Putting Career Planning into Writing: Create Your Individual Development Plan

29 Oct

by Noro Andriamanalina, Program Director: Office for Equity and Diversity , and Graduate School

Setting Expectations

In spring of 2007, I talked with Anne, a U of MN postdoctoral researcher in the health sciences, who was having a difficult time with her appointment. She was recruited from another midwestern institution and initially thought that Minnesota would be a great fit. The department had a reputation for doing good research, was productive, and she shared similar research interests with the principal investigator (PI).

At their first meeting she sensed that they would get along well, but more importantly, she thought the PI would be a good mentor to further enhance her research skills and to “show her the ropes” of academic life—securing grants, continuing to publish in the right journals, presenting at conferences, networking with key people in the field, and prepping her for the academic job market.

Yet, nearing the end of her first year of a two-year appointment, Anne felt very disillusioned. Because of her PI’s schedule, they hardly saw one another except to touch base on the research project once every two weeks; at those meetings it was clear that the PI did not have time to talk about anything except the research. It bothered Anne that the PI never asked about her professional interests. She was grateful for the opportunity to gain new skills and enjoyed the project, but when were they going to focus on her career after the postdoc? After talking with other first-year postdocs within and outside her department, Anne felt she missed opportunities and didn’t want a repeat of that in the second year.

In my role as director of the academic and professional development unit within the Graduate School, I met Anne, who came to me for advice on how to discuss her concerns with the PI. Was he not supposed to mentor her beyond the research? Anne’s experience is not unique—not to Anne and not to postdocs.

In the past 11 years, I have worked with doctoral students from all over the world who expected their advisors to be engaged in their development beyond the dissertation research—help identify fellowships and assistantships, guide with grant writing, identify internships or trainings, and finally, prep them for the job market. Once they sensed that perhaps this was too much to expect from any one person, some did not know where else to seek advice or how to even communicate what they were seeking.

Why an Individual Development Plan for graduate students and postdocs?

Although most graduate students and postdocs are aware that the primary responsibility of the advisor or PI is to provide guidance related to academic research, some hope that the faculty would take broader interest and mentor them in other areas they find equally important to their graduate or postdoctoral training. Part of the expectation is based on their belief that the advisor/PI is the one person who is most familiar with their scholarly or research interests and, therefore, is in the best position to help them build a network of support both academically and professionally. However, from my observation, there can be many factors that contribute to an advisor or PI’s focus and style of mentoring. These can include personal values, culture, personality, expertise, disciplinary or departmental culture, work schedule and their own experiences with being mentored. Not all advisors or PIs see mentoring beyond the research as their responsibility and expect the student or postdoc to find individuals to assist with professional development.

Regardless of whether the faculty takes interest in only one or multiple areas, it is critical for the graduate student or postdoc to identify and put in writing their academic and professional goals to effectively communicate these to the advisor/PI. Writing and discussing the goals will help clarify, early on, the expectations of the relationship and will avoid confusion and false assumptions.

To facilitate the writing and discussion process, I collaborated with a Graduate School colleague, Char Voight, to develop the University of Minnesota Individual Development Plan (IDP) which we initially designed for postdocs and later adapted for graduate students. From 2007 – 2010, we used the IDP as part of a postdoctoral fellowship program administered by the Graduate School. Each fellow was required to complete an IDP, in consultation with their PI, by the third week of their appointment. Postdocs across the University were mentored to incorporate an IDP into their career planning. Currently graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and teaching predoctoral fellows across the UMinn coordinate campuses work alongside their mentors to shape current and future plans by making use of these two templates:

Summary of the Major IDP Components

The University of Minnesota IDP is a tool designed to assist with (1) assessing a postdoc or graduate student’s skill set relative to academic and career goals; (2) identifying academic and professional goals; and (3) developing a plan to acquire the skills and competencies needed to achieve short- and long-term objectives. The IDP is a dynamic document that can be revised to reflect change in interest or timeline and developed in collaboration with a mentor or multiple mentors. A well-crafted IDP can serve as both a planning and a communications tool, allowing graduate students and postdocs to identify their research and career goals and to communicate those goals to mentors, PIs, and advisors.

Outline of the IDP Process

…For Graduate Students/Postdocs …For Mentors
Step 1 Conduct self-assessment
Step 2 Write an IDP. Share IDP with mentor and revise Review IDP and help revise
Step 3 Implement the plan. Revise IDP as needed Establish regular progress review
Step 4 Survey opportunities with mentor Discuss opportunities with student/postdoc

Step 1: Self –Assessment

This first step is critical! It is the base upon which one builds the IDP. This is where one gauge skills, strengths and areas that need further development. For graduate students and postdocs, except for writing the dissertation, there are common areas that can be considered for development (see chart). These are suggested areas—add or delete as appropriate. The IDP document provides a list of questions to help assess competencies in these areas

IDP Chart, in brief

Areas to Develop Long-term goals (5+ years) Short-term goals( within semester or year) Overall Strategies to reach goals Steps and Timeline ResourcesAvailable
Budget Management
Conflict Management
Job Search

Step 2: Writing the IDP

Once the assessment is completed and the areas of development have been identified, the next step involves writing the IDP using the chart by establishing actual goals (long and short-term), strategies, steps, timelines and resources to achieve those goals. This second step must be taken with a great deal of thought, carefully planning what is feasible in the timeframe identified and exploring resources. The first draft of the IDP is then shared with the advisor, PI or mentors for feedback. When discussing the IDP it is essential to ask the advisor/PI for names of individuals who can serve as resources. This is the process to begin building and expanding upon one’s academic and professional networks. Seeing a written plan can be motivating for both the mentor and mentee.

Step 3: Implementing the plan

Putting the plan into action and revising as needed requires being flexible without being lax. Remember that the IDP is not a rigid frame but provides structure that can be modified or adapted based on goals and timelines. Meet with the advisor or mentor regularly and provide a progress update.

Step 4: Survey opportunities

Discuss career options and professional development opportunities with the mentor and assess the match between current skills and career goals. Revise the IDP as needed.

Role of mentors and the IDP

The mentor plays a significant role in ensuring the mentee’s success in developing and implementing the IDP. Among the mentor’s key functions are:

  • Encourage the mentee to create the IDP and be accessible to help review and revise the plan as needed.
  • Be sure that the mentee has identified goals that are feasible within the timeline and action steps identified for each goal. On the other hand, be certain to also challenge the mentee to pursue new ideas, expand their research and pursue opportunities to further the mentee’s academic and professional development.
  • Connect the mentee to resources (human and electronic) to help expand their network and expose them to new opportunities by nominating them for fellowships/traineeship or awards.
  • Recognizing the current economy and job market, encourage the mentee to consider multiple career paths and support their decision to pursue the path of their choice.
  • Recognize limitations as a mentor in a particular area and openly communicate this to the mentee. Suggest other individuals as potential resources.
  • Establish regular meetings and incorporate the IDP as a natural part of the discussion. Ask for an update on their progress.

Benefits of the IDP for junior faculty

The IDP is also useful as graduate students and postdocs transition into faculty positions. Such was the case with the postdoctoral fellows who participated in the fellowship through the U of MN Graduate School (previously mentioned) and began faculty positions after a one year postdoc appointment. The IDP was not only required to begin the fellowship but was also as part of the exit interview, as they prepared for the tenure-track position at Minnesota and at other US universities. I required them to conduct a self-assessment and draft a plan for their first year of the faculty position to be shared with the department chair or a senior faculty mentor. Mid-way into their first semester, the junior faculty appreciated the time and effort they invested into the IDP because of the benefits:

  • Demystified the tenure-track process by helping to prioritize their research and teaching responsibilities in the first year.
  • Reduced the level of anxiety and stress by identifying manageable goals and action steps, thereby making the transition seem less daunting.
  • Helped to clearly communicate their research and professional objectives to the department chair or senior faculty mentor. It gave the impression that they were serious about succeeding in the new position.
  • Identified resources to support faculty and helped to identify mentors within and outside the university.
  • Set them apart from other junior faculty who did not create an IDP. Faculty with a written plan seemed to be more aware of and engaged in seminars, events within the department and university.

Final thoughts

I frequently mention to graduate students that it doesn’t matter how grand our goals and ideas are if no one knows about it because it is all in our head. We can tell everyone we meet of our plans but who will remember if it is not in writing? It is like meeting someone at a conference and expecting them to remember our name, phone and e-mail by just telling them. Thank goodness for business cards. However, if we have a plan in writing and put it away in a folder, it is the same as not having a plan. It is simply wishful thinking and is a false sense of accomplishment. The IDP involves creating, acting, reflecting and revising. It could be considered a cyclical process. Take the first step by knowing what you want and go get it!


Vanderbilt https://medschool.mc.vanderbilt.edu/mentor/Individual%20Development%20Plan.pdf

Science Careers http://myidp.sciencecareers.org/

Laure Haak in Science Careers: “Career development is a two-way street: The FASEB individual development plan for postdocs and mentors” http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_development/previous_issues/articles/1960/a_career_development_plan_for_postdocs/

University of Washington http://www.grad.washington.edu/mentoring/memos/individual-development-plan.shtml

UC-San Francisco http://career.ucsf.edu/lifesci/samples/discussing-IDP-mentor.pdf

Sample IDPs from UMinn – two humanities, one science at http://www.scribd.com/UMinnTeachLearn


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