ASPET Teaching Institute: Developing Mentees Using IDPs

For some graduate students and postdocs in science, entering the job market after graduating can seem a bit like this:

Entering the job market after graduating. Source

It doesn’t need to be this way! Sure, any life change is scary, but there is a lot that students can do to prepare themselves. However, many trainees approach their future career plans like this:

When my committee asks about my career plans. Source

As mentors, how can we better support our students and help them become more proactive about their future? The ASPET Division for Pharmacology Education held a teaching institute Saturday on developing mentees using individual development plans, or IDPs. Hosted by Dr. Kelly Karpa of the Penn State College of Medicine, the symposium provided suggestions for faculty who are interested in promoting the use of IDPs at their institutions or in their labs.

An individual development plan is a tool for personal and career development that guides employees through the creation and completion of short- and long-term career goals. While the use of IDPs has become increasingly popular in academia in the past few years, individual development plans have long been utilized among government and industry employees. An IDP is created primarily by the employee, informed by discussions with mentors. It is not a one-time exercise but a tool that is used periodically through one’s career to monitor and motivate progress toward long-term goals. Katie Collette has a great post about creating your own IDP on her website, Sickness is Fascinating.

Individual development plans provide a number of benefits to students, both in career development and research. They help trainees…

  • consider the big picture
  • be proactive earlier
  • focus their efforts
  • seek help from mentors
  • clarify expectations
  • minimize conflicts
  • maximize productivity


Reporting IDP Use

Dr. Nancy L. Desmond from the Office of Research Training and Career Development at the National Institute of Mental Health spoke on the implementation of IDPs among NIH-funded trainees. In 2012, a Working Group of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director issued a report on the biomedical workforce, containing the recommendation to require the use of individual development plans for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows on any NIH grant.  Following the recommendation, the NIH posted the Guide Notice NOT-OD-093 encouraging institutions to develop institutional policies and to report on the use of IDPs. In 2014, the policy was updated to require the reporting of whether trainees funded on NIH grants use IDPs. Recipients of any NIH grant supporting trainees are to report how they employed IDPs and whether individual development plans were used for all pre- and/or postdoctoral researchers. Reporting may be submitted via the Research Program Progress Report, Section B. Accomplishments, Q B.4.

The policy strongly encourages implementation of individual development plans, though the NIH does not currently recommend any particular IDP tool. Of the data collected thus far by the NIH, Dr. Desmond stated that reporting has been variable. While some faculty have began using IDPs, others are not enthusiastic partners.

Another speaker at the symposium was Dr. Cynthia Fuhrmann, Assistant Dean of Career & Professional Development in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. One of the four creators of myIDP, a tool offered by Science Careers and AAAS, Dr. Furhmann provided advice for faculty to assist trainees in the use of individual development plans.

Trainees need motivation and accountability in order to complete such an exercise, otherwise they will delay its creation in favor of bench work. Faculty advisors can encourage or require their students and postdocs to complete an IDP, and check in on trainees’ progress toward their goals periodically.


IDP Tools

A framework on which to create an individual development plan is also very useful to trainees. By providing templates such as those found below, students and postdoctoral fellows are much more likely to form a useful IDP.

In order to set short- and long-term goals using an individual development plan, trainees must be knowledgeable about their career options. As a mentor, you can provide information about careers in science through your network or through online resources such as myIDP and Science Careers articles.

In addition to mentorship from research advisors, thesis committees and career counselors can be helpful when trainees are developing IDPs. Self-assessment tools such as Strengths Finder and the Strong Interest Survey are best done with a counselor rather than interpreting the results alone.

Individual development plans can be implemented on a larger scale through the use of workshops, courses, or peer groups. Dr. Fuhrmann provided an example from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, in which professional development is integrated into the curriculum with opportunities for training, exploration, and mentoring. During Year One and Two, students attend career-related events and receive a broad view of career opportunities in addition to their standard scientific curriculum and thesis research. Third year graduate students are required to take a mini-course called “Career Planning and Creating Your IDP.” Part of a professionalism and research conduct course, students learn to apply a targeted approach to career exploration, how to expand their network, and how to create an IDP action plan with senior student mentors. During Years Four and Five, graduate students select two career plans in which to pursue advanced professional skills. Students revisit their individual development plans each year to check their progress and revise them as needed.

Student perceptions entering the Third Year course were that career planning was not urgent. The students had recently finished their classes and wanted to focus on their research. Other students thought they already knew how to achieve their desired career. At the end of the course, 28 out of 30 students stated they were glad they participated. Survey responses demonstrated that students were glad the course was required and that they will take specific actions toward the preparation of their career, particularly expanding their network. Other comments stated that students would alter their time management habits and meet with mentors more frequently.

A common theme throughout the session was that individual development plans have much more power when mentor feedback is utilized. Dr. Desmond emphasized that the dialog is important, not just completion of the IDP. Several IDP tools provide a summary of the action plan or a timeline of short- and long-term goals, which may be printed off for use in discussion with mentors.

Many faculty value mentorship of their trainees, but are pressed for time and may be untrained in effective mentorship strategies. Individual development plans and their associated tools can be a valuable resource to efficiently and systematically facilitate faculty mentorship of graduate students and postdocs.


Author: ilovebraaains

I am a neuroscientist using zebrafish to study mechanisms of neuroregeneration.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s