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best practices for postdoctoral scholars

Postdocs: Why do I want or need to use an IDP?

Individual Development Plans (IDPs) are a customized roadmap for your professional training and goals. The IDP process guides you to reflect on your ultimate career goals, where you are now, and define specific actions toward achieving those goals. IDPs can help you make the most of the postdoctoral training stage of your career, which is specifically dedicated to your development as a researcher and professional.

The postdoc labor contract requires faculty mentors to participate in an IDP process if requested by the postdoc. In addition, postdocs may request a written assessment of research goals and progress expectations for the coming year. For more information, see Article 9.

IDPs will prompt you to:

  • Clarify short – medium- and long-term academic and professional goals
  • Identify areas that need development and locate helpful resources
  • Garner timely support from your mentor and strengthen your relationship
  • Create an action plan for your academic and professional development

The 2005 Sigma Xi Postdoc survey of US postdoctoral scholars showed that postdoctoral scholars who created a written career plan or IDP with their mentors were 23% more likely to submit papers, 30% more likely to publish first-authored papers, and 25% less likely to report that their mentor did not meet initial expectations.

Postdocs: How do I prepare for the IDP?

1. Using myIDP

myIDP is available through Science Careers at The myIDP tool was created by a team of PhD educators and career development professionals to extend the original FASEB proposal for IDPs for postdoctoral fellows in the sciences to an online tool that would be easily usable for PhD students, postdoctoral trainees and their mentors.

myIDP includes self-assessments to evaluate your skills, values and interests which you then use as a guide to explore potential career paths and opportunities and define your preferred path and some alternatives.

Postdocs in the Social Sciences/Humanities may want to use The University of Wisconsin-Madison IDP Template:

  • The University of Wisconsin-Madison Graduate School template allows you to assess your current skills and strengths, make a plan for developing skills to meet academic and professional goals, and communicate these goals with your advisor/mentor.

 2.Before taking an IDP assessment:

  1. Give yourself 15-20 minutes of uninterrupted time to take the assessment.
  2. Be reflective and honest with yourself about your skills, interests and values.
  3. Take the assessment individually

3.  Setting Specific, Measurable, Action oriented, Realistic, and Time bound (SMART) Goals:

  1. Be honest about your strengths and weakness
  2. Be realistic about what can be accomplished in a specific time-frame
  3. Hold yourself accountable with an IDP colleague or work-group

Postdocs: How do I speak to my mentor about my IDP?

You should prepare the IDP in advance:  Complete the IDP and research potential resources in advance of your meeting. You want to come to the meeting with some ideas of how you plan to integrate your career development plans with your research goals. Your mentor may respond well to receiving a copy of your IDP a few days before your scheduled meeting to have time to review and consider the assessment.

  • Bring your SMART goals to your meeting – identifying what you plan to work on and accomplish in the coming month, 3 months and year
  • Be prepared to discuss how the IDP could benefit the work of the lab and the productivity

You should lead the IDP conversation:  Using the completed IDP as a guide, lead the discussion of your self-assessment, goals and plans. Your mentor should share his/her perspective and make suggestions, and ideally you will work collaboratively to develop a specific action plan to pursue over the next year.  This meeting could be coordinated as part of the required annual review for postdoctoral appointments. Remember that you can also highlight your accomplishments and progress since the last meeting in addition to the areas you have identified for development.

  • Manage your expectations around how much your advisor knows about some of the career paths, and try to limit questions about those paths.

If your mentor seems resistant to the IDP: While this is a common fear, most faculty mentors take their responsibility to the training and progress of their students quite seriously. If you have not approached your mentor with these issues or questions before, it will be important to approach the meetings with an open mind and have an idea of what taking the meeting “seriously” means to you. IDP planning workshops can help with this approach. UCLA has created IDP training workshops both for the trainees and the mentors, so your faculty mentor may be interested in IDP-related mentorship training or resources.

Additionally, you may point out to your PI that:

  • An annual IDP is a new requirement for NIH-funded trainees starting in October, 2014;
  • Postdocs who define their goals and plans early on are better able to identify and participate in professional development opportunities, making them more productive and successful in the long-term; and
  • Clarifying career goals and expectations with their mentor/PI will lead to better communication, planning and more successful outcomes.
  • The postdoc labor contract requires PIs to participate in an IDP process if requested by the postdoc. In addition, postdocs may request a written assessment of research goals and progress expectations for the coming year. For more information, seeArticle 9