IDP Tips for New Grad Students
The following Q&A is adapted from the webinar, Creating Individual Development Plans: A How-to Guide, hosted by SfN and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Many new graduate students aren’t sure what they want to do in the future. How can first year graduate students and their mentors use an IDP and other resources to gain clarity?
Jennifer Stripay: I had no idea what I wanted when I first started graduate school. I think the majority of us come in with the assumption that we will follow the trajectory of our PIs and that we would like to stay in academia, while some students know right off the bat that’s not what they want.
Programs are really getting better at exposing students to their options. There are a lot more career resources, particularly through SfN, including Neuronline, for neuroscience students to identify what the options are in a very active way. There are going to be some really active resources to take advantage of and explore those choices.
Really emphasizing that the IDP is a dynamic tool, you can fill it out as a first year and may change multiple aspects by the time you are halfway through that first year. That’s okay. It should evolve with you and your progress in the program.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by the IDP, though it shouldn’t be an overwhelming process. Utilize it as a clarifying step for you to build your concrete goals. If your goal is to finish your rotations successfully, that is a great goal to incorporate into your IDP as a first year student. Thinking about the more concrete and tangible items is really helpful especially for early level students.
When should a student begin using the IDP?
Nancy Desmond: There are different viewpoints on when is a good time to do this. I think it can be a very useful tool to help students begin to think about what their goals are and stay focused on them, acknowledging that goals are likely going to change over time in graduate school — and that’s fine. You will be learning and discovering things you really like and things you don’t find so interesting. That can help clarify the directions in which you may want to go.
Ian Paul: I feel very strongly that IDPs are useful right from the word “Go.” IDPs take some time to refine. The most typical thing that you see in a first year student’s IDP is that all of his or her interests on a scale from 1-9 are a nine, and all of their dislikes are similarly skewed in one direction. This is a good way to point out to students that they can’t do everything.
Encourage them to start thinking about whole scales and keep coming back to it. In my program, we went over the IDP three times in the first year. It was amazing for each student to see how much it had changed in just three or four months.
What strategies do you recommend for students whose mentors aren’t interested in using an IDP?
Jennifer Stripay: There are going to be advisers that are reluctant to use the system, but there are still a lot of valuable ways you can take advantage of it. My first suggestion is to take it out of the context of the formalized IDP. If your adviser is not interested in sitting down to look at this paperwork with you, pull the relevant pieces of information you have identified for yourself throughout the skills assessment.
Personally, I knew that the business of science was something I was interested in getting involved with, so I was able to approach my mentor and ask about the opportunities to become more involved in lab management. I asked about budgeting, proposing grants, managing personnel, and getting experience mentoring other students. Those are all skills I felt like I needed to develop in the trajectory I was headed based on my IDP results. I was able to have him help me with without actually sitting down and looking at the form.
Be honest about your self-assessment and discuss some of your career options with your mentor. Are there people they can put you in touch with to get more experience? Using your mentor or primary academic mentor to build your network of advisers gets them involved in the process without actually having to check off a series of boxes.
Additional Resources Recommended by Presenters
- Neuronline’s career path resources
- National Institutes of Health’s Office of Intramural Training and Education
- Vanderbilt’s ASPIRE Program
- Northwestern University’s Climb Program
Make sure to watch the full webinar, Creating Individual Development Plans: A How-to Guide.