Monday, May 5, 2014

xBio 2014 ASPET Blogging: IDPs for Successful Career Development

Figure 1: Success. It's that way. (Source)
Individual Development Plans (IDPs) are becoming all the rage in the scientific community, and for good reason! Scientists-in-training tend to get busy with research and leave their career plan simmering on the back burner. Ideally, students can create an IDP in their first year of graduate school. It's a systematic way to figure out what they want to do and how to get there. Essentially, it's a scientific strategy for soul searching and goal setting. This post is based on a session titled "Establishing IDPs in Your Graduate and Postdoctoral Training Programs: The Ins and Outs of IDPs for Successful Career Development". 

Dr. Philip Clifford, from the University of Illinois at Chicago, made a good point with his talk's title before he even began: "A Goal Without a Plan is Just a Wish". Dr. Clifford presented sobering statistics emphasizing how much the scientific enterprise has changed in the last decade. This included information about the global increase in the number of PhDs, decrease in the number of academic faculty positions, layoffs and R&D cuts in industry. He cited the Sigma Xi Doctors Without Orders study, which surveyed 7,600 postdocs and found that those with a career plan are more satisfied, more productive, and had fewer conflicts with their advisors. Clearly, creating a career plan is a useful and meaningful endeavor. Dr. Clifford was one of the founders of the website myIDP, which is one way to take an assessment of your interests and skills as well set career goals.

Dr. Lynn Wecker, from the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine, spoke next and described a comprehensive approach for creating an IDP. She reiterated something Dr. Clifford also mentioned: a research advisor helps students develop scientific skills, but ideally, they are a mentor who also helps with overall goals, including career goals. However, she emphasized how important it is to have more than one mentor, either formal or informal. Each mentor has a unique network of contacts and experiences so the more mentors a student has, the broader the "net".

The importance of completing an IDP early in your career was also emphasized, especially in the current climate where competition is fierce. To secure the position you want, you'll need to improve skills and gain experience in areas other than bench research (see #4 at that link) prior to the next step of your career. For example, if you're a graduate student and you think you might be interested in science writing, you'll need to start building a portfolio as soon as possible. Potential employers will want to see your work and you can be sure your competition will have started early.  Keep in mind: an IDP is a living document, meant to be flexible and change as you hone your interests.

Dr. Wecker presented four steps for creating an IDP, based on SMARTER goal setting (link is to a pdf).

Figure 2: Self-assessment, planning, and doing 
are key to reaching the career you want. (Source)
Step 1: Self assessment
Self assessment is the real soul searching part of creating an IDP. This is where you spend time thinking very seriously and critically about yourself. Assess your strengths and weaknesses in relation to your skills and abilities. Are you really great at bench work? Do you actually like benchwork? Do you love to come up with ideas for new research areas? Do you like to translate those ideas into grant proposals? How are your critical thinking skills? Writing skills? If you write well, do you enjoy writing or is it something you do begrudgingly?

It's easy to over or understate your abilities, depending on your current ratio of confidence vs. imposter syndrome. It's important to seek an objective, outside view as well. Meet with at least one of your mentors and ask for a straight-up, constructive criticism assessment. Do they think you're good at the bench, write well, and have enthusiasm for science?

Step 2: Survey potential career opportunities
Next, start searching broadly for potential career opportunities. The most common career sectors include academia, industry, government, and non-profits. Each has advantages and disadvantages which Google can help you explore. Within these sectors, there's a plethora of sub-categories: teaching, benchwork, science writing, science policy, consulting, etc. And within each of those, there is a ton of variation.

For example, in academia, there are universities, medical schools, and small liberal arts colleges, and as a faculty member your focus would be different at each venue. Industry has bench positions, lab manager/research coordinators, medical liaisons, marketing, writing, and more. Science writing can be freelance, for a society, the government, companies, members of congress, scientists, or for the public. Policy positions can be interacting directly with politicians, writing summaries of research for politicians to understand current science to inform policy, outreach to the general public, or positions at the state or local level.

It's almost overwhelming when you start thinking about all of the opportunities out there. Thankfully, there are resources to help you explore the variety of careers available. Try browsing the job announcements on LinkedIn, USA jobs, and pharmaceutical company websites. There's also Science Careers, Nature Jobs, NeuroJobs, and Science Jobs. You don't need to narrow your choices to one career at this point, or even one category! Instead, make several choices you'd like to explore further.

Step 3: Write and modify your IDP
It's time to document what you discovered about yourself. Dr. Wecker emphasized the variety of ways you can do this. She suggested finding a basic open-ended outline that allows for flexibility. There are many available online.

Figure 3: Make that list and 
check it every six months. 
In your document, create short-term goals, long-term goals, and action steps for reaching them within
specific timeframes. Include milestones delineating when you want to achieve each goal. Dr. Wecker says to use the 5Ws - who, what, where, when, why - to create your goals and to be realistic about your timeline.

To continue the example, if one of your choices was science writing, you could set a goal to start a blog and action steps to write an introduction post and several short posts to build up your queue. Another goal could be to perform informational interviews with a variety of science writing outlets: a freelance writer, your university press office, and a company that employs medical writers. You could pitch a story to a local magazine.

Step 4: Implement your plan
Here's the fun part: start doing and checking off those goals! One of the most important things to remember is that an IDP is a living document, it's fluid and flexible. If you volunteer to write a couple of articles for your university press office and you loathe every minute of it, then you've learned that's probably not your "thing". Modify your plan and set new goals. Rinse and repeat.

Dr. Wecker suggests revising your IDP every six months. Assess where you are with your goals, what strengths and weaknesses have changed, and what your current interests are. Did you complete your goals or did you put them off? Putting them off can be because you've been too busy trying to reach a research deadline, but it can also be a clue that you aren't as excited about the career opportunity you chose as you thought you would be. Reassess and modify as needed. She also suggested using a Monthly Progress Monitor to keep track of your goals and improve your time management skills. Last year, I blogged about using them and I still highly recommend it.

Most importantly, Dr. Wecker said to differentiate yourself from the masses! Understand yourself, where you want to end up, and what you can do to get there. Good luck!

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