A survey suggests that junior researchers need guidance to properly maximise the value of a recommended training plan.
By Chris Woolston
Individual development plans or IDPs—multi-part worksheets that help junior researchers asses their skills and map out possible career paths—are often touted as valuable training tools. The US National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, “strongly encourages” IDPs for all graduate students and postdoctoral researchers funded through the agency, and many US institutions have made them mandatory.
Despite all of those endorsements, the actual reach and effectiveness of IDPs are largely unknown. A yet-to-be peer-reviewed survey of 663 PhD students from around the United States published in F1000Research provides new evidence that IDPs often fail to live up to their promise. “The IDP has been pushed hard over the last several years,” says lead author Nathan Vanderford, a career development researcher at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. “But in many cases they are used incorrectly or not used at all.”
In the survey, 54% of respondents said that their institution formally requires them to complete an IDP, and 34% said it was helpful for their career development. “Given how hard IDPs have been pushed, I would have expected those rates to be higher,” Vanderford says.
Respondents who completed their IDP with input from their adviser were far more likely than those who didn’t to say that the process was helpful (56% vs. 20%, respectively). IDPs work best when they’re backed by guidance from an adviser, career counselor or another ally, Vanderford says.
Philip Clifford, a kinesiologist and associate dean of research at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has advocated for IDPs since the early 2000s, agrees that the tools aren’t being used to their full potential. “IDPs haven’t been put together in an effective way at universities,” he says.
In Clifford’s view, the NIH and other institutions should do more to standardize and clarify the use of IDPs. For one thing, he notes that some institutions have dropped key parts of the worksheets, including sections that require exploration of career options. Also, he says, there’s a lack of of guidance about when the IDPs should be completed. “Having first-year graduate students fill out an IDP is an exercise in futility,” he says. “They don’t even know where the library is.” Ideally, he says, institutions should require students to wait until they’ve gone through about two years of training before completing an IDP.
In a statement, the NIH Office of Extramural Research called the paper by Vanderford et al. an “informative evaluation of IDPs” and said that it “looks forward to additional studies of the use of IDPs and the role they play in helping students and postdocs articulate and accomplish their desired career goals.”
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.