Have a better answer next time someone asks, “So what’s your plan after the degree?”

Submitted on April 22, 2019

By Elizabeth Labiner

Graduate students are expected to do it all: coursework, research, writing, teaching, professional development, and more. At times, it can feel overwhelming, particularly if all this work feels like it’s pulling a student in different directions. This is where an Individual Development Plan (IDP) may help!

An IDP is a tool to help you prepare for your future, regardless of the career you’re planning on after earning your degree. It’s useful to think about all the things you’re already doing as part of your work as a graduate student and use the IDP to maximize the benefits of your learning, research, scholarly output, teaching or assistantship work, and professional development. In an IDP, you outline a vision for yourself -- this can be both for the remainder of your time in your graduate program, as well as after graduating -- and set goals to capitalize on your strengths and address your development needs. In an IDP, you should take time to critically self-assess and focus on your objectives. In doing so, you can lay out a deliberate approach to increase the skills, knowledge, and experience you need to advance in your field.

Regardless of your goals, an IDP can help you take several crucial steps. First, the plan helps you inventory your strengths and identify any gaps in your knowledge, skill set, or experience, giving you a place to start pursuing growth opportunities. Second, setting both short-term and long-term goals can help you (and your advisor!) more clearly understand what you need and how best to allocate your time and efforts. Third, the plan can help you recognize benchmarks of achievement toward the goals you’ve set, something that can often feel missing in the long years of a graduate program, particularly during the dissertation stage.

To get started developing your IDP, you should begin by explicitly defining your career goals. Make a list of several jobs to which you might aspire, and consider what you need to do to be a successful applicant for each one.

Next, identify the necessary skills, abilities, and knowledge for those careers. If you’re not exactly sure what a given job requires, reach out to professionals in that field and ask to conduct informational interviews; this is not a job interview, but rather a time for you to ask questions and learn from someone already in the field and career you’d like to join.

Once you’ve identified the necessary competencies for the careers you listed, you should honestly self-assess your skills and knowledge and compare them to the list you made. Highlight the strengths you already have, and make a list of the areas in which you’re not yet ready. At this stage, it would be a good opportunity to have a conversation with your faculty advisor about opportunities to build your skills, as well as what goals you can set for yourself during your degree program in order to be ready for the job market when you graduate.

In addition, write up some professional development goals. Consider what can you do or learn in your current position to become even more competitive in your job search, as well as whether you ought to seek out additional assistantship roles. Set some goals for the short term (within a  year), mid-term (within 2 years), and long-term (within 5 years). Lay out steps and strategies to achieve these goals, as well as completion timelines for yourself.

Finally, use your plan to track your development and set new goals! Along with providing motivation and specific plans, your IDP can help you build and maintain an academic portfolio in which you collect evidence of your achievements. Your portfolio may include personal statements, feedback from others, items on your curriculum vitae, and samples of your work. All of these elements document your efforts to achieve your goals, as well as provide grounds for self-assessment.

The goals graduate students set and the problems they face are often intimidating; an IDP can aid you in breaking them into manageable steps. For a more substantial guide to creating and following an IDP, several institutions and organizations have guides that may be freely accessed.

To visit ImaginePhD's site, click here.

To visit the STEM-focused MyIDP, click here.

To see Yale’s guide, click here.