2 thoughts on “Many graduate students and postdoctoral scholars are crafting individual development plans (IDPs). What roles might advisors, institutions, and federal funding agencies have in the use and reporting on IDPs?

  1. I really believe that the only humane way to do PhD mentorship, is to have a written agreement in place between mentor and mentee at the time when the mentee joins the lab, describing the plan for the mentee’s research work. This should be a required part of the process of joining a lab. No mentee should be considered committed to a lab without one; any work with a mentor before such an agreement is in place should just be considered to be lab rotations, a trial period, or some other uncommitted status. Oral agreements are just not reliable and leave PhD students highly vulnerable to unexpected changes that can ruin the student’s plans for their graduate education. (The original oral agreement may later turn out to have been a misunderstanding. I have heard of enough cases like this to know that it is not an exceedingly rare occurrence, and that the consequences for the student’s career development can be absolutely devastating if the student loses a feature of their mentorship arrangement that was really critical for them and that was an essential component of the reasons why they choose that lab, or why they chose to go to graduate school at all.) The extreme imbalance in market power when students and professors discuss potential mentorship arrangements, not only hampers students’ efforts to obtain clear, and mutually well-understood, oral agreements to the things they need most, it also often means that the student cannot ask for an agreement in writing. So, written agreements are usually only available to students when it is institutional, or program, policy that there should be one.

    I have no personal experience using an IDP, but it seems that the IDP could be used for this purpose, by putting down in writing all features of the arrangement that are critical for either the mentor or the mentee, and signing in agreement to them. The student’s membership in the lab should not be considered official until the document is signed. Through this process, mentors and mentees who are not actually on the same page, and willing to commit to the same things in writing, would be more likely to figure this out before the mentee has formally joined the lab. The process of deciding on the wording would give the mentee more opportunity to gain understanding of what degree of adherence to their desired mentorship characteristics they can rely on in that lab, at a time when they may still have other labs available to them. So, I am glad that NIH has begun encouraging the use of IDPs, and I hope that NSF will do the same. I expect that a lot more mentorship relationships would work out well if all PhD students were required to have an IDP in place in order to join a lab, and that would be an improvement that would increase the efficiency with which both science and training get done.

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  2. Many of the career path options that are listed on my IDP lie outside of the traditional academic path (postdoctoral work then professorship).

    Ideally, a supportive mentor will allow a student or post-doc to explore some of these options by finding opportunities for them to speak with individuals who have gone down those paths and giving them enough leeway to explore different options on their own.

    An institution can have a potentially larger role than a mentor, since they may be able to support events such as career fairs for ‘alternative’ science jobs or invite speakers that advocate those jobs.

    I’m not sure how I see grant agencies figuring in to the results of an IDP, aside from creating websites such as this one to support discussion, or possibly a forum to match people up with individuals who are in a more advanced stage of an ‘alternative’ career. I’m sure this wasn’t the implication, but I personally don’t think an IDP profile should in any way affect funding, as the validity of a proposed grant is not determined by a student/post-doc’s eventual career path.

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