Fostering science careers with individual development plans

Suggestions for students and mentors from a co-creator of myIDP

Sports teams would never go into competition, military units would never go into battle and contractors would never construct a building without having detailed plans. Why should a young scientist’s career be any different? We created the freely available myIDP to help graduate students and postdoctoral fellows take charge of their careers by mapping out short- and long-term goals.

Research-based evidence supports the value of career planning. People with well-considered career plans rank themselves higher on career satisfaction and achieve better salaries and promotions and higher levels of responsibility. A nationwide survey of postdoctoral scholars found that those who developed structured plans with their advisers reported greater satisfaction, more papers published, more grant applications and fewer conflicts with their mentors. Another survey revealed that a majority of postdocs and their mentors found the process of working through an individual development plan to be beneficial.

Supporting your student’s IDP

Suggestions for mentors

  • Encourage and assist your trainees in creating their IDPs.
  • Offer constructive feedback about their scientific skills. To help, use the assessment form from the “skills summary” page in myIDP.
  • A recent survey found that less than 40 percent of PIs encouraged their postdocs to participate in professional development. Familiarize yourself with your institutional career resources and explicitly encourage your trainees to take advantage of them.
  • Help your trainees understand the value of developing a network. Introduce them to your contacts both inside and outside academia.
  • The old apprenticeship model for graduate and postdoctoral training is outmoded and inadequate for today’s Ph.D. scientists. Training in skills like effective communication, intellectual property, budgeting, negotiation, teaching, leadership and management is accomplished more efficiently at an institutional level. Lobby your administration to provide such training through courses and workshops organized by your graduate school, postdoctoral office or career center.

An IDP is a four-step process that helps users understand themselves, understand the breadth of career paths available, set goals to prepare for a desired career path, and get started in the right direction.


The first step consists of simple exercises to assess skills, interests and values. Users identify skills that need improvement and the activities they most enjoy. They are able to zero in on the things they value most, which often turn out to be the overriding factors in career decisions. Is it most important for them to work independently or as part of a team? To have predictable job duties and hours or engage in activities that change frequently?

Career exploration

myIDP provides an extensive list of career paths that correspond to users’ skills and interests and lists numerous resources to help them explore these career paths. They can learn about Ph.D. scientists who enjoy satisfying careers as academics, as science writers for pharmaceutical companies or as field application specialists for state-of-the-art scientific equipment. We encourage users to start out by reading about scientific careers, attending career events and gathering insights from people already on their desired career paths. The career-exploration process is time consuming; it’s not something users should expect to complete in a day, a week or even a month.

Goal setting

Once users narrow choices down to a plan A and plan B, it’s time to determine what skills they need to develop to be competitive. They are encouraged to set what we call SMART goals – specific, measureable, action oriented, realistic and time bound – that will ensure they develop those skills. If someone’s plan A is to teach science in a primarily undergraduate institution, he or she will need real teaching experience, not just a lecture here or there. That user’s SMART goal will entail getting experience through a university’s faculty-preparation program or contacting a local community college to inquire about teaching a full course for a semester.

Implementing a plan

Users should discuss their IDPs with their mentors and agree on or revise the goals they’ve set. They also should recruit additional mentors in areas where they need assistance. For example, if their PIs are not the most effective communicators, they might want to ask other faculty members to critique their presentations. Talking with labmates about their goals also will provide some accountability, as will reviewing their progress on a regular basis..

Philip Clifford

Philip S. Clifford is associate dean for research in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.