Recently, the National Institutes of Health (Bethesda, MD, USA) and many universities have implemented the use of Individual Development Plans, or IDPs, to formally assess a trainee’s progress both in the lab and in terms of career development.
Just more paperwork?
At some institutions, annual IDPs are required before reappointments and additional grants or funding can be awarded or utilized. As such, many researchers find IDPs to be somewhat of a nuisance; they’re just more paperwork that simply gets in the way of doing research.
However, given that the percentage of science trainees that ultimately secure tenure-track faculty positions is less than 15-20% (and only 3.5% for permanent research staff positions in the UK), IDPs should be viewed as platforms that facilitate alternative career searches.
However, the training that graduate students and postdocs receive in academia does not prepare them for careers outside of traditional benchwork. To be successful in non-academic careers, trainees must explore and hone additional skillsets on their own time.
But what skills should each trainee seek out and develop? That depends on their interests, but many trainees are unaware of what interests them outside of the lab because they have never spent the time to truly reflect on what aspects of science and research they enjoy most.
This is where the IDP can help
The IDP forces students and postdocs to begin thinking about these things early in their research careers. For many trainees, the realization that they most likely will not secure a tenure-track position comes too late, possibly at the end of a 5+ year span as a trainee.
As they are applying for jobs, they may realize that they only have research-specific skillsets, which may leave them jobless if they cannot land a coveted faculty position, which is no easy feat in a densely packed field of highly qualified candidates all vying for the same few positions.
Without the forced exercise of sitting and reflecting on one’s progress, current skillset, interests, and desired skillsets, alternative opportunities will be squandered.
These trainees could have spent those 5+ years developing other skillsets on the side, which would have ensured a viable back-up plan when it came time to apply for jobs.
Without the forced exercise of sitting and reflecting on one’s progress, current skillset, interests, and desired skillsets, these alternative opportunities will be squandered. Thus, the IDP should be viewed as a tool for career success and job security, not just more paperwork.
Every IDP update should; identify accomplishments over the past year, set short-term and long-term goals for one’s research and career development, prioritize projects and identify any barriers that may hinder their progress, provide constructive criticism in both directions (mentor and trainee), and finally, clarify expectations for the upcoming year regarding both research and career/skill-building goals and discuss any disagreements about these perceived goals.
For example, one topic that could arise in an annual IDP meeting between a mentor and a trainee is that the trainee needs to develop writing skills. These would be valuable for both academic and non-academic positions later in the trainee’s career.
Developing different skillsets
Writing is critical for securing grants, publishing papers, and submitting abstracts/securing speaking positions at conferences in academia. Additionally, excellent writing skills can be carried over into a career in Medical Communications, Editing and Publishing at the editorial level, and a number of other non-academic professions that require writing skills in order to compose cohesive and logical arguments on behalf of a particular company.
In this scenario, the IDP meeting may conclude by deciding that the trainee should enroll in a university-sponsored science communication and/or writing class to develop and enhance these skills.
Identifying gaps and making plans to develop additional skills is vital and essential for both the trainee’s current and future positions, inside and outside of academia
Alternatively, the mentor may suggest that the trainee begin putting together an application for a grant or fellowship to get experience writing up their preliminary data in a logical and easy-to-follow manner.
Identifying gaps and making plans to develop additional skills is vital and essential for both the trainee’s current and future positions, inside and outside of academia; thus, the IDP meeting benefits both the mentor and the trainee.
Additionally, the IDP update should serve as an opportunity for the trainee to identify any interests or areas of the scientific process that they are passionate about.
Without the IDP and the forced self-reflection that accompanies the exercise of filling out an IDP, these opportunities to begin developing necessary skills early is sure to be missed, which will only lead to desperation when the time comes to apply for jobs.
Moreover, some trainees may be forced out of their current positions earlier than expected due to funding crises. Then what? If you develop additional skills early, you will always be prepared. To develop skills early, you must first identify the gaps. That’s what the IDP helps to define. Take advantage of it!
If your institution does not require yearly IDP updates or meetings between you and your mentor, there are still ways for you to independently take a proactive approach to assessing your skills, identifying technical gaps, and taking appropriate actions to fill these gaps.
1) Science Careers provides a free service, known as myIDP, to help students and postdocs identify their strengths and weaknesses, set training goals, and stay on track. Although some people may shy away from self-guided programs due to the discipline required to keep up with them, this free electronic service overcomes this potential setback by sending you monthly reminders to keep you accountable to your goals and help you stay on track.
2) The National Postdoctoral Association also provides a series of Core Competencies – with a checklist – that can help postdocs (and students!) identify gaps in their skillsets, seek out relevant training opportunities, and ultimately leverage their training into alternative careers.
3) Finally, if the thought of leaving academia after years of research upsets you, there are ways to advance your research-specific career now using similar IDP-like approaches to identify gaps and develop core skills that will be necessary to make you a competitive candidate in the academic job market. Vitae provides a service known as the Researcher Development Framework to help researchers improve their skills and master aspects of research that extend beyond the benchtop. There is a free trial option for the service, so if research is where you know you want to be, invest in yourself and give this service a try – it’s a competitive world out there!