. If goals are not SMART then people may find themselves faced with a myriad of tennis balls arriving at unpredictable times. Too often, the result is confusion and sub-optimal performance, from both an individual and organisation perspective. Which tennis ball am I chasing?