Sunday, July 8, 2018

Writing Workshop: The IDP (Individual Development Plan)

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. 

-old military adage, cited by Dwight D. Eisenhower

[Note: Most of the material from these writing workshop blog posts, plus a lot more never-blogged material, is now available in my book, The Writing Workshop: Write More, Write Better, Be Happier in Academia.]

Imagine that your younger sister is graduating from high school. She’s worked incredibly hard, and you’re so proud of her that you’ve decided to throw her a party at your house. You pick a day and a time, and tell your sister to invite whomever she likes. What do you do next?

Let’s imagine that you do no other planning for this party. On the day of the party, anything from a handful of people to a whole crowd might show up. Not having tidied up ahead of time, you spend the first twenty minutes running around your place picking up laundry and hiding dirty dishes in the oven instead of greeting the guests. Not having bought any food or drinks for the party, you desperately phone for pizza delivery and look for some clean glasses so you can offer your guests tap water in the meantime. You leave the hosting to your sister while you make an emergency run to the store for drinks, party decorations and a cake. You won’t have time to order your sister’s favorite carrot cake with cream cheese icing, but if you’re lucky maybe you can find an already-made cake somewhere and write “Congratulations” on it.

Your party will probably turn out fine. But how much easier and more pleasant would the whole process have been if you had taken the time to plan ahead? Instead of running around frantic, you could have been serenely welcoming your guests. Instead of driving around looking for drinks and cake, you could have been home enjoying the party with your sister. When you fail to plan, you waste time and introduce unnecessary chaos.

If this is a bad way to throw a party, it’s a terrible way to manage your career. Unless you think about where you are going ahead of time, you have to make it up as you go along. By taking a little time to clarify what you want to achieve, and identifying the steps you will take to get there, you can free up your mind to focus on your day-to-day tasks the rest of the time. This makes for a much calmer, happier, and more productive work life.

In our writing workshop, we use four levels of planning. We each have:

  • An individual development plan (IDP) covering the next one to five years.
  • A term plan covering the current term. (Our university uses quarters, so we make quarter plans; You can make a semester plan if that's better for you.)
  • A weekly calendar blocking out time for work, play and reflection each week. 
  • A shared daily writing log listing writing tasks for each day.

This may sound like a lot of planning, but it doesn't take a lot of time. Updating our IDPs takes just 45 minutes at the beginning of each academic year, and we do it together in class. We spend 45 minutes on our term plans at the beginning of each term, and revisit them every five weeks or so. We set aside 15-20 minutes at the beginning of each workshop meeting to make our weekly calendars, and we each fill in the daily writing log every day.
If you feel panic rising inside you at the thought of all this planning, don't worry—you don't have to make any plans if you don't want to. (This is just a blog post, it's not the boss of you! You can stop reading right now and go eat ice cream—isn't that a comforting thought? This blog post will not go anywhere. You can always make a plan later.)
Or you can make a bad plan. Perhaps you are stuck in a classroom with no access to ice cream, and someone has given you this blog post to read and they expect you to make an IDP and the whole idea is making you tense! It's okay, here's what you do: Just make the worst IDP ever. Vague, incomplete, poorly-thought-out, unrealistic . . .  draw a stick figure with the words I can haz PhD on the back of a grease-stained napkin and call it a day. You can do that, right?
This is how we cope with resistance in the writing workshop. We just do things badly! Making a terrible, sloppy, unrealistic IDP today is just fine. You can always revise and update it later. So with that comforting thought in mind, let's talk about why IDPs are useful.

Why PhD students need IDPs

We all have the experience of being undergraduates before we go to graduate school. So most students who enter PhD programs start out with the implicit model of an undergraduate program. They tend to focus too much on their classes and worry too much about their grades, not realizing that their grades hardly matter anymore. If you think grades still matter, ask someone with a PhD how often they’ve been asked to provide a transcript. (If you are in the UK or Europe, you may be confused by this paragraph because many European PhD programs don’t include classes. But North American programs typically start out with two years of classes, followed by three or four years of full-time research.)

After a year or two, most PhD students figure out that classes and grades are no longer paramount. So they shift to a different (still incorrect) model, which is to think of themselves as employees and their advisors as bosses. They are ready to work hard, and are just waiting for their advisors to tell them what to do.

It is understandable that grad students expect to be told what to do. From kindergarten through our undergraduate years, and in most jobs, we are told what to do. A teacher or a boss gives us instructions, and we follow them. But a PhD program isn’t like that. In a PhD program, you are your own boss. Some advisors do give their students projects to work on, especially in the first year or two, and students can learn a lot of technical skills that way. But the ultimate goal of a PhD program is to produce creative scientists with their own original research programs. As long as your advisor is designing and planning the projects and assigning you work to do, you are not an independent scientist—you're just a highly educated research assistant. 

Most advisors understand this, and after a year or two they stop giving students work to do. They are available for advice and consultation, but they are not overseeing the student's day-to-day work. The problem is that most students have never been in a situation where they had to plan, organize and carry out their own work [1]. From the age of 5 or 6, they have succeeded in school by  figuring out what the teacher's expectations were, and then meeting or exceeding those expectations. They have never been fully in charge of their own work.

I think this is most common problem I see among graduate students. They start the PhD program full of enthusiasm and good intentions; they work hard at their classes for the first two years; and at the same time they start to have a creeping realization that there’s something else they should be doing . . . but they’re not sure what. 

In the third year, they no longer have classes to take, and they’re wondering how to spend their time. Their advisor isn’t assigning them any work to do, but also doesn’t seem too upset with them, so they figure everything must be okay. The third and fourth years go by without much happening. They meet occasionally with their advisor, who seems to be expecting something from them but maddeningly, won’t say what. The student thinks, Stop playing games already and just tell me what to do! The advisor thinks, Stop sitting around and do something already! Each feels increasingly frustrated and disappointed with the other. 

If you are a PhD student, instead of thinking of yourself as an employee, think of yourself as the founder of a new startup company. Just as a startup founder has a good idea for a product or a service, you have a good idea for some new knowledge that you could produce. Your university is an incubator: it provides the environment you need in order to get your research up and running. For example, you probably need money to live on, access to a university library, and a network of experts in your field to advise you. Depending on your research, you may also need other things: A pool of human participants to recruit from, access to an fMRI machine, a scanning electron microscope, etc. Your adviser is an expert consultant, but ultimately it’s your research program and you have to keep it moving forward. Nothing will happen unless you make it happen. That’s why an IDP is useful. 

Your individual development plan (IDP) is your big-picture plan for the next several years. The term IDP comes to academia from industry, where there is evidence that people who make deliberate career plans with specific, step-by-step goals go on to earn higher salaries, more promotions, and more responsibility in their jobs. They also report feeling more satisfied and more successful in their careers than people who don’t make such plans. This is probably why the National Institutes of Heath (NIH) strongly recommends that all graduate students and postdocs working on NIH-funded grants have IDPs, and that the principal investigators describe the progress on those IDPs when they submit their annual Research Performance Progress Report (RPPR).

An IDP covers a period of about one to five years, broken down into whatever academic terms your university uses (most North American universities either use semesters or quarters). You can make your plan on an electronic spreadsheet or on paper. Here are some sample IDPs from our workshop, as well as blank templates (both electronic and printable) that you can use to make your own IDP.

Your IDP should definitely include research and writing goals, including grant and fellowship proposals that you want to submit. Depending on what’s going on in your life, you might choose to put other things on your plan as well. For example, if you are in the beginning or middle of a PhD program, perhaps there are program milestones that you will need to meet (e.g., taking qualifying exams, advancing to candidacy, submitting a dissertation proposal, etc.) Or you might want to include career development activities such as attending conferences and applying for summer internships in industry.

Why postdocs need IDPs

IDPs are especially useful at times of high uncertainty, such as when you are a postdoc. A study of 7,600 postdocs found that those who worked with their advisers to develop a plan for their own postdoctoral training were more productive, more satisfied with their jobs, and less likely to experience conflict with their advisers than those who didn’t make an IDP. This makes sense because IDPs provide structure. The less structured your work situation is, the more you need a plan. 

Why people going up for tenure need IDPs

If you will be facing a tenure decision in the next few years, you really must prioritize those activities that count most heavily in tenure decisions at your institution, and those projects that will pay off (in the form of publications, grants, or whatever you need) in time to be counted in your tenure case. Just working hard isn’t enough-- you need to work smart, which means spending your time and energy as efficiently as possible. Your IDP should cover the period from now until when you submit your tenure case. 

Why just about anyone can use an IDP

I’ve had tenure for years, and I still have an IDP. I update mine along with everyone else when we cover this topic in the writing workshop. Making a long-term plan encourages me to take a few steps back and think about what my priorities are. What do I really care about? What do I really enjoy? I started my first tenure-track job (the job I still have) in the same month that my second child was born. For the next seven years, between trying to get tenure and take care of two small children, I was so busy that time seemed to pass in a blur, and now I hardly remember those years. I’m very glad to have tenure and my kids, but life is short and I don’t want any more years to pass like that, in a blur. I want to be thoughtful about how I spend my time.

How to make an IDP

Making an IDP is not difficult, but the idea can be intimidating, so people tend to avoid it. Our solution in the writing workshop is to allocate time during the first meeting of each year to make or update our IDPs together. As leader of the workshop, I send everyone the link to the IDP templates; I also print out some paper ones and bring them to class for people who want to make their IDPs on paper. Then I set a timer for 45 minutes, and we each work quietly on our own plan. There are some scattered conversations around the room as people consult with each other about PhD program requirements, or about how long they should estimate for some project. At the end of 45 minutes, everyone has an IDP. 

There are two reasons that we use class time to make IDPs instead of doing it separately, outside of class. First, we have a no-homework policy. Second, if we don’t make the IDPs together in class, most people simply won’t make one; it’s too anxiety-provoking. This is what I mean by saying that writing, is a solitary task best done in the presence of others-- many people find it overwhelming to make their IDP alone, but it's relatively easy to do when you have some moral support.

So sit down with your writing buddy, take a look at the sample IDPs, pick a template you like, and copy and paste it into a new google spreadsheet of your own. (Or you can download it as an Excel spreadsheet and use it that way.)  Take a deep breath, set a timer for 45 minutes, and start writing stuff down. When the timer sounds, you'll have an IDP. I'm sure it will be filled with uncertainty, and maybe you'll change it every day for the next five years, but that's fine-- at least you'll have some kind of plan.

After you’ve made your IDP

The last step in making your IDP is to schedule a meeting with your advisor (if you are a graduate student or a postdoc) or with a colleague you trust (if you are a faculty member) to discuss your plan. Your advisor or colleague can look at the plan you’ve made and tell you whether it looks reasonable, and help you remember anything important that you might have left out. If you are a student or a postdoc, this will help you and your advisor make the best use of your time together over the next few years. If you are a faculty member, it will help your colleague understand your research program going forward, so that when your personnel case is discussed at a faculty meeting and you aren’t in the room, there will be someone to explain what you’re doing and advocate for you.

After you’ve made your IDP, you may wonder whether things will actually go according to your plan. Let me put your mind at ease: No, they won’t. As the great Prussian military strategist Helmuth von Moltke the Elder[2] famously said, No plan survives contact with the enemy. 

In the case of an IDP, the enemy is real life. You might spend a whole year mastering one area of the scientific literature, only to realize that it’s not all that interesting after all. Data collection that you thought would take one month might take nine. And after you spend two years and two thousand dollars recruiting only three participants, you might be forced to rethink your study of auditory perception in left-handed cello players with synesthesia who are allergic to bees, brilliant though it was. 

Plans also change because many things are simply out of your hands: When you submit a manuscript, you don’t know how long the journal will take to give you a decision, how many other journals you’ll have to send it to, or how many rounds of revision and resubmission you will have to go through before it’s finally published. In other words, stuff happens. No problem. You can always update your plan as things change.

You might well ask, if things never go according to plan, what’s the point of planning in the first place? The answer is that the process of making an IDP is, in itself, beneficial. Even if nothing goes according to your plan, your work life will improve if you have spend some time thinking about what your goals are, and what steps you will take to achieve them. This brings us to the second timeless truth-- another bit of military wisdom made famous by Dwight D. Eisenhower when he said, Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. 

[1] Developmental psychologist Peter Gray (2011, 2017) argues that this problem has gotten worse in recent decades as children have spent less and less time in free, unstructured play. Free play is how children learn to organize and manage their own activity. 

[2] Moltke, Helmuth, Graf von, Militarische Werke. vol. 2, part 2., pp. 33–40. Quoted in Hughes, Daniel J. (ed.) Moltke on the Art of War: selected writings. (1993). Presidio Press: New York, New York. ISBN 0-89141-575-0. pp. 45–47


  1. Thank you Barbara for writing these blogs! I tell my students to plan their writing and write every day but they seem to struggle with this. Having your IDP template and concrete examples will be a real help for them!

    1. I'm so glad that you are finding the chapters helpful. All of these things are easier said than done, and somehow actually sitting down and making an IDP together, or scheduling a time to write together, makes all the difference. I have a student leaving for a postdoc in the fall, and she was putting off making her IDP for the postdoc period. So we were having coffee and I said, "Let's just make your IDP right now, out loud. You'll have three years in the post-doc, right? So you'll spend two years just working, and the third year you'll be working and also looking for jobs. So which projects are you going to work on first?" 10 minutes later she had a pretty good draft of an IDP. I think the main difficulty with both planning and writing is anxiety. One way we can help our students is just to keep them company while they make an IDP, make a term plan, write for 20 minutes, etc. That's how our writing workshop has evolved. Good luck to you and your students!

  2. Great blog! Very helpful! I will have all my students read this blog and start to make an IDP!

  3. sorry but i cannot find the discussion group in the link you posted on the article. It showed no result. I wonder if you still have the group or you create another one?

    1. Hi dorishytt. You know, that discussion group has kind of fizzled out. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I think everyone is just too busy to post much. In any case, I hope you will create community where you are, by finding a friend or two and starting your own writing group. Good luck!