Tailor-Made Research Careers Off the Peg

Human resources (HR) counselors at Dutch research institutions are increasingly using personal development plans (PDPs) to work out scientists' career needs and options. Next Wave looks at the trend's benefits and its consequences.

Whether you're interested in taking a closer look at the academic career path, changing jobs, or assessing other aspects of your work life, a personal development plan can help you define and explore your goals and map out ways to turn them into reality. And if you don't have one, don't worry--it's on its way. Over the last 2 years, all Dutch research institutions have agreed with their corresponding trade unions to introduce PDPs no later than this year (2003) and that all employees should have had at least one interview with HR professionals before the end of 2005. As a result, PhD students and postdocs--along with senior research staff--will have to spend some time thinking about their personal career development goals in the near future.

So what is a PDP all about? As the name suggests, each one looks different because it is "personal." It is all about the "development" of your skills, knowledge, and competencies, and it puts in place a plan of action for you. In other words, it has a timeframe that can be short, medium, or long term. Some institutions consider the goals agreed upon in a PDP to be things to strive for; others might treat the PDP as a contract, with consequences resulting from any breaches.

Possible Uses of a PDP

A PDP might help you:

  • Consciously reflect on your career plan.

  • Determine your career course and prospects.

  • Make a commitment--writing goals down pushes you into action.

  • Gain more motivation for and pleasure from your work, because you will be heading towards your own goals.

  • Enhance your chances of success.

  • Signal the need for personal development to your employer.

  • Clarify agreements with your employer.

However different the PDPs might look in their details, they could collectively revolutionize the world of research and higher education, where long-term thinking about careers is typically either one-sided ("I'll become a prof one day") or simply not a part of the culture. Indeed, the phenomenon of students and postdocs sitting down to work out their PDPs with their supervisors could help to break an old academic taboo: reflecting upon career opportunities outside, as well as inside, academia.

But what looks like a great potential benefit is being met with little enthusiasm from younger researchers.

Although the national association of PhD students, called LAIOO, welcomes the theory behind the PDPs, it questions their likely effectiveness in practice. PhD students and their supervisors are already supposed to fill in Education and Advice Plans, it points out, but it's an exercise that is treated as a mere formality if it is carried out at all. "To make PDPs a success, they need to be evaluated seriously by asking PhD students at their exit interviews about the impact of the PDP and by conducting university-wide surveys," says Ingrid Giebels, LAIOO president. Additionally, it is important to raise awareness among PhD students and their supervisors that the PDP exists and that it offers valuable benefits. Says Giebels "[Career-related] information is only poorly accessible at universities."

Postdocs, too, are skeptical. According to a national postdoc organization vice president, Arnoud Lagendijk, the PDP is "the wrong solution to the wrong problem." Postdocs argue that they usually have the skills required for an academic career, but there are just far too few positions available.

Despite the cynicism, however, there are signs that the PDP may be a worthwhile tool for many individual young researchers. PDPs work best for self-conscious, self-controlled, and self-reflective people, traits that are common among academics, says Ineke van den Berg, Career Advisor at Schouten & Nelissen Carrièremanagement. And a PDP can help you get the most out of your PhD research or postdoc period by showing you how to articulate your unique skills and abilities, agrees Nynke Schreurs, an HR professional at the Dutch Science Foundation, a sponsor of Next Wave Netherlands. "Towards the end of their PhD period, we invite all our PhD students for job-market preparation talks and offer them two or three interviews with career counselors," she says. By complementing these interviews, a PDP can help you to figure out where exactly you want to get and, more importantly, how to get there.

Digital Personal Development:

With the Digital PDP ("Digitaal Loopbaanplan") from AcademicTransfer, you are guided through questions such as:

  • Where am I now?

  • Where do I want to get to?

  • How do I reach my goals?

  • How do I present myself?

Convinced or not, if you are interested in a PDP, there are many ways for you to develop one. A short version could be as brief as a table filling just one page. More extensive advice is available online from Academic Transfer (See Box 2). For those of you who can't wait any longer, here are the main steps that should be followed when working out any PDP. A career counselor at your university or research institution should be able to help you further.

  • Identify your goals and make sure they are "SMART": specific, measurable, acceptable, realistic, and timely.

  • Determine action steps that will take you to your goals.

  • Identify the resources available to you. Resources could include workshops, mentors, personal skills, books, training courses, Science's Next Wave, and everything else that gets you closer to your goals and is at your disposal. Don't forget to think about time available as a precious resource (e.g. , holidays, weekends, or just one fixed evening per week).

  • Ask yourself about possible risks that your goals could bring with them.

  • Finally, discuss your PDP with someone you trust to get feedback on your goals and action plans.

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