Helping prepare UW-Madison graduate students and postdocs for careers

February 19, 2015 By Kelly April Tyrrell

Nasim Jamali knows that writing grants is not for her, but she loves to read research papers and talk about science.

Now in her fourth year of graduate school, Jamali has been thinking more and more about what comes next after she graduates with her Ph.D. in cellular and molecular biology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and how she can make sure she’s on track. “I won’t be a PI (principal investigator),” Jamali says, “but maybe an instructor.”

Not long ago, Jamali took advantage of a tool intended to help her hone in on her skills, interests and career options: the Individual Development Plan, or IDP. The UW–Madison Graduate School is spearheading a campuswide initiative to encourage all graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to complete their own IDPs. The university also now requires IDPs from all National Institutes of Health-funded grad students and postdocs.

“It’s meant to help graduate students and postdocs prepare for careers in a variety of paths, as faculty members or in the private or public sectors ,” says Alissa Ewer, assistant dean in the Office of Professional Development and Communications in the Graduate School. “It is a written plan that defines goals for skills development, accomplishment of milestones, and activities related to professional and career development.”

UW-Madison offers two options for completing an IDP: one, a template developed for UW–Madison grad students and postdocs in any discipline and the other, an online tool developed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) specific to students and postdocs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

The general IDP guides postdocs and grad students through a self-assessment, ranging from questions about professionalism to teaching and communication skills, as well as current and future career goals. Students and postdocs then write their own personal IDP using a SMART goals format, which stands for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

“Research shows goal-setting can have an impact on performance and career satisfaction,” says Ewer, who also leads an IDP workgroup comprising faculty, staff, and student and postdoctoral representatives from across campus.

The AAAS IDP guides students and postdocs through a ranked questionnaire designed to assess their skills and interests, as well as help them identify their values, such as serving society or the desire for intellectual challenge. It then generates a list of possible careers for students and postdocs to explore and identifies resources that may help them along their career path.

Both IDPs serve as a sort of roadmap, allowing students and postdocs to evaluate where they are now, and to return every so often to modify their plan or follow-up on goals they set at an earlier stage.

To be most helpful, Mallory Musolf, student services coordinator in the Neuroscience Training Program, suggests students and postdocs complete their IDPs as early in their training as possible, and go back to them at least once a year to re-evaluate their plans and goals.

For instance, Jamali used her IDP to set monthly reminders to complete specific tasks and it helped her find a book on careers in science. She now brings her IDP to her thesis committee meetings and incorporates career conversations into her regular research progress updates. Recently, it helped her bring up her desire to seek an industry internship while she is still in graduate school.

“As a starter, the IDP is really good,” Jamali says. “For the first couple of years, I was thinking about classes and (preliminary exams) and I thought I’d worry about a job later on. Now, I need to start thinking: ‘What am I good at? What are my expectations of my job?’”

In the beginning, Jamali was nervous to talk to her graduate advisor about her interests outside of an academic career. But, she ultimately decided it was better to seek his help, rather than hide the reality of her ambitions. She also engaged in a workshop offered by the Graduate School, where she learned about the IDP.

“He took it really well and was supportive,” she says. “He told me: ‘You should be happy.’ It was a conversation I ordinarily wouldn’t have had at this stage, but it helped me start to talk about these things with him.”

Considering careers outside of academia can be anxiety-inducing for many Ph.D.s, who may be reluctant to discuss it with their academic mentors. Yet Wendy Crone, professor of engineering physics and interim dean of the Graduate School, says many on campus have done a good job recognizing that the skills learned in graduate school or as a postdoc are valuable for many careers. While the IDP can remain private, discussing the IDP with a mentor is an important part of the experience, Ewer and Crone both say.

“It’s better to have mentor and mentee on the same page, thinking together about what skills are needed to get to where the student wants to be, and what they can do along the way to get those skills,” says Crone. “If you can have that conversation with your advisor, that’s ideal. But if not, you should seek out and have that conversation with someone else, particularly someone who’s been down that path.”

Not all faculty members feel prepared talking about career trajectories outside of their own, but Crone suggests they can always offer to help connect their mentees with those who are, whether that’s leveraging existing relationships or helping to forge new ones at professional conferences and the like.

Some faculty members may also be skeptical of the IDP’s utility, or view it as an administrative burden. This was UW–Madison entomology professor Susan Paskewitz’s take early on, but then she learned more about IDPs and saw how helpful they were for her students.

“I find IDPs incredibly valuable and actively encourage their use by my students and those in our department, irrespective of the source of their funding support,” Paskewitz says, noting the IDP template and activities are well thought out. “I talked to our Entomology Graduate Student Association and asked them to share the IDP documents with all the graduate students.”

Many programs may already have their own IDPs, says Imogen Hurley, assistant director in the Office of Postdoctoral Studies at the UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, and the UW–Madison IDP template developed by the workgroup is not intended to supersede those.

The IDP workgroup also created a trove of resources that are featured on the Graduate School’s Professional Development website, including tips for mentors on how to work with mentees, and the Graduate School offers IDP workshops for students and postdocs to learn more. The workgroup will also continue to refine IDP tools, incorporating survey and focus group feedback.

“The academic job market has changed but it’s always been true that our Ph.D.s have been successful in getting jobs across many sectors,” says Crone. “Our campus is doing a better job now of recognizing that there are a multitude of outcomes and we are trying to be more intentional about the experiences students have on campus to help them be more successful.”