What is your ‘Ikigai’? A project planning worksheet for PhD students

A PhD is a long journey. But it doesn’t have to be viewed so negatively if you ensure that your research goals match your life goals in the process. Eventually, the PhD will be over, and it will be time to look for work, either in academia, public service/ the industry of one’s specialty, or in a combination of places. This blog might be useful for anyone who is doing a PhD, Masters, Undergrad, College, or any long-term project planning.

As I approached the planning and writing of my comprehensive exams, I also thought about my dissertation proposal, which I recently completed. It is true that the proposal is not a fixed document, and that the research will evolve. This can feel discouraging, or hopeful, depending on your plan. It is also perhaps true that a dissertation makes only a small dent in the bigger picture of a research issue. All of these tensions are at play, in the study, planning, and design of good research; you are constantly converging and diverging towards and away from your current path to find the best route. Nevertheless, I think it is important to at least try to integrate what drives you and what gets you up in the morning, with the practical aspects of completing a well-constructed dissertation.

Do you remember that browser extension called, “StumbleUpon”? Well, when clicking the ‘Stumble’ button a while ago, stumbling around, looking for some inspiration, I stumbled onto the site, “https://hustleandgrind.co/product-category/posters-art/” and found their “Purpose Diagram”, which was path-bending/ transformational for my research planning. I created a diagram, following on a mind map, of my research interests and goals. Then, because it was so effective in helping me to plan and write my exams and proposal, I wanted to share it by creating a worksheet (see pics below) for others to try.

This diagram comes from the Japanese concept of “Ikigai” (pronounced icky guy), which is your reason for being/ aka raison d’être. Huffington Post special assignment author, Yukari Mitsuhashi wrote about this recently in her article, “Japan May Have Worked Out The Secret Formula For A Happy Life”. She notes that “…[I]kigai and happiness might sound the same, but a key difference is Ikigai’s strong emphasis on the future” (Mitsuhashi, 2018, para. 6). The benefits of thinking about your own Ikigai, as a PhD student/candidate, is that it can help you situate your project in a future-oriented, goal-setting, passion, and purpose-focused academic contribution, rather than as something you do for professional reasons alone.

Some people are happy with doing their PhD as a side-interest, to gain additional credentials, and so on. Generally, the stages of a PhD involve 1) coursework, 2) comprehensive exams, 3) proposal (sometimes with a defense), 4) research and 5) dissertation defense. The comprehensive exams will further expand, and narrow interests that you discover during coursework, into very specific, but broad areas of specialization; the broad area is usually called the “major general” area, and it is specific to that area, but covers a wide range of research. After that, the proposal is an even more specific exercise in describing who/what/when/where/ how/ and why the research will make a new contribution to existing research and literature.

At the time when a PhD student is starting to think about, and write about their professional trajectory, it is also essential to connect with the academic community, to contribute to society, and to develop a healthy and active social life. Instead of succumbing to the pressures of having to do these other things— all the things— or, to what Karen Horney described as “The tyranny of the shoulds: I should do this, but I have to do that, etc…”, why not proactively think about, and plan for the final convergent stage of your dissertation earlier?

I think that if your PhD dissertation does not identify some sense of Ikigai-cohesion between your passion(s), professional skills, vocational skills, and understanding of how your research will contribute to the world (mission), it will be difficult to find meaningful work after this relatively short period of time in the big picture of your life.

What drives me in continuing my PhD is an interest, and optimism in learning from those leaders who go on to publish chapters, or books, and speak at national or international conferences about their novel results, and become active contributors to their field of work and social networks, whether it is inside, or outside of academia. There are many people who accomplish this goal, and I think they have their Ikigai all mapped out from the start! For example, Dr. Shaquille O’Neal, former NBA forward, completed his PhD. Newcomb (Time, 2018) notes:

“O’Neal’s degree focuses on organizational learning and leadership, with a specialty on human resource development; for his thesis he studied how CEO’s and business leaders use humor as part of the work environment. (para. 4).

How can anyone write about humour without an understanding of their Ikigai?

The main lessons I’ve learned in my PhD journey, is to focus on the passion in my research, and to write everyday. I hope you’ve found this article useful and that you’ll try the Ikigai worksheet that I created to map out your project!