As Fall term winds down and we settle in for a well-needed break, we encourage you to take a little time to reflect on this past year.
What made you feel good? What is something new you learned? How have you moved closer to reaching your professional goals?
The end-of-year holidays is a great opportunity to reflect on your plans to graduate and prepare for the next stage of your life. The process of setting goals and tracking progress is best done systematically and one tool that can help with this is an “Individual Development Plan” (IDP). IDP is a planning document to help you to evaluate your existing and missing skills, set development goals, design strategies to achieve your goals and establish measurable milestones to complete your individual (career and academic) plan.
IDP can be done through a simple three-step process, highlighting your goals, breaking them into achievable objectives and actions, and finally evaluating your progress at pre-set intervals (ex. end-of-term). Two popular websites with free IDP tools are:
1. MyIDP for Science, Engineering, Technology and Math PhD students
2. ImaginePhD for social science and humanities PhD students
Here are 4 reasons why you should do an individual development plan:
1. Prepares you to say “no” to the distractors
Be it a career path or a grad degree, it is incredibly easy to get off-track, but at the cost of your precious time and money. This happens due to parallel and conflicting activities demanding your attention. While they may be attractive in the moment, they are often not relevant to your degree nor contribute to your professional aspirations.
By completing an IDP we are more aware of our goals and priorities, which in turn guides how we use our time and help us say “no” to those less important and conflicting activities. If that latest proposition from a colleague is unrelated to a goal or activity that you identified in your IDP than you may be less likely to accept it and feel confident in your decision.
2. Helps you focus on completing your degree on time and with your supervisor’s support
We recommend you do an IDP early in your program and you make it part of the discussion you have with your supervisor when you complete Concordia’s grad student annual evaluation (annual School of Graduate Studies’ online self-assessment tool). This might be a good time to talk to your supervisor and work out strategies to complete your degree according to your IDP. Speaking about your research challenges offers your supervisor the chance to help you to overcome them.
Engaging your supervisor in your IDP gives you the chance to discuss potential future career opportunities after graduation. In one hand, your supervisor might give you new ideas about jobs in the industry to increase your employability chances outside academia. On the other hand, you will need to learn the skills required to successfully compete for job posts in industry, and include them in your IDP.
3. Gives you an edge over other graduate students
In your research you use structured methods, so why not be equally rigorous in your career planning? Finding the right position for you, whether in academia or in industry, is not an easy problem with a clear solution. It requires a strategy!
On top of the job market uncertainties, you have to compete with other equally smart candidates. This is when the IDP becomes crucial to discover what you want to do, shape your skills and go after the opportunities you are passionate about in a structured way. IDP works as a compass to guide you while you are job hunting, thus saving your priceless time by avoiding random activities and efforts.
And, if your IDP is updated annually when you are already in your dream job, it has the potential to support your personal and professional development and career advancement, such as to acquire new skills, to move to a managerial position, to ask for a pay rise, to change departments or finding a new job somewhere else.
4. Better prepares you for the realities of today’s job market and your next interview
The job market prospects have changed for academics. Doctoral and postdoc students face increasing difficulty landing a research or faculty position in a university.
Don’t be discouraged! Many graduate students find rewarding careers in companies, governments and non-profit organizations but pitching your skills to these employers is not the same as within the university environment. The specialized expertise you acquired in your PhD is not as important as your “transferable” skills – the communication, project management and leadership skills that you also acquired through doing research and writing your thesis.
An IDP will help you be more aware of your transferable, soft skills, and help you better promote yourself to possible employers. It helps you identify which soft skills are useful for different roles, understand how you are acquiring these skills and identify ways to enhance your skills acquisition. The IDP is simultaneously inward looking, as it identifies the job applicants strengthens and weaknesses, and outward looking since it allows the individual to consider the job market requirements in their field.
When you are aware of specific gaps in your competencies, you can be proactive and informed when choosing extra-curricular activities that can fill these gaps. For instance, leadership skills can be developed through organizing a conference, volunteering to lead a student association, or pursuing a project management role in a research lab. You can also take GradProSkills project management, leadership, and event planning workshops.
A review of your achievements and skills developed so far in grad school (or current and prior employment) will be a morale booster and counteract imposter syndrome. You might be surprised how much you already achieved in your academic, personal and professional life, and knowing this will be a valuable asset to your future employer.
Use your IDP to build a list of what is unique about you, and this is likely to increase your confidence about your skills during a job interview.