I Have a Plan … Now What?

This is the 12th article in a series designed to help you create an individual development plan (IDP) using myIDP, a web-based career-planning tool created to help graduate students and postdocs in the sciences define and pursue their career goals. To learn more about myIDP and begin the career exploration and planning process, please visit:

You’ve done a lot of work already, but your work is not complete—far from it. Now it’s time to execute your career plan.

Working toward your specific goals

If you’ve followed our advice and set SMART (specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time-bound) goals, you’re in an excellent position to follow through on your commitments to yourself. But there are additional steps you should take. First, set up reminders by (a) posting your myIDP Goals Summary at your desk, (b) entering key dates into your calendar, and (c) activating myIDP’s monthly e-mail reminder feature. If you’d planned to keep yourself accountable by talking with friends or colleagues about your progress, you might want to pencil in dates for these conversations. Remember to approach your goals in manageable chunks so that you don’t feel overwhelmed.

If you don’t meet one or more goals on the schedule you set out, don’t be discouraged. Instead, consider why you were unable to check that item off your list. Did you have too many other commitments? Did you fail to allot enough time? Did you lose focus or find yourself reluctant (perhaps due to anxiety) to engage that particular goal? Did you encounter an unexpected obstacle? How can you reformulate your goal to make it more achievable, or to avoid the obstacles that took you off course?

Engaging your research adviser (and others)

Engaging key people—mentors, peers who will help you, and your research adviser—is a crucial step in carrying out your career plan. The first step, then, is to recruit them to your IDP cause.

Some people find it difficult to talk with their research advisers about career plans, particularly if those plans do not include following in the adviser’s footsteps. But soliciting your adviser’s feedback is important, especially feedback about your laboratory and research skills. Your adviser is likely to have the best perspective on your competence in those areas and should be able to help you prioritize: Which skills do you need to improve? Which should you work on first?

Appraisal is very important, but so is establishing the latitude you need to improve your skills. If your career ambitions don’t meet with your adviser’s approval—and especially if your action plan takes you out of the lab—you may need to employ your best negotiating skills. A good relationship with your adviser is essential to your future, so prepare for the conversation. Start by reassuring your adviser that you share the common goal of moving your research project forward. Consider ahead of time how you might be flexible while still achieving your goals.  You may find it helpful to practice the conversation with a trusted adviser in your graduate school, postdoctoral affairs office, or career development office.

In the end, your adviser may surprise you. Once she knows what your career aspirations are, she may offer her support and be amenable to your spending time on career preparation activities. She may even put you in touch with a former trainee or colleague who is already working in the field you’re interested in. Feel free to make this request.

In the discussion, be careful not to overshare. It is better not to show your adviser your myIDP summary or your whole self-appraisal. She doesn’t need to know that you only rated yourself a two on grant writing in myIDP’s Skills Assessment section, and she might not care to know, from your Values Assessment, that you are seeking a career that offers a congenial work atmosphere and decision-making authority. That level of detail is for you alone.

You should, however, be prepared to talk to your adviser in broad strokes.  Let her know what activities interest you, what skills you’d like to improve, and what you’re looking for in a career. This will provide context for your discussions of goals, and it will help her provide relevant and useful feedback. Also ask for ideas on how best to develop a particular skill.

Of course, your research adviser is not the only one who can provide you with insight into your IDP. You can also share parts of it with other mentors, a career counselor, and colleagues—anyone who can provide additional perspective or help you stay on course and committed to your goals. Consider setting up a peer mentoring group to help each other stay on course.

Other uses for myIDP

myIDP may also enable you to fulfill formal training and career development requirements. If your institution mandates that you submit an IDP, inquire which parts you need to submit to satisfy that requirement. The goals you set in myIDP can also serve as the basis for the training and career development plans required as part of research grant and fellowship applications.

Conducting a progress appraisal

Once you’ve begun to implement your career development plan, it’s necessary to review your progress at regular intervals.  We recommend a review every 6-12 months. This periodic appraisal will help you take stock of the goals you achieved and those you failed to achieve, and evaluate the factors that facilitated or impeded your progress. Importantly, it’s also an opportunity to revisit—and perhaps revise—your longer-term objectives.

We recommend a three-pronged approach to this review: self–appraisal, an appraisal by a mentor who is not your research adviser, and an appraisal by your research adviser. (See below.)

Three-pronged approach:

1. Your self-appraisal is an inventory of accomplishments that includes the status of the goals you set in your IDP. As you reflect on the progress you’ve made toward each goal and the factors that inhibited or facilitated your achievement, look for patterns. Have you consistently met your data-analysis goals? Does your easy progress indicate a particular strength or affinity in that area? Why don’t you ever get around to completing your manuscripts? Perhaps writing intimidates you or doesn’t interest you. Reflecting on the reasons you did not meet a goal will help you set more productive and manageable goals in the future, and it may also cause you to reevaluate your overall career objectives.

2. Once you’ve conducted your self-appraisal, discuss it with select colleagues, peers, and mentors. Some of these people will be generalists, adept at providing feedback on your overall progress. Others will be specialists, ideal for advising you on your progress toward one narrow goal. To generalists, you might pose open-ended questions such as “What do you think my greatest strength has been this year?” or, “In what areas do you feel I need the most improvement?” Ask specialists about specific goals: If you’ve been working with a particular faculty member to learn a new technique, ask that person how you’re doing. If you’ve been gaining teaching experience, ask your teaching mentor how you can improve.  Always say “thank you” after you receive feedback.

3. Your research adviser is a critical part of this periodic appraisal process. As you begin your periodic assessment—agreed on at the outset of this process—take the opportunity to remind him or her of your accomplishments and discuss the factors that have helped you succeed in these areas. Seek feedback on the specific challenges you’ve had, and work together to develop solutions.

This appraisal is also the time to discuss plans for your laboratory work and your career, particularly if your plans have changed. These conversations will help ensure that your plans and your adviser’s plans are aligned, and can help you to identify and take advantage of the resources and support you need.

Embracing change

Don’t be surprised if your plans change over time. Life events, such as completing your doctoral training, having a child, or switching jobs may result in a shift in priorities. Even absent any major life events, your career interests may shift. As you learn more about science careers, you may conclude that a job you thought you would like isn’t really that interesting after all. Some random event, like an encounter with an acquaintance at a conference, may turn you toward a career path you hadn’t considered previously. If you’ve met your skills development goals, you may find that you are now better suited for another particular path than you were the first time you conducted your assessment. Understanding your strengths and weaknesses, where your interests lie, and what you want to get out of your career will help you to adapt to whatever changes life throws at you.

Best wishes for a successful career!

Another Call to Reform Biomedical Research and Training

Academe’s ‘1 Percent’