What next for career planning for researchers?

There’s no time like the present: what next for career planning for researchers?
John Miles
John Mileshttps://www.inkpath.co.uk/
Dr. John Miles is the founder and CEO of Inkpath, a professional development platform.

It is now widely recognized that doctoral and postdoctoral research programs encompass not only a diverse range of participants, but also a cornucopia of potential outcomes. The stereotype of the monk-like researcher whose sole focus is an academic career is perhaps not so prevalent today as a result. And in some cases, an academic career might be the least likely of these potential outcomes, as researchers go on to deploy their skills in broader education and industry settings. Consequently, preparing researchers for a range of post-program trajectories has become common practice in universities and their faculties and schools.

The importance of the development plan

The nature of the plan that a researcher and their supervisor or advisor should produce should incorporate consideration of the requirements of the research program plus preparation for whatever comes after, according to the 2022 report Strengthening the Role of Training Needs Analysis in Doctoral Training,

A robust development needs analysis process is of critical importance […] in terms of enabling the supervisor and student to identify gaps in knowledge and skills required to fulfill their PhD requirements, but also to ensure the student cohort is ready for their post-PhD careers,” wrote Elizabeth Adams and Joanne Neary.

In the UK, the Development Needs Analysis (DNA) has become embedded in the practice of funding and training researchers, to the extent that completing a reflection and planning exercise is compulsory for funded researchers across many programs funded by the UK’s Research Councils.

Technology for planning

Another indicator of the increased importance of development planning is the establishment of technological platforms to support the planning process. In the US, for instance, cross-institutional tools such as MyIDP for STEM researchers and ImaginePhD for Humanities researchers have been developed and launched through collaborative projects involving multiple partners. These tools (and similar projects elsewhere such as Prosper in the UK) offer researchers a standardized route into reflection and planning of the type that will help them consider eventual career outcomes and the steps they need to take to get there, inviting them to develop their “game plan” and execute it.

The counterparts to these national-level tools are more localized development planning tools, most often taking the form of paper pro forma and online web forms, provided by university departments and schools, usually alongside a training and development program and associated resources. These tools are normally tied to institution-specific program progression requirements. That is, to progress through your research program, you must make a form submission and complete your Individual Development Plan (IDP – in the US) or Development Needs Analysis (DNA – in the UK).

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In and out of context

These two approaches—national and local—have their advantages and disadvantages. Where completion of a ‘local’ IDP is mandatory, the university can wield a policy ‘stick’ to ensure planning is integrated into the beginning of the program and can track form submissions to measure completion statistics. Local tools also benefit from being situated in the context of their institution, employing the institution’s terminology, making the links between professional development and the local institutional context clearer. As part of this, they may refer to the specifics of that institution’s training offering or other opportunities to address skills gaps highlighted during the planning process.

But these advantages may also become disadvantages: an IDP completed when immersed in a university setting might not be transferable outside it, to a broader professional context. And if IDP completion is obligatory (and no completion equals no progression), it risks a potential perception problem: researchers might begin to perceive the planning exercise as something contrived for the benefit of their institution and its policy indicators rather than conceived for the individual researcher and their lifelong professional development.

The best of both worlds

The challenge, therefore, is to apply a MyIDP and ImaginePhD national way of thinking at the local level. If we were to take the best aspects of the national and local approaches and incorporate them together in a technology-based approach, researchers would ideally be:

  • Encouraged to start early on their planning, and to iterate their plan as they progress;
  • Able to build a lifelong, persistent profile of their continual development;
  • Focused on professional development as well as career outcomes;
  • Encouraged by institutional policy (with their engagement tracked), but clear that the exercise is primarily for their personal benefit;
  • Able to access local and generic opportunities and events relevant to the path they have identified via the planning process.

Together, we aim to inspire researchers to think about their development early, and to start shaping their approach to the opportunities around them as soon as they begin their program. This way, researchers can put themselves in the best possible position for whatever their next step will be, whether they stay on an academic trajectory, or go beyond it.


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